An Embarrassment of Riches (Part 1: Why Different Translations?)

By Mark S. Krause

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version, the most famous English Bible translation of all time. The KJV continues to be used in many pulpits and Bible classes. Standard Publishing uses the KJV as the base translation for its enormously popular adult-level Standard Lesson Commentary.

In the 19th century, after many years when the KJV was virtually the only version available, changes in English began to build pressure for new translations. KJV words such as thee, thou, hath, hast, wert, and wot were considered archaic. Many desired a Bible for English readers that was not in the KJV’s Elizabethan language (the language of Shakespeare). The publication of the American Standard Version in 1901 began an avalanche of English Bible translations in America and other English-speaking countries.

How do we navigate this multitude of English translations? This week, in Part 1 of this three-part article, we will look at factors influencing translations. In Parts 2 and 3, appearing in the next two issues, we will review the characteristics of the eight most popular English Bibles.

 

The Role of Interpretation

Translation always involves interpretation by the translator. This is particularly true of idioms, nonliteral expressions in everyday speech that do not translate easily. For example, American English is full of sports idioms. We speak of “passing the baton” (a track and field idiom) when we mean that authority or leadership has been transferred. We speak of a “slam dunk” (a basketball idiom) to refer to something whose expected outcome is assured. Yet these idioms are difficult to understand in a culture unfamiliar with American sports, even another English-speaking culture.

The Bible authors used idioms, too. A shocking example: in several places, the KJV speaks of someone who “pisseth against the wall” (example: 1 Samuel 25:34). This is an accurate translation of the Hebrew wording for this verse, but the Bible author is not commenting on hygienic habits. It is simply a Hebrew idiom for males as opposed to females. Because the image given is impolite today, the newer Bible translations render this idiom as “male,” honoring the author’s basic intention and taming the language. However, we have lost some of the color and nuance of the original text. Should we tone down the Bible?

Translation always requires the translator to make interpretive choices. Consider the example of Isaiah 1:18. The KJV reads, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord,” translating the Hebrew verb yakach as “reason together.” The problem is that yakach means “argue” or “dispute.” What kind of arguing? It seemed inadvisable to the KJV translators to present the Lord as one who vehemently argues, so a softer side of yakach was chosen, “reason together.” In 1996, the New Living Translation (NLT) translated this sentence, “‘Come now, let us argue this out,’ says the Lord.” The NLT translators chose the harder side of yakach, perhaps coming closer to the intent of Isaiah, but presenting the Lord in a way that some would find offensive.1 But is it the job of the translators to make the Bible inoffensive? Translation involves interpretation.

 

The Role of Version Genealogy

The earliest printed English version of the Bible was by William Tyndale (1520-30s), and as much as 80 percent of the wording of the 1611 KJV was taken from Tyndale. Similarly, the KJV’s influence has remained with English translations for a couple of reasons. First, translators usually see no need to “reinvent the wheel” for their work. The public is often familiar with earlier wording, and if accurate and still compatible with current English, why change? Translators tend to be a cautious lot, especially when working in committees.

A second reason for this continuing is that most scholars working on English translation projects today grew up with the KJV. They heard the KJV preached and memorized Scripture in the KJV. It was not until the 1970s that newer translations such as the NASB and NIV began to replace the KJV. Because of this, the translators of this generation cannot escape the KJV’s influence, even if it is subconscious.

This influence of the KJV is seen most clearly in translations that acknowledge they are descendants of the 1611 titan of translations. The most direct line is the American Standard Version (ASV, 1901), its daughter, the Revised Standard Version (RSV, 1952), and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV, 1989). There are a couple of other translations in this line, however, that have bypassed the RSV or the NRSV. In 1971, Kenneth Taylor published The Living Bible (TLB), presented not as a translation but as a “paraphrase”; Taylor’s modern language version was based on the 1901 ASV. Taylor did not go back to the original Bible language texts, but used this earlier English translation (the ASV) as the basis for his paraphrase. Taylor’s project was completely redone in the 1980s and 1990s by a committee of scholars with the resulting New Living Translation (NLT, 1996; updated 2007). The NLT is billed as a new translation (and in some respects it is), but its genealogy can be traced back to the KJV through TLB and the ASV.

Three other versions should be noted here. In 1982, the New King James Version (NKJV) was published. This project ignored the ASV and RSV (and predated the NRSV), as it attempted to be a fresh updating of the 1611 KJV. In choosing that path, the translators of the NKJV sought to remove the archaic English language of the KJV (the “thee” and “thou” wording) and replace this with modern English terms (such as “you”). More controversially, though, the NKJV uses the same Greek text that the 1611 folks used (sometimes called the textus receptus). Some New Testament scholars see this as ignoring advances in pinpointing the most original Greek wording for the New Testament writings. Most of this has to do with verses in the textus receptus Greek text that are not found in some old Greek manuscripts. By not including these verses (which are in the KJV), several modern translations (including the NIV) have been accused of tampering with the Bible.2 To be fair, the NKJV often refers to such issues in its notes, but its editors have generally followed the Greek text used by the KJV committee.3

