Thinking Out Loud

April 29, 2017

C. S. Lewis on Bible Translating

I originally posted this excerpt in 2015, but it’s hard to believe it wasn’t penned yesterday. I don’t know the original date it was written, but it first appeared in the collection titled God in the Dock, and we found this excerpt in another anthology tiled The Joyful Christian. Since Lewis died in 1963, we know the material is, at minimum, around 60 years old. I’ve changed the paragraphing and (horrors!) Americanized some spelling. Revisiting it today, I was struck especially by the second-last paragraph which reminded me of the ESV “permanent translation” discussions of 2016.

It is possible that the reader … may ask himself why we need a new translation of any part of the Bible… “Do we not already possess,” it may be said, “in the Authorized Version the most beautiful rendering which any language can boast?” Some people whom I have met go even further and feel that a modern translation is not only unnecessary but even offensive. They cannot bear to see the time-honored words altered; it seems to them irreverent.

C. S. LewisIn the first place the kind of objection which they feel to a new translation is very like the objection which was once felt to any English translation at all. Dozens of sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of turning the time-honored Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) ‘barbarous’ English. A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into ‘language such as men do use’—language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street.

The answer then was the same as the answer now. The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernized is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the Eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety.

In it we see Greek used by people who have no real feeling for Greek words because Greek words are not the words they spoke when they were children. It is a sort of “basic” Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language. Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant woman’s breast, and later an arrested field preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine….

When we expect that [the Bible] should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorized Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King.

The real sanctity, the real beauty and sublimity of the new Testament (as of Christ’s life) are of a different sort: miles deeper and further in.

In the second place, the Authorized Version has ceased to be a good (that is, a clear) translation. It is no longer modern English: the meanings of words have changed. The same antique glamor which has made it (in the superficial sense) so ‘beautiful’, so ‘sacred’, so ‘comforting’, and so ‘inspiring’, has also made it in many places unintelligible…

[He then gives some examples.]

…The truth is that if we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation. There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing. If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once and for all: he will grow out of it and have to be re-clothed.

And finally – though it may seem a sour paradox – we must sometimes get away from the Authorized Version if for no other reason, simply because it is so beautiful and so solemn. Beauty exalts, but beauty also lulls. Early associations endear but they also confuse. Through that beautiful solemnity the transporting or horrifying realities of which the Book tells may come to us blunted and disarmed and we may only sigh with tranquil veneration when we ought to be burning with shame, or struck dumb with terror, or carried out of ourselves by ravishing hopes and adorations.

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November 15, 2016

A New Bible Translation Classification System

Bible Translations

Thinking of giving someone a Bible for Christmas? Then this is just in time!

Although we tend to classify Bible translations as fitting into one of two categories — formal correspondence and dynamic equivalence — or in terms of a third category which positioned on a spectrum between the two and combining the two; today, I’d like to propose a different way of understanding what is currently on the market in terms of translation clusters.

Contemporary

These are versions that read the same as other products people would be reading (magazines, newspapers, blogs) and are currently gaining traction.

  • New Living Translation (NLT) — Though Tyndale Publishing House lacks Zondervan’s expertise when it comes to marketing, and tends to get mired in an obsession for One Year Bible editions which scramble the text order, the translation itself continues to catch on with readers.
  • Common English Bible (CEB) — A recent attempt to offer something in modern language that specifically targets the mainline Protestant market.
  • New Century Version (NCV) — Its simplified reading level allows you to read faster, and pick up macro-themes. A sister version of the International Children’s Bible; it reads and was written for adults.

Denominational Niche Versions

Some may object that the first one in this list sees broader usage, but for the most part, these editions are associated with the denomination named.

  • English Standard Version (ESV) — Reformed, Calvinist
  • New American Bible (NAB) — Roman Catholic (don’t confuse with NASB)
  • Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) — Baptist (in the middle of a name change that will see the “H” dropped in future)
  • New King James Version (NKJV) — Charismatic, Pentecostal, Conservative Evangelical

Popular

Some versions are now simply famous for being famous. The translations have become so familiar to users and are used so widely in various types of churches that this widespread use eclipses any unique features.

  • New International Version (NIV) — You could argue that without Zondervan’s aggressive push to see “a Bible for every age and every stage,” there wouldn’t have been the push-back of the King James Only movement.  HarperCollins Christian Publishing continues to offer creative ways to get people engaged in the scriptures. For the record, Zondervan — or parent HarperCollins, or Rupert Murdoch — doesn’t own the NIV, but licenses use of it from Biblica aka the International Bible Society.
  • New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) — Despite the above, the Mainline Protestant market continues to perceive the NIV as an Evangelical product, and therefore gravitates to New Revised. The translation philosophies are actually very similar. Also available in a Catholic edition that is widely used.
  • King James Version (KJV) — It’s been 405 years; enough already!

Unique Alternatives

Some versions offer a creative approach that simply sets them apart, including the first two here, which could equally land in the Contemporary cluster above.

