The Great Debate about English Bible Versions: A Call for Realism and Civility
By Dave Brunn
In the past, the King James Version was at the center of most debates about English Bible versions, but now much of the focus is on “literal” versus “nonliteral” translations. When I served in Papua New Guinea as a Bible translator, I was committed to translating the New Testament faithfully and accurately, but I quickly realized my view of translation was incomplete. English and Greek are related languages—both of the Indo- European language family—so some translation discussions among English speakers do not apply to the 94 percent of the world’s languages that are non-Indo-European. As I compared English versions to the Greek text, I discovered that versions identified as “literal” are not as literal as I had thought. I found hundreds of places where literal versions such as the English Standard Version and the New American Standard Bible used a dynamic interpretation even though other versions used a clearly understandable word-for-word rendering. I also found many places where nonliteral versions such as the New International Version and the New Living Translation are more literal than “literal” versions such as the ESV and NASB. Often the translation debate focuses more on philosophical ideals than on real translation practice. The preface to each Bible version includes statements about the translators’ ideal translation philosophy. But their real translational renderings also make noteworthy statements. When translators choose a dynamic interpretation over a viable word-for-word rendering, they are stating that dynamic interpretations are acceptable. It is fine to discuss and evaluate English Bible versions, but our discussions should be based on a comprehensive view of real translation practice, not just on philosophical ideals.
The English-speaking world is blessed to have many excellent translations of the Bible, far more than any other language group on earth. But with this blessing comes a certain amount of disagreement among Christians—and even some heated debate. Which English Bible version is best? Are some versions reliable and others unreliable? What constitutes “faithfulness” and “accuracy” in translation?
For a long time, the translation debate was mostly centered on the King James Version (KJV). In recent years, however, much of the debate has shifted away from the KJV, and is now focused on “literal” versus “nonliteral” Bible translations.1How literal should a translation be? Are “word-for-word” translations the only reliable ones?2
Every serious Christian wants to know that the Bible they read is trustworthy. But do we really need to argue about which version is best? As a career Bible translator, I am convinced that many of the arguments about this issue are unwarranted because they are based on an incomplete, oversimplified view of Bible translation. I find that when Christians gain a more complete understanding of the complex challenges faced by every translator, they tend to be less dogmatic—and the urge to argue seems to diminish.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO TRANSLATE THE BIBLE FAITHFULLY AND ACCURATELY?
The question of faithfulness and accuracy was paramount in my mind when my wife and I first arrived in Papua New Guinea in 1980. As a new missionary-translator, I was committed to translating God’s Word as faithfully and accurately as possible. I thought I had a good understanding of what that meant, but when I started translating into the Lamogai (lah-moh-guy) language, I quickly realized that my view of translation was incomplete and a bit idealistic. Bible translation is an incredibly complex undertaking, but somehow I had developed an oversimplified view of the translation process.
It didn’t take me long to realize that some of my standards of faithful and accurate translation were based on English grammatical features that do not exist in Lamogai. If those standards were really God’s universal standards, then Lamogai would automatically be disqualified from having a faithful or accurate translation of God’s Word.
One piece of the puzzle I had not taken into consideration is the fact that English and koine Greek are related languages—both members of the Indo-European language family. That means the degree of literalness that exists in some English versions of the New Testament is largely due to the fact that the translators were translating from one Indo-European language into a distantly related language.
I realized that I had unintentionally made English the ultimate standard for Bible translation. This realization became even more striking when I learned that only 6 percent of the world’s living languages are classified as “Indo-European.”3 That means 94 percent of the languages spoken around the world today are not related to koine Greek in the way English is. My view of translation was based on a pretty narrow segment of the worldwide linguistic landscape. But there was another important revelation in store for me as a new translator.
Are the “Literal” Versions Really Literal?
As I continued translating the New Testament into Lamogai, I frequently compared various English versions side-by-side with the Greek text. That is when my idealistic perception of translation really started to unravel. It quickly became apparent to me that the English Bible versions identified as “literal” versions are not nearly as literal as I had thought…
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