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Translation Matters

It’s always fascinating to me when theological questions usually reserved for the seminary classroom find their way into popular discourse. One current example is the matter of Bible translation theory, which has recently received a significant amount of attention with the announcement that the current edition of the New International Version (NIV) is undergoing a significant revision. Indeed, a website has been created to explain the translation committee’s decision to revise the translation – NIV Bible 2011. This decision has raised questions in popular circles that are usually reserved for graduate theological education. Such questions are: What makes for a good translation? What makes one translation superior to another? What makes each translation different? And why do we have so many translations anyway?

A translation’s quality can be considered in whether it is faithful to the meaning of the original text. The problem here is how we determine faithfulness. Is faithfulness to the original best achieved by strict adherence to the original form in an attempt to reproduce the syntactical elements as closely as possible. Or is faithfulness best achieved by rendering the original into the best colloquial language? Different translators would give different answers.

So, what is the average churchgoer to do when considering which translation to buy? Some use the translation that their parents used. Others choose to use the translation that their preacher uses because it’s easier to follow on Sundays. I would say that you are safe with any translation that has the word “standard” in the title. Beyond that, the NIV is a very popular (best-selling) choice as well. For serious Bible study, it is wise to consult several translations including representatives from different translation philosophies. For example, one might study a passage in the NASB, NIV, and NLT. This selection would provide a “standard” translation that attempts to capture the grammatical form of the original (NASB). It would also provide a very dynamic translation which moves entirely away from the grammatical form to idiomatic expressions (NLT). Some balance is achieved in this selection by the NIV which comes down somewhere in between formal and dynamic equivalence. A word of caution is order though. One should never, never, never use only a paraphrase (e.g., The Message, The Living Bible) for serious Bible study. These are not translations and they are not done by a committee of scholars. They are usually one person’s take on how biblical passages could be interpreted or applied to the present day. They are helpful more along the lines of a commentary. They should not be used solo for serious study. No matter what!

I preach from the New Revised Standard Version, not because it’s the best translation but because I developed a strong familiarity with it in seminary where it was required in a number of classes. I used to use the NIV and appreciated a fresh and unfamiliar rendering of many texts when reading them in the NRSV. The switch caused me to go back and think about some things a bit more closely. I’m not committed to the NRSV for life by any means. In fact, as I’ve been preaching through Philippians lately, I’ve noticed a number of places where it seems to take some liberty with the original Greek text. Also, the language is becoming a bit dated for contemporary readers. It may not be a bad idea to switch from time to time just to keep things fresh. I’m interested in looking more closely at the English Standard Version, which has developed quite a good reputation as of late and uses a translation philosophy similar to the NRSV.

All that to say, there are some good translations out there. Never before have so many translation options been available to the masses. This is really quite a historical achievement when we consider that as recently as 600 years ago people did not have personal copies of the Bible. When taken together, several translations can cast a great deal of light on some difficult passages. Familiarity with different translations keeps us thinking afresh about the Bible, which is a good thing. Thanks to the NIV translation committee for their interest in keeping their translation up-to-date and for bringing these important translation matters into popular purview.

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