  • The Voice — Puts the Bible in a dramatic script format, expands some phrases for flow and clarity and adds some additional descriptive paragraphs to clarify the story. If a person isn’t Biblically literate, this is a great product.
  • The Message — A translation (please don’t say ‘paraphrase,’ it’s neither accurate nor applicable) that uses conversational English and (in the original editions) strips out verse numbers.
  • The Amplified Bible — A Bible that saves you running to a Hebrew or Greek dictionary by offering additional shades of meaning for key words.
  • The Expanded Bible — A more recent version that uses a similar approach to the Amplified.
  • New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) — A Roman Catholic Bible which has an English edition that was translated directly from its French counterpart. Many non-Catholic readers enjoy this version.
  • New International Reader’s Version (NIrV) — An NIV broken up into smaller sentences with a limited vocabulary. Marketed mostly to children, an adult edition is available for people for whom English is a second language. Quite different from the NCV which is also marketed for kids.
  • The Living Bible — The forerunner of the NLT, this was officially superseded by it; a small but loyal following keeps it in print. This one is a paraphrase, in this case of the RSV which preceded the NRSV.
  • J. B. Phillips — As radical as The Message when first released, unfortunately, this was only a New Testament. Still frequently quoted.
  • Jewish New Testament — Although a complete edition of both the Jewish Old Testament and New Testaments is available, I mention the NT here because seeing the Hebrew names and terminology makes for interesting (and most contextual) reading.

Academic

  • New American Standard Bible (NASB) — Although once forecast to be for the North American English market what the NIV became, the NASB, because of its more rigorous following of the formal correspondence translation method, is a more difficult read. It’s a reliable workhorse of a translation, often found in Bible Colleges and Seminaries, but not so frequently quoted in books or sermons anymore. If you write your own Bible translation, this is the one they’ll compare with you with, verse-for-verse.

Lost in Translation

A few editions that filled a void in the market at one time, are still available, but not so often talked about.

  • Good News Translation (GNT) also known as Today’s English Version (TEV) — A production of the American Bible Society that served mainline Protestants, Evangelicals and Friday night youth groups well.
  • Contemporary English Version (CEV) — The Bible Society’s attempt to replicate its success with the Good News Bible a generation later. It was not hugely popular at the time, but it is surprising how often it will turn up quoted by pastors and authors, even if most of us don’t own a copy.
  • God’s Word (GW) — A project begun as an attempt to complete the Beck translation, which served as a style guide. Many of the earliest contributors were Lutheran, but the Bible is seen as interdenominational Evangelical.

It’s important to remember that phrases like “Key Study Bible” and “Life Application Bible” refer to specific editions, some of which are offered across several translation platforms.

I recommend owning at least one Bible in each of the first four clusters. If you’re buying a Bible for someone as a gift, remember that your personal favorite may not be the best Bible for them. You can preview all the translations named here (except the one from Messianic Jewish Publications) at BibleGateway.com

Comments from KJV-only advocates will be cast into the sea of forgetfulness and remembered no more.

April 25, 2015

C. S. Lewis on Modern Bible Translations

It’s hard to believe this wasn’t penned yesterday. I don’t know the original date it was written, but it first appeared in the collection titled God in the Dock, and we found this excerpt in another anthology tiled The Joyful Christian. Since Lewis died in 1963, we know the material is, at minimum, around 60 years old. I’ve changed the paragraphing and (horrors!) Americanized some spelling.

It is possible that the reader … may ask himself why we need a new translation of any part of the Bible… “Do we not already possess,” it may be said, “in the Authorized Version the most beautiful rendering which any language can boast?” Some people whom I have met go even further and feel that a modern translation is not only unnecessary but even offensive. They cannot bear to see the time-honored words altered; it seems to them irreverent.

C. S. LewisIn the first place the kind of objection which they feel to a new translation is very like the objection which was once felt to any English translation at all. Dozens of sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of turning the time-honored Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) ‘barbarous’ English. A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into ‘language such as men do use’—language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street.

The answer then was the same as the answer now. The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernized is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the Eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety.

In it we see Greek used by people who have no real feeling for Greek words because Greek words are not the words they spoke when they were children. It is a sort of “basic” Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language. Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant woman’s breast, and later an arrested field preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine….

When we expect that [the Bible] should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorized Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King.

The real sanctity, the real beauty and sublimity of the new Testament (as of Christ’s life) are of a different sort: miles deeper and further in.

In the second place, the Authorized Version has ceased to be a good (that is, a clear) translation. It is no longer modern English: the meanings of words have changed. The same antique glamor which has made it (in the superficial sense) so ‘beautiful’, so ‘sacred’, so ‘comforting’, and so ‘inspiring’, has also made it in many places unintelligible…

[He then gives some examples.]

…The truth is that if we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation. There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing. If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once and for all: he will grow out of it and have to be re-clothed.

And finally – though it may seem a sour paradox – we must sometimes get away from the Authorized Version if for no other reason, simply because it is so beautiful and so solemn. Beauty exalts, but beauty also lulls. Early associations endear but they also confuse. Through that beautiful solemnity the transporting or horrifying realities of which the Book tells may come to us blunted and disarmed and we may only sigh with tranquil veneration when we ought to be burning with shame, or struck dumb with terror, or carried out of ourselves by ravishing hopes and adorations.

