“It is written…”
When I was a kid memorizing Bible verses in Sunday School, I had to memorize the King James Version. That’s right: to get my gold stars, I had to watch my thees and thous and forsooths like a Shakespeare scholar.
Kids today with their New International Versions and English Standard Versions….
OK, that kind of dates me. I think it was around 1978 when the NIV came out, but it wasn't until 1984 when I got my first one. But it was, of course, like a light came on. I think I rarely touched my old KJV after that. Reading the Bible became, if not always a pleasure, at least something that a teenaged guy was much more likely to do. I’ve been a fan of new Bible translations ever since.
Good thing, too, because there have never been so many translations of the Bible in English. (Probably other languages, too, though I obviously don’t have direct knowledge there.) I have, let me count…36 on my bookshelves, a few of which even predate the KJV. (My copies are reprints…) But then, of course, I also have access online to all of them — and maybe a few others that I don’t have.
Now and then, though, I’m reminded of a centuries-old Italian phrase: Traduttore, traditore. It originally had to do with translations of Dante into French, not the Bible into English, but the problem is the same. The phrase means, literally, “Translator, traitor.” And it is, of course, true, at least to some degree. To translate is to betray the original, because translation will never be an exact science.
I’ve been reminded of it when someone insists that the translation they like is the best, the most accurate, the most literal, or whatever. Or that my choice is less so. As if the translators they like aren’t traitors too. Thankfully, that particular conflict is less likely to occur than it was 20 or 30 years ago or so.
But I was also reminded of it recently in a class, when I noticed how my favorite translation, the NIV, doesn’t always handle well Mark’s repetition of the word immediately. It just glosses over it sometimes, as though it isn’t in the text. It does so, I’m sure, because the translators judged that it’s more readable in English, and that sometimes Mark’s use of immediately is more like punctuation. But, in effect, this choice slows down Mark’s breakneck pace. It does to Mark’s writing what some treatments do to some patients with mental illness: it flattens it out. It may be better English, but it does violence to the text. Traduttore, traditore.
That’s the kind of thing that bothers me more than what a translation does with Isaiah 7:14 or one of the other hot-button texts that have often been used as a basis for evaluating a translation. But that’s the tension translators are dealing with. Bible publishing is, generally, a business — and a very profitable one at that. While translations are marketed for their accuracy, what sells them is their readability. It is certainly possible to create an English translation of the Bible that reproduces the syntax and grammar of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek more accurately than any translation available today. Problem is, no one would read it.
Which, you know, sort of defeats both purposes of Bible publishing: getting people to buy Bibles, and getting people to read them.
Look, there’s little chance that your church is going to make Hebrew and Greek classes available to you. And little chance that, if they did, you’d have the time to spend learning those languages. And that’s why, for centuries, believers have risked arrest, imprisonment, and death to translate the Bible into the vernacular of their people. Or like my friend, Gene Arnold, to smuggle those translations across borders. Traduttore, traditore, indeed. But traitors for a noble cause. They believed, in the words of John Wycliffe, “Christ and his apostles taught the people in that tongue that was best known to them. Why should men not do so now?”
People ask me sometimes what the best Bible translation is. Sometimes people give me more credit than I deserve. I don’t know what the best one is. It’s been said, and it’s probably more true today than ever before, that the best translation of the Bible is one you’ll read. That’s usually the way I try to answer.
It isn’t all that hard to figure out, really. What you’re going for is some combination of readability and accuracy. If you’re an excellent reader, try some more literal translations. If you're a more average reader, then you should probably look at translations that smooth out the reading experience a little more. Don’t fall for the marketing, though, or for the well-intentioned (hopefully) person at your church who insists that the only trustworthy translation is the one he uses. The fact is, almost every well-known English translation available — there may be one or two exceptions — is juggling readability and accuracy. Almost every one that’s widely available is the product of an inter-denominational committee, to avoid bias. The translation process is not novel, or new. Every translator on every committee is dealing with the same texts and the same problems.
Honestly, why settle for one translation anyway? If you’re serious about understanding the Bible, go with two or three. Compare them, contrast them, let them dialogue with each other and with you. The Bible is best understood in community: the more translators you have sitting at the table with you, the better. Come see me: I might be able to find one or two to share with you.
But there are at least three that I won’t share with you. One is that King James Version. It was given to me the day I turned 8, by my grandmother. I know that because she wrote on the “Presented To” page. My mom later wrote in it the date I was baptized: August 19, 1979. It has in it one of my first attempts, probably, to write my name in cursive. There are stickers for Perfect Attendance at Sunday School on the inside facing page. (Seven of them. How ‘bout that?) It’s falling apart, but still usable.
One is that NIV. It was a gift from my parents on Easter, 1984, just a couple of months before I turned 16. I know that, again, because Mom wrote in it. Its cover is creased, and the pages in the back are falling out. (The Old Testament still looks pretty good. No surprise there.)
And the third is another KJV. It belonged to my grandfather. It was given to him on November 6, 1978, by the elders of Red Bank Church of Christ in Chattanooga, TN. That was the day he was baptized.
If you, like I do, enjoy a heritage that values the Bible, thank God for it. It’s easy to take for granted. Don’t.
And if that isn’t your heritage, then create it. Buy a Bible for your kids, your grandkids, your nephew or niece. Your friends’ kids. Encourage them to read it. Read it with them. Forty years later, they might still have that Bible you gave them. More importantly, they’ll still have whatever God did in them through it.