A second variation of the KJV lineage is the New American Standard Bible (NASB), originally published in 1971 and updated in 1995. This version sees itself as a revision of the 1901 ASV, bypassing the 1952 RSV. This was prompted by some controversial readings in the RSV, thought to show a liberal bias. The NASB retained much of the language of the KJV and the ASV, including the “thee” and “thou” language in passages deemed prayers (as had the RSV).4

A third recent translation that falls into the stream of KJV revisions is the English Standard Version (ESV, 2001). This translation carefully bills itself as in the lineage of the KJV, ASV, and RSV, but omits any connection to the NRSV. Why? The ESV did not wish to follow the NRSV’s gender-neutral approach, an issue we will discuss later.

The diagram on the next page indicates how these various descendants of the KJV sort themselves out in their lineage from the KJV.

 

The Role of Translation Theory

In the 20th century, the field of linguistics provided new theories for translation. Bible translators (informed by linguistics) developed two major theories of translation. The first is usually called the “formal correspondence” or “formal equivalence” theory. This is generally a “word-for-word” approach, where English words are plugged in for the Bible’s Hebrew or Greek words as much as possible. The goal of this translation theory is to produce in the translation the closest equivalent of the message expressed by the original-language text, both in meaning and in style. Examples of translations shaped by the formal correspondence theory include the NKJV, the NASB, and the ESV.

The second theory is generally known as “dynamic equivalence,” described as a “thought-for-thought” translation. This theory seeks to be both reliable and readable, but not necessarily to have a specific word equivalent in the English translation for every Hebrew or Greek word in the original language texts. This requires the text be interpreted and then rendered in understandable English, producing the same response in the readers of the English version as the ancient readers had. Examples of translations that have been guided by the dynamic equivalence theory are the NLT and (to a much lesser degree) the NIV.

 

The Role of Audience

Another influence on Bible translation projects is the intended audience of the final product. This is easy to see in the New English Bible (NEB) and its successor the Revised English Bible (REB), intended for a British audience (not American or Canadian). In 1 Corinthians 16:8, we read that Paul planned to stay in Ephesus until “Whitsuntide,” the usual British term for “Pentecost.”

Another example is the New American Bible (NAB). Some Evangelicals have mistakenly acquired this Bible thinking it is the NASB, but the NAB is intended for an English-speaking Roman Catholic audience. We are not surprised, then, when the NAB reads “Hail, favored one!” for the angel’s greeting to Mary in Luke 1:28; “Greetings, you who are highly favored!” (NIV). The NAB is an excellent translation in many ways, but its translators knew their audience was Catholic.

The NIV was intended for an Evangelical audience, as seen in translations that reflect a Reformed (Calvinist) theology. A well-known example is the NIV’s translation of the Greek word sarx (“flesh”) as “sinful nature” (example, 1 Corinthians 5:5). If we believe that all humans are born with an inherited sinful nature, this translation seems fine, but if we do not accept this premise (and many Christians do not), it seems to be reading a theological position into the text. This has changed, though, with the latest edition of the NIV (2011), as we shall see.

Another example from the NIV is in Romans 1:27. There, in a discussion of the sinful digression of humanity as it denies God, Paul reaches a crescendo by describing homosexual behavior. This ends when Paul says (according to the NIV), that sinners received “the due penalty for their perversion.” In the heat of the HIV/AIDS crisis, this verse was used to show that the deadly disease was a curse of God on the homosexual community.

Problem: the word translated “perversion” (planē in Greek) doesn’t mean this. It simply means “error” and has no necessary sexual connotations. The “error” in this text is not the homosexual behavior, but the denial of God, for which humankind is “without excuse.” The Bible may condemn homosexual activity as sinful, but it does not mark it as an especially heinous sin that deserves stricter punishment (as this translation/interpretation seems to imply). Yet many in the NIV’s Evangelical audience had no problem with this wording.

Every translation project has an intended audience. Many of the recent translations have been sponsored (paid for) by publishing houses that hope to provide a commercially viable Bible version that will be a sales success with their constituency. This does not necessarily make such a translation inferior or part of a theological conspiracy, but determining the intended audience may help us understand some of the characteristics of the translation.

 

The Role of Inclusive Language Commitment

Perhaps the hottest of buttons in the debates over translations is the issue of gender-inclusive language. English, historically, used masculine pronouns and nouns in an inclusive sense. When the hymn writer wrote, “Rise up, O men of God!” he was asking all the people of the church to rally (not just the males) and everyone understood this.

However, things have changed. To be sure, some of this has been the result of pressure from feminist groups, but that does not negate the changes. We now see grammar monstrosities such as the singular “they” in mainstream publications (“Each person must make their own decision”). This mixing of the plural and the singular is done to avoid a male-specific reference (“Each person must make his own decision”) or to avoid the clumsiness of grammatically correct but gender-neutral wording (“Each person must make his or her own decision”). The day may come when the singular they, their, and them are recognized as acceptable English, but we are not there yet. So how do we deal with this issue in translating the Bible?

