Monday, October 31, 2011

Choosing an English version of the Bible to read - Part 2

There are at least four different translation philosophies. One emphasizes translation word by word, e.g., as in the New American Bible. The advantage of this approach is the correspondence between the words of the original manuscript and the translated version. The disadvantage is that approach entirely ignores the use of colloquial expressions, i.e., phrases that have a meaning substantially unrelated to the meaning of individual word. For example, the colloquial expression “the cat’s meow” means something very good and has nothing to do with the sound made by a cat.

A second translation philosophy emphasizes expressing the text’s meaning, whether that meaning is located in individual words or phrases. The New International Version (NIV) and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) both utilize this approach. The disadvantage is that the translation loses much of its direct correspondence with the original manuscript but preserves the original’s meaning.

A third translation philosophy seeks to convey what the translator(s) believes is the theological meaning of the original. The Living Bible employs this approach, expressing an evangelical theology both in word choice and in amplification of certain passages.

A fourth translation philosophy calls for incorporating other agendas into the translation. Notable examples of these include:

·         Preserving phrasing that has become widely recognized and used in English. This happens most notably with efforts to retain some of the time-honored and well-loved phrasings in the KJV.

·         Choosing phrasing, words, meter, etc., that will convey the sense of poetry in the original. Texts designed for use in worship often utilize this approach, e.g., the translation of Psalms found in the various Anglican Books of Common Prayer.

·         Building on translation efforts and scholarship produced by people in another language. The Jerusalem Bible is an excellent example of this, incorporating much French scholarship and dependent, in some measure, upon a French translation.

·         Updating the language to keep pace with current usage. For example, the use of masculine nouns and pronouns for inclusive terms does not reflect either the original, in which all nouns had a specified gender, or contemporary usage in which inclusive terms are gender neutral. The NRSV is a good example of this type of translation, as are the recent updates of the NIV.

Obviously, translators may employ both this philosophy and one of the first three.

My preference for reading and studying the Bible is the NRSV. Admittedly, my view may incorporate some bias. One of my seminary professors, Bruce Metzger, directed the NRSV translation process. However, the NRSV is widely recognized as an excellent if not the best English translation of Scripture.

Comparing various English translations of the Bible is widely proffered advice for erstwhile biblical students. I do not commend this practice. Without substantial textual knowledge, preferring one English translation to another is simply an opportunity to express personal opinion, confirming pre-existing bias. Instead, invest the time in first understanding the translation philosophy and agenda of the different versions, reading various commentaries on the text in question, and only then comparing the different English versions to appreciate the nuances of English and not deluding yourself that you have a better sense of the original.

Lest you think that I have made reading the Bible more difficult than it should be, stop for a moment, and consider the huge number of different Christian denominations (more than 2500 in the U.S. alone!). Many of these groups exist because people read the Bible with little if any awareness of how they approach the text, how the text came to be, and what genuine scholarship has to say about the text. (Of course, some of the groups exist simply because people have not learned to get along well with others.)

The value of an educated ministry, good preaching, and solid adult religious education is that it offers an opportunity to spend time with the Bible, allowing the light of God to shine through the text that is a window creatively, communally, evolutionarily, and pragmatically.

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