Friday, February 18, 2005

Why Do We Need Modern Versions of the Bible? (Part 2)

In yesterday's blog we looked at one of the reasons why we need modern translations. At the beginning of the article I raised an issue that I didn't answer there; namely, in answer to the question "Which Bible version is the best one to use?," the most appropriate "answer" is another question; namely, "What do you plan to use it for?"

Every translation is replete with judgment calls, whether that translation is a Bible translation or something else. The very nature of translating from one language (the source language) into another (the receptor language) always lends itself to a variety of options. There are roughly three major categories of Bible versions, and the lines sometimes drawn to separate them are not always clear: they are literal translations, dynamic equivalent translations, and paraphrases. Each of these has a different purpose.

The goal of the literal translation is to render (as well as possible) a word for word translation from the source language to the receptor language. This kind of translation is ideal for in-depth Bible study, especially for those not familiar with the original languages. This kind of translation will allow the English reader to come very close to what the text says in the original. In my opinion, the NASB remains the best translation from this category, although there are others as well, including the King James Version, New King James Version, King James II, Revised Standard Version, English Standard Version, Young’s Literal Translation, and others. My personal favorite from this category is Marshall’s Parallel New Testament, which has the NASB on one side of the page, the NIV on the other side, and an interlinear (Greek with literal English translation) in the middle of the page.

The goal of the dynamic equivalent translation is (as well as possible) to translate thought for thought rather than word for word. Why would this be necessary? Because it is a rare case when there is direct correspondence between the idioms used in the source language and those used in the receptor language. Take the common Spanish phrase ¿Cómo se llama? We translate that phrase as “What is your name?,” but the literal translation is “How are you called?” Yet “How are you called?” does not make good sense in English. Similarly with ¿Cuántos años tenéis?, which means “How old are you,” but which translates literally as “How many years do you have?”

Indeed, all translations (even literal ones) engage in dynamic equivalent to some extent. A good example of this from the Greek is the expression “Greetings!” (chairein) which appears a number of times to denote a salutation in the New Testament (Acts 15:23; 23:26; James 1:1; 2 John 10-11). But the Greek phrase is an infinitive that, translated literally, means “to rejoice!” Since the English speaking world does not consider “to rejoice!” a greeting per se, we have to use a dynamic equivalent that translates the idiom, not just the words.

An example of this from the Hebrew might include Song of Solomon 5:4, which the NIV translates “My lover thrust his hand through the latch-opening; my heart began to pound for him.” The NASB translates the same passage as “"My beloved extended his hand through the opening, and my feelings were aroused for him.” Yet the KJV translates it as “My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.” Note to the ladies: If you decide to cite Sol 5:4 in a Valentine’s Day card to your husband, I don’t recommend you use the King James Version! The reason the KJV has “bowels” where the NIV has “heart” and the NASB has “feelings,” is that the Hebrew literally says “bowels” or “gut”! In the Hebrew mind, the seat of emotion was the bowels (think of the last time you were love sick; the bowels are where the physical turmoil associated with love does most of its damage!). Yet in the Western world (even in Greek), the seat of emotion is the heart (heartache, heart break, etc.). In this case, the KJV was more faithful to the literal translation of the Hebrew, but in the process completely missed the intended thought.

Last Sunday I appointed several of the participants in my Sunday School class to be the official "readers" of various versions so that we could do a comparison. I chose someone who was using the KJV, another who was using the NIV, and a third who was using the NASB, and I had them read a series of verses, including two which I addressed in yesterday's blog (2 Cor 8:1 ["we do you to wit"] and 2 Thess 2:7 ["let"]). The other verses we looked at included Gen 31:35, Sol 5:4,
and Sam 25:22.

The KJV version of Gen 31:35 reads (of Rachel): “And she said to her father, Let it not displease my lord that I cannot rise up before thee; for the custom of women is upon me.” The phrase “custom on women” is ambiguous, and the NASB’s “manner of women” does not do much to clarify it. Does “the custom of women” have to do with some ancient cultural etiquette in which a woman is forbidden to stand up in the presence of men when inside a tent? The NIV clarifies this rather well: “Rachel said to her father, ‘Don't be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I'm having my period.’" Note well, the NASB and the KJV have captured nicely the literal Hebrew (“the way of women”), but in the process may have obscured to the English reader what was the undoubted meaning to the Hebrew reader. Hence, sometimes the Hebrew uses euphemisms that are not clearly understood.

A worse case scenario is when the Hebrew expression is more graphic than most English translations are willing to allow. One such case is 1 Sam 25:22, which in the NIV reads: “May God deal with David, be it ever so severely, if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!" That seems innocuous enough, as does the NASB’s “May God do so to the enemies of David, and more also, if by morning I leave as much as one male of any who belong to him." But the KJV has rendered it in such a way that ensures no pastor using the KJV will be preaching on this passage from the pulpit any time soon: “So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall.” The italicized phrase means “any male”; but the KJV renders it this way because that is just what the Hebrew say (the LXX has “those who make water against the wall”)!

Hence, there is nothing inherently evil about a dynamic equivalent--even the NASB has fudged in its literalness at many points where it is necessary to do so. The New International Version is still my favorite dynamic equivalent, although there are others available as well, including (with varying degrees of fluctuation between dynamic equivalent and literal on the one hand and dynamic equivalent and paraphrase on the other) New English Translation, New English Bible, Today’s English Version (“Good News Bible”), New English Bible, New Century Bible, the NET Bible (a very good online translation), and Today’s New International Version (which purports to be a “gender-accurate” translation, though the debate continues to rage between fine scholars like Wayne Grudem on the one side and D.A. Carson on the other—from what I have seem of the TNIV, I currently have no objection to it).

The final category is one I don’t much care for—the paraphrase. Prominent in this genre is the Living Bible, which began merely as one man’s paraphrase of the KJV, and which afterwards extended into a full-fledged translation produced by a committee of translators, and now takes the form of the New Living Translation (I still don’t care for it). Paraphrases tend to take too many liberties and tend to wander too often into exegesis and interpretation rather than settling for translation. They make exegetical decision for the reader that, once made, leave no clue to the reader that there are other viable exegetical options available. I’m sure other readers would benefit from this; but personally I want to know what the options are, and I don’t want someone else making exegetical decisions for me.

(To be continued in our next installment)