Some have embraced a gender-neutral approach to translation. This will show up in two important ways. First, when Bible references are masculine but the intention of the author is inclusive, the translation will reflect this. Therefore, “I would not have you ignorant, brethren,” in the KJV of Romans 1:13 becomes “I want you to know, brothers and sisters” (NRSV). This seems reasonable when we consider that Paul includes women in his final greetings in Romans 16, but some have objected that this is political correctness encroaching on the Bible.

Other examples are found when a singular masculine referent is made plural to avoid gender specificity. The KJV reading of Psalm 10:11 is, “He hath said in his heart, God has forgotten.” We would think this psalm applies to both men and women, therefore, we find, “The wicked think, ‘God isn’t watching us!’” (NLT). This pluralizing eliminates the gender-specific “he” and “his.”

Second, references to God may avoid masculine pronouns in an inclusive language approach. In practice, this is done on an irregular and infrequent basis. Consider, however, Psalm 68:34. Compare “Ascribe ye strength unto God: his excellency is over Israel, and his strength is in the clouds” (KJV) with “Ascribe power to God, whose majesty is over Israel, and whose power is in the skies” (NRSV), thus avoiding two masculine referents (“his”) associated with God.

This issue is very heated and important to folks on both sides of the gender-neutral language issue. I think partisans in both camps fail to appreciate that English changes by itself; no one can control those changes. Therefore, to resist a more gender-neutral language in our English translations of the Bible will ultimately produce translations that sound as outdated as the 1611 KJV, but to push these changes faster than common language is doing is to use the Bible for a social agenda and is also ill-advised.

Because gender language seems to be a rapidly changing sector of English, we should pay close attention to what happens. We should not pander to political agendas, but give translations of the Bible in the English spoken by the people in our audience.

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1Interestingly, the latest edition of the NLT (2007) has changed this to “‘Come now, let’s settle this” (Isaiah 1:18).

2If there was any tampering, it was done centuries ago in the Greek manuscripts used by the NIV and other translations. For some examples of “missing verses,” compare the KJV and NIV for Matthew 18:11, John 5:4, and Acts 8:37.

3An even more conservative approach to updating the KJV is found in the 21st Century King James Version (KJ21). This version replaces only words the translators deem to be obsolete. Therefore, “Holy Ghost” becomes “Holy Spirit,” but “thee” and “thou” are retained.

4This thee/thou language in prayers was removed in the NASB’s 1995 update.

 

Mark S. Krause is academic dean and professor of biblical studies at Nebraska Christian College in Papillion, Nebraska. He is also a regular contributor to Standard Publishing’s Standard Lesson Commentary.

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Various Translations of the Bible

Translations mentioned in this and future articles, including the year of publication of the fully translated Bible and subsequent updates. We’ll look more carefully at the most popular of these translations in the next two weeks. (1) Reviewed next week, August 7. (2) Reviewed in two weeks, August 14.

ASV: American Standard Version, 1901

ESV: English Standard Version, 2001, 2007 (1)

HCSB: Holman Christian Standard Bible, 2004 (1)

KJ21: 21st Century King James Version, 1994

KJV: King James Version (also known as the Authorized Version, AV), 1611 (2)

MSG: The Message, 2002 (1)

NAB: New American Bible, 1970, 1986, 1991, new edition pending

NASB: New American Standard Bible, 1971, 1995 (1)

NEB: New English Bible, 1970

NIV: New International Version, 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 (2)

NIRV: New International Reader’s Version, 1996

NKJV: New King James Version, 1982 (2)

NLT: New Living Translation, 1996, 2007 (2)

NRSV: New Revised Standard Version, 1989

REB: Revised English Bible, 1989

RSV: Revised Standard Version, 1952, 1971

TLB: The Living Bible, 1971

TNIV: Today’s New International Version, 2005

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3 Comments

  1. August 1, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    Thank you for the research you did to prepare this article. Also thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights.

  2. Warren Christianson
    August 20, 2011 at 7:37 am

    Thank you for the work that went into this. I was wondering why “The Everlasting Gospel” was not included?
    I find it interesting and easy to use.

  3. August 22, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    Allow me a moment of fact-checking.

    The use of “thee” and “thou” was not considered obsolete in the 19th century. Open a Revised Version (1881) or an ASV (1901) and you will see these terms there in the text.

    For precise representation of Greek, the use of “thee/thou/thine” is handy: ye/you/your is plural and thee/thou/thine is singular. Thus, without consultation of the Greek text, if you have a KJV, RV, or ASV, you can tell at a glance in the New Testament whether the underlying Greek word is singular or plural.

    Also, considering the differences between the base-texts of the KJV and the NASB, it would be much more accurate to present the ASV as an offshoot of the 1881 Revised Version, rather than as an offshoot of the KJV.

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