Most American readers of the Bible depend on English translations. Professional translators make interpretive choices in their work all of the time. There is no easy way around this process, partly because many ancient words have multiple meanings. In addition, all translators have biases — some conscious and others less conscious. In an effort to wrestle with these questions in a more communal manner, I invited my Messiah University biblical studies colleagues — Rebecca Harris, Eric Seibert, and Brian Smith — for a conversation on the topic. Many of the examples below came from our hour-long conversation one afternoon.
Why are there so many Bible translations?
In the recent past, new translations were needed to correct the inaccuracies of older translations. For example, the King James Version (originally published in 1611) was based on an ancient manuscript tradition that did not coincide with the oldest manuscripts available or the best practices from the discipline of textual criticism in order to determine what was likely the closest words to the original writings of the Bible.
There are many other legitimate reasons for the production of new translations, including attempts to communicate more effectively in the current language of the day. In response to decreasing literacy rates in the United States, for instance, a number of recent translations have provided sentence structure that is more comprehensible to a wider variety of people, that is, by providing sentences in the active voice or using vocabulary that attempts to match reading levels of a common English reader.
What are the main differences between the NIV and the NRSV?
The New International Version (NIV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) are both communal projects. In other words, there’s no single translator for these translations. A project with an “international scope,” the NIV includes translators from a wide variety of Protestant denominations, all with a collective theological commitment to “God’s Word in written form.” The NRSV is more ecumenical in nature and recognized as such in Protestant, Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox communions.
There are two general approaches to translation. One is an attempt to match the original language — Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek — in its form and structure as much as possible. This is called the formal equivalence theory. The other approach is an attempt to translate the original language in a more dynamic way, with less attention to word-for-word translation and more emphasis on communicating the larger ideas (sometimes called, phrase-for-phrase). This is called the functional (or dynamic) equivalence theory. While translations lean more heavily in one direction or the other, our best translations balance the two approaches and, furthermore, are communal enterprises (i.e., inclusive of a wide swath of translators).
The NIV states explicitly its intent “to go beyond a formal word-for-word rendering of the original texts.” Alternatively, the NRSV has a desire to follow an older translation maxim — “as literal as possible, as free as necessary” — attempting to retain a word-for-word technique as much as possible.
Beyond the differences in translation techniques, readers should be aware of translation intrusions of a theological nature — again, translators occasionally read their biases into the accounts. To see these theological biases on display, take a look at Jonah 3. At the beginning of this chapter, God expresses an intent to overthrow the city of Nineveh for the sinful ways of its inhabitants. But then Nineveh shows remorse and turns away from evil. In the NRSV, “God changed his mind,” deciding not to destroy Nineveh. Alternatively, in the NIV, “God relented” from what God was about to do. Both are moves away from the KJV’s “God repented of the evil” that God would bring on the Assyrians (although the NRSV comes closer to the idea). In some (contemporary) theological worlds, it is impossible to conceive of a “God” who might “repent” or “change his mind” no matter what the Hebrew text may say.
How a translator reflects on the human condition may also impact how one translates. For example, in Galatians 3:3 a note in the NIV says, “In contexts like this, the Greek word for flesh (sarx) refers to the sinful state of human beings, often presented as a power in opposition to the Spirit.” Some readers might take this note to mean that Paul always means “sinful flesh” when he uses the word “flesh,” but this isn’t true: Paul often uses “flesh” as a synonym for the physical body or for an individual person.
Other assumptions may also influence a translation decision. For example, the NRSV translates Genesis 2:4 as two separate sentences: “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens ...” To many scholars, the second part of this verse (“In the day that”) begins a second account of the creation story that differs from Genesis 1:1-2:3. But the NIV renders Genesis 2:4 as a single sentence, as if there is only one creation account in the two opening chapters: “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,” a translation that fails to account for the beyom (“in/when that day”) in the Hebrew text.
What is the ESV and why do many scholars have a distaste for it?
Not all scholars have a “distaste” for the English Standard Version. But this translation, as others, has its critics.
The preface of the ESV claims to stand in the tradition of the KJV. The translators of the ESV view the latter translation as the starting point for their work. Because of this claim, it is clear (though unarticulated in the preface) that the ESV views itself as the proper successor to the RSV over or against the New Revised Standard Version. Similar to the NRSV and NIV, the ESV, too, was a communal project, though it has a more narrow theological scope since its translators, as the preface articulates, hold a “common commitment to the truth of God’s Word and to historic Christian orthodoxy.”
The commitment to a “historic Christian orthodoxy” means the ESV prefers to maintain the patriarchal position of the KJV, even while it occasionally recognizes more gender inclusive options. The ESV will put forward “man” as a term that could refer to all of humanity, a linguistic idea that boggles many contemporary readers in the ever-changing cultural landscape. If the desire is to translate ancient biblical words in order to communicate with a contemporary audience, this decision seems baffling. It is not as if the ESV translators are unaware of the present context. For example, the ESV will acknowledge in footnotes that the Greek term, adelphoi, is inclusive in its ancient context of “brothers and sisters” (Romans 1:13, 1 Corinthian 1:10, Galatians 1:2). Nonetheless, the translators prefer to place in the body of the main text only “brothers,” which, in turn, gives the impression that Paul is not addressing “(spiritual) siblings” in the Roman and Corinthian Christ-following communities or does not travel with female leaders (see Galatians 1:2). Beyond the linguistic choices translators have, what we imagine to be “historical” has a direct impact on the meaning of translation choices.
