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Just Thinking

I Was Just Thinking … About the Value of Translations

There are times when we hear someone say, “I don’t believe the Bible, because there are so many versions of it.” To be sure, the word “version” is used in the official titles for a number of the leading English translations of the Bible. There is the King James Version (often called The Authorized Version); the English Revised Version complete in 1885, and its close twin, the American Standard Version of 1901. Half a century later came the Revised Standard Version, and just two years ago the New York Bible Society International published the New International Version. Then, too, translations of the Bible have appeared in recent years which have been put in parallel columns, and the resulting collections have been called “versions.” In 1963 Christianity Today published The New Testament in Four Versions (King James, Revised Standard, J.B. Phillips’ New Testament in Modern English, and The New English Bible). Then last year [1974], Christian Life Publications produced The Six Version Parallel New Testament (adding the Jerusalem Bible and Kenneth Taylor’s Living Bible).

There is certainly nothing wrong with calling various translations and groups of translations “versions.” The only problem is the one encountered whenever we attempt to speak—people sometimes attach a different meaning to a word that we are using than the meaning we intended it to have. To many people, the word “version” signifies “an account or description from a particular point of view, especially as contrasted with another account, as “two versions of a happening.” Now indeed, this is one of the meanings that “version” can have, according to the dictionary. But another possible meaning of “version” is “a translation of a book,” and this, of course, is the meaning intended by all uses of the word “version” in our various English translations of the Bible.

Since a version that is a translation is quite different from a competing account, the fact that there are many English translations of the Bible provides us no reason for doubting the Bible’s accuracy. (No one doubts what Plato taught, just because there are a number of standard translations of his works.) But some may well ask, “Does not each new English translation of the Bible imply that someone (and often a whole group of church leaders) believes that earlier translations have such serious shortcomings that much money and the life energies of many scholars must be expended to try to overcome these shortcomings?”

That is not how translators of the King James Version felt, for they said, “Truly (good Christian reader) we never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one … but to make a good one better.” (Prior to the King James Version of 1611, there had been William Tyndale’s English translation in 1525, Coverdale’s in 1535, the Great Bible in 1539, the Geneva Bible in 1560, and the Bishop’s Bible in 1568.)

Those who have translated the Bible from one language into another are aware that very many, but not all, of the connotations and implications intended in the original are conveyed by the translation. In order to convey all of its intended meanings, a translator would have to enlarge his translation to something like an exposition. But an exposition is often impractical, and the occasion calls for a translation having about as many words as the original. So each translation falls short, to a small extent, of being a one-to-one reproduction.

Therefore, when it comes to translating the Bible, the most vital of all books, Bible scholars who can read the Old Testament in the original Hebrew and the New Testament in the original Greek will always be somewhat disappointed by any translation. Their understandable urge to improve the communication of the Bible’s ultimately important message will lead some of them to see if they can’t produce a better translation than the many good ones that already exist.

This is confirmed by the following account of the reasons that led J.B. Phillips to proceed from his initial Letters to Young Churches to a translation of the entire New Testament: “I see it as my job as one who knows Greek pretty well and ordinary English very well to convey the living quality of the New Testament documents. I want above all to create in my readers the same emotions as the original writings evoked nearly 2,000 years ago. This passion of mine for communication … has led me sometimes into paraphrase …”

So we should welcome efforts of all those who, like Phillips, have a passion to try to get more of God’s Word from the original into English. Kenneth Taylor, in his introduction to the Living Bible, speaks of how “in this wonderful day of many new translations … we can greet another new one with either dread … that ‘people will become confused,’ or joy that some will understand more perfectly what the Bible is talking about. We choose the way of joy!”

Billy Graham’s experience when he first read a portion of Kenneth Taylor’s Living Bible provides an example of the joy that comes from a new translation of the Word of God. He said, “As I began to read Living Letters, it occurred to me that here was something fresh, a paraphrase of the New Testament that speaks the language of the hour. I read with renewed interest and inspiration the age-abiding truths of the Scriptures as though they had come to me directly from the Lord. Then I began to receive reports from friends who had also shared the same experience.”

Daniel P. Fuller

November 1975

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