November 15, 2013

Bible Translation Families

Bible Translations

Although we tend to classify Bible translations as fitting into one of two categories — formal correspondence and dynamic equivalence — or a third category which is a combination of the other two; today, I’d like to propose a different way of understanding what is currently on the market in terms of clusters.

Contemporary

These are versions that read the same as other products people would be reading (magazines, newspapers, blogs) and are currently gaining traction.

  • New Living Translation (NLT) — Though Tyndale Publishing House lacks Zondervan’s expertise when it comes to marketing, and tends to get mired in an obsession for One Year Bible editions which scramble the text order, the translation itself continues to catch on with readers.
  • Common English Bible (CEB) — A recent attempt to offer something in modern language that specifically targets the mainline Protestant market.
  • New Century Version (NCV) — Its simplified reading level allows you to read faster, and pick up macro-themes. Though it’s also the International Children’s Bible, it reads and was written for adults.

Denominational Niche Versions

Some may object that the first one in this list sees broader usage, but for the most part, these editions are associated with the denomination named.

  • English Standard Version (ESV) — Reformed, Calvinist
  • New American Bible (NAB) — Roman Catholic
  • Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) — Baptist
  • New King James Version (NKJV) — Charismatic, Pentecostal, Conservative Evangelical

Popular

Some versions are now simply famous for being famous. The translations have become so familiar to users and are used so widely in various types of churches that this widespread use eclipses any unique features.

  • New International Version (NIV) — You could argue that without Zondervan’s aggressive push to see “a Bible for every age and every stage,” there wouldn’t have been the push-back of the King James Only movement. In 2013 (and as you’ll see again in 2014), HarperCollins Christian Publishing continues to offer creative ways to get people engaged in the scriptures. For the record, Zondervan — or parent HarperCollins, or Rupert Murdoch — doesn’t own the NIV, but licenses use of it from Biblica aka the International Bible Society.
  • New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) — Despite the above, the Mainline Protestant market continues to perceive the NIV as an Evangelical product, and therefore gravitates to New Revised. The translation philosophies are actually very similar. Also available in a Catholic edition that is widely used.
  • King James Version (KJV) — It’s been 402 years; enough already!

Unique Alternatives

Some versions offer a creative approach that simply sets them apart, including the first two here, which could equally land in the Contemporary cluster above.

  • The Voice — Puts the Bible in a dramatic script format, and adds some additional sentences to clarify the story.
  • The Message — A translation (please don’t say ‘paraphrase,’ it’s neither accurate nor applicable) that uses conversational English and (in the original editions) strips out verse numbers.
  • The Amplified Bible — A Bible that saves you running to a Hebrew or Greek dictionary by offering additional shades of meaning for key words.
  • The Expanded Bible — A more recent version that uses a similar approach to the Amplified.
  • New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) — A Roman Catholic Bible which has an English edition that was translated directly from its French counterpart.
  • New International Reader’s Version (NIrV) — An NIV broken up into smaller sentences with a limited vocabulary. Marketed mostly to children, an adult edition is available for people for whom English is a second language. Quite different from the NCV which is also marketed for kids.
  • The Living Bible — The forerunner of the NLT, this was officially superseded by it; a small but loyal following keeps it in print. This one is a paraphrase, in this case of the RSV which preceded the NRSV.
  • J. B. Phillips — As radical as The Message when first released, unfortunately, this was only a New Testament. Still frequently quoted.
  • Jewish New Testament — Although a complete edition of both the Jewish Old Testament and New Testaments is available, I mention the NT here because seeing the Hebrew names and terminology makes for interesting (and most contextual) reading.

Academic

  • New American Standard Bible (NASB) — Although once forecast to be for the North American English market what the NIV became, the NASB, through its more rigorous following of the formal correspondence translation method, is a more difficult read. It’s a reliable workhorse of a translation, often found in Bible Colleges and Seminaries, but not so frequently quoted in books or sermons anymore.  If you write your own Bible translation, this is the one they’ll compare with you with, verse-for-verse.

Lost in Translation

A few editions that filled a void in the market at one time, are still available, but not so often talked about.

  • Good News Translation (GNT) also known as Today’s English Version (TEV) — A production of the American Bible Society that served mainline Protestants, Evangelicals and Friday night youth groups well.
  • Contemporary English Version (CEV) — The Bible Society’s attempt to replicate its success with the Good News Bible a generation later. It was not hugely popular at the time, but it is surprising how often it will turn up quoted by pastors and authors, even if most of us don’t own a copy.
  • God’s Word (GW) — A project begun as an attempt to complete the Beck translation, which served as a style guide. Many of the earliest contributors were Lutheran, but the Bible is seen as interdenominational Evangelical.

It’s important to remember that phrases like “Key Study Bible” and “Life Application Bible” refer to specific editions, some of which are offered across several translation platforms.

I recommend owning at least one Bible in each of the first four clusters. If you’re buying a Bible for someone as a gift, remember that your personal favorite may not be the best Bible for them.  You can preview all the translations named here (except the one from Messianic Jewish Publications) at BibleGateway.com

Comments from KJV-only advocates will be cast into the sea of forgetfulness and remembered no more.

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