In Choice of Bible Versions, We Shall Not Want
Translating the Bible from ancient languages into modern English is a labor of love and painstaking detail for the Rev. John H. Stek, a theologian from Grand Rapids, Mich., who heads the group that produced the New International Version, the best-selling English translation.
Stek, 79, a retired professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary, has been at this task since the 1960s, when many in the evangelical wing of Protestantism felt that there should be a new translation in contemporary English.
Since the NIV appeared in 1978, more than 170 million copies have been sold or distributed. Stek’s Committee on Bible Translation revised it in 1983. But by 1990, the panel of scholars and pastors had begun working on yet another edition, because “the language does not stand still, particularly in our modern day,” he said.
The 15-member committee, meeting in secluded locations, often in Europe, worked from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts. Once, the panel holed up in a pension in Germany’s Black Forest to get away from distractions while members pored over every word, debating “endlessly,” he said.
“The struggle with English is probably more intense than the struggle with the original language,” Stek added. “We probably spend more time debating ‘How do you say it in English?’ so that it is clear, not confusing, not misleading.”
The committee is preparing to complete its Today’s New International Version, or TNIV, with emphasis on eliminating the generic use of masculine nouns and pronouns in referring to humankind and updating language. The New Testament portion of the work was released 18 months ago, and the complete Bible is scheduled to be out next February, according to its publisher, Zondervan.
The language change from the first edition is apparent.
For instance, in the NIV, Hebrews 13:6 says: “So, we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’ ” In the TNIV, the same verse reads: “So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can human beings do to me?’ ”
In the TNIV, words such as “alien” and “desert” were changed to “foreigner” and “wilderness,” respectively, for more precise meanings.
Many conservative Protestants oppose the gender-neutral language. That has helped maintain rivalries among such translations as the Revised Standard, King James, New King James and others.
The International Bible Society owns copyright to the NIV and TNIV and has earned millions of dollars in royalties every year. The nonprofit group, founded in 1809, distributes Bibles in hotels, hospitals, jails and aboard ships worldwide. In partnership with Wycliffe Bible Translators, the society has published Scripture portions in 600 languages.
The society underwrites expenses of the translation committee. The translators do not get rich from the work: they are paid $20 an hour, up from $5 when they began.
How much they are paid, however, has not been a big concern to the committee members, the chairman said. Most important is the society’s agreement to cover the group’s expenses as it continues to update the text, Stek said.
The work, while commercially successful, has faced opposition. In 2001, another translation team came out with an alternative for those favoring a more traditional approach, including the generic masculine nouns and pronouns.
The English Standard Version is an “essentially literal” translation that “seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer,” its committee says.
Published by Crossway Bibles, it has received endorsements from many conservative Christian leaders, including Paige Patterson, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
It reads much like the King James Version, without the “thou,” “thee,” “thy” and “thine,” but with the generic “man” and “him.” The panel says that is consistent with the original texts.
Alan Jacobs, a professor of English at Wheaton College, an evangelical school in Illinois, says the English Standard is readable, literary, up-to-date in scholarship and relatively easy to memorize for practical study and worship. “Prose that has some repetitive movement to it, a little swing in its step, is much easier for most of us to remember,” he said.
In the English Standard, Revised Standard and King James, John 1: 4 reads: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”
In contrast, Today’s New International Version reads: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people.”
Jacobs says he would like the English Standard to become “the most used translation in this country,” though he wonders whether there’s much likelihood of that.
Not a chance, said the Rev. David M. Scholer, a professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. The English Standard is already a “dinosaur,” because it avoids the gender-inclusive language, he said. “The Gospel is for both men and women,” he added. “We believe both men and women can be redeemed in Christ, can serve Christ in the church. And that’s an important part of the Gospel.”
Scholer, whose personal Bible collection numbers 300, says there are close to 200 translations of the New Testament alone. He reads various translations and feels some variety is good, because it “generates a better and more careful Bible reading.”
“Bible translation is both a science and art,” Scholer said.
He said translation requires not only knowing the ancient languages, but also contextual criticism -- comparing copies of ancient manuscripts to decide what the original text contained. In addition, he said, translators need to choose a philosophy.
Scholars say there are, in general, two schools of translation: word for word or thought for thought -- the latter also known as dynamic equivalence.
Another popular Bible, “The Message,” translated by theologian Eugene H. Peterson, stretches thought-for-thought with contemporary English for readability. It has been published in parts over the last decade, and a complete version came out in 2002.
In “The Message,” the 23rd Psalm begins and continues in a manner likely to startle traditionalists:
GOD, my shepherd! I don’t
need a thing.
You have bedded me down in
lush meadows, you find me
quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word, you let me
catch my breath and send me
in the right direction.
Pasadena theologian and Bible teacher F. Dale Bruner, professor emeritus of religion at Whitworth College in Washington state, said “The Message” is “so captivating because Eugene Peterson is real and his translation uses real human, contemporary language.”
Marvin A. Sweeney, professor of Hebrew Bible at the Claremont School of Theology, says that he finds all translations problematic and that the Bible is best read in the original languages.
“Any work that is translated from one language to another is going to involve an element of interpretation,” he said.
But the Rev. Jeff Wright, who oversees 30 Mennonite churches in Southern California, said that doesn’t bother him. Though he enjoys the English Standard for his personal reading, he preaches and teaches from a British edition of the NIV because that uses inclusive language. He said he is looking forward to seeing the complete TNIV.
“I am of the personal opinion that translations represent the dynamic change of our language -- not God’s word,” he said.
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