If gender-inclusivity is important to me, which Bible translation would be a good fit?
Read the preface of the Bible translation you prefer to use and note what it says about gender-inclusive language. Translations take positions on these matters partly because translators live in a different world than the ancients. But it is not fair to suggest that translators do this only because of that cultural situatedness. Ancient language also has a context. As mentioned above, if a house-church had a majority of female members, it would commonly refer to them as adelphoi (meaning, “brothers and sisters”). To translate this single word as “brothers” (only), as if that is inclusive of everyone being addressed, fails not only to capture our more gender-inclusive context, it fails to capture the proper usage of the inclusive nature of that ancient Greek term. Those translations that continue to ignore this linguistic practice, including the ESV, should be classified as gender-exclusive translations, in their attempt to alter our imaginative lens of ancient cultural contexts.
An example may prove helpful here. Is it better to translate adelphoi as “brothers” (only) or as “brothers and sisters” in Romans 7:1? In this text, Paul is using marriage as an analogy for a larger concern. Within this analogy, the female partner outlives her male partner and is, thereby, discharged from the marriage once the male partner dies. More than likely, Paul is not addressing this passage only to the male members of the congregation. At the end of Romans, Paul will greet or mention, at least, nine prominent women leaders associated with the Roman church. A translator has to make a judgment. We can’t read Paul’s mind (or, in this case, Tertius the scribe’s mind — see Romans 16:22) but we have some understanding of the larger context and the nature of the Greek terms that he appropriates and we make a judgment. Gender-exclusive translations are influenced as much by their contemporary contexts as those translators participating in more gender-inclusive communities.
What’s a good Bible translation for people new to Christianity?
On the one hand, any Bible a person new to Christianity is reading is a “good” translation. In time, a person new to faith may find passages that are more difficult to understand. At this juncture, a person may want to start the process of comparing English Bible translations. Translations organized by committees are usually better than those put together by individuals (or, smaller groups). If compelled to offer a suggestion, I would say the Contemporary English Version (but see below for one concern) and the Common English Bible are good translations for people new to Christianity. Those translators work hard to communicate to the contemporary audience in active (not passive) sentence structure. Those Bibles are also attentive to ancient cultural settings.
What is a good Bible translation for people who want to put their faith in action to fight injustice?
There is not one translation that attends to all issues of injustice. Contemporary readers may have to attend to various translations to wrestle with the ongoing injustices we experience in the contemporary world.
The KJV’s translation of Song of Solomon 1:5 — which lives on in the NIV and ESV — has caused much historical pain for persons of a darker hue. The NIV’s “Dark am I, yet lovely” implies that being “dark” contradicts being “lovely.” The NRSV’s “I am black and beautiful” is a more straightforward rendering of the Hebrew conjunction and may also be more attentive to the ancient cultural context which has been distorted by (later) post-Enlightenment conversations around racial hierarchies which, in turn, had an impact on the KJV-tradition of translations.
One of the commandments of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 — which Jesus repeats (Matthew 19:18) — is that God’s followers should not “kill/murder.” Many translations move away from the KJV’s “do not kill” (included in the CEB) toward the more narrow understanding of “murder” (NRSV, NIV, ESV, etc.). While kill is understood to broadly mean to put someone to death, murder more specifically applies to killing someone intentionally. For a peace activist, whether the Bible advocates a broader admonition is significant.
What are the worst mistranslations?
Careful readers of the Bible should compare translations regularly, but even that practice may not allow readers to catch many of the mistranslations. For example, some English translations will provide unfortunate characterizations of Jews that continue to appear in the New Testament. Similarly, ancient folks had no awareness of biological sexual orientation so the use of “homosexual” or “homosexuality” — e.g. in the CEV’s or ESV’s translations of 1 Corinthians 6:9 — is misguided, at best, and has been misappropriated in very harmful ways in our contemporary age. There are way too many other ones to name here in this format, so I’ll stop here.
What’s the best Bible for kiddos?
This question moves beyond technical translation matters to matters of discipling the young. At what point should we give Bibles to the young? Many children’s Bibles are efforts to re-tell biblical stories, which requires different types of choices on behalf of the storyteller. Some children’s Bibles omit Chapter 4 of Jonah, in which the prophet sulks over God’s desire to save Ninevah. One of my colleagues recommends Moses’ Ark: Stories from the Bible — which is not technically a children’s Bible — by Alice Bach and Cheryl Exum. Both authors are well-known biblical scholars. Beyond the content of the story, visual images within these “Bibles” may be more impressionable on children than the words they read. Any children’s Bible that presents Jesus and other characters as exclusively white could potentially create generations of misunderstanding and may inform their views — later as adults — on discussions surrounding race relations today.
Author’s note: Rebecca Harris is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies. Eric Seibert is Professor of Old Testament. Brian Smith is Professor of Hebrew Bible. Each of my colleagues had a chance to review my formal responses to the questions above. Any discrepancies that remain are my own.