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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Issues in Modern Translation

As noted in the brief survey above, there have been a number of different trends in modern Bible translations. Without entering into the technical jargon involved when discussing these translations, I have tried to note that there have been several different streams of translations, with numerous tributaries. Several of these streams of translation are distinguished by how they approach the question of meaning in the original language, and how that meaning is conveyed in the language of translation. There are a number of issues facing any translator of the Bible. These include recent debate on the theory of translation, language change and the changing purpose of translations, and the issue of inclusive language.

Dynamic or formal equivalence translation theory

In 1964 Eugene Nida consolidated research that he had been doing for almost twenty years on the principles of translation, especially Bible translation, and published a new and almost unparalleled theoretical work on the principles of translation, entitled Toward a Science of Translating. This was followed by an application of his theories to Bible translation in The Theory and Practice of Translation, written with Charles Taber (1969), and took its most recent form in From One Language to Another: Functional Equivalence in Bible Translating, written with Jan De Waard (1986). For years Executive Secretary for Translations of the American Bible Society, Nida continues to do important linguistic research, besides the many biblical linguistic projects that he has initiated (e.g. the UBS Greek New Testament, Good News Bible, and Contemporary English Version, to mention only a few). I believe it is fair to say that he has had a far larger impact on translation theory, in particular the translation of the Bible into languages previously without a written language, than almost any other person, certainly than almost any other person in the twentieth century. The debt that biblical studies owes to him is tremendous, whether or not one accepts his theories. Many do not agree with his theories of translation, but one must understand them if one expects to know much about recent developments in Bible translation.

The major starting-point of Nida's work is rejection of the traditional means of translation, often referred to as formal equivalence. It is enshrined in the tradition of the Authorized Version, Revised and American Standard Versions, Revised Standard Version, and New American Standard Version, to name but a few. Formal equivalence attempts a word-oriented translation, with emphasis upon preserving the features of the original language, with respect to vocabulary, syntax, and tone, so far as this is possible in the translated language. By contrast, Nida advocates what is called dynamic or functional equivalence. Dynamic equivalence is defined by recognizing that each language has its own characteristics, many of which cannot be transferred to another language without loss of effective communication. Nevertheless, as translation between modern languages demonstrates, there is nothing in one language that cannot be said in another. Hence, emphasis is upon the message, rather than its form. The assumption is that writers of documents, including the writers of the biblical texts, expect to be understood by their readers. The reproduction of this meaning is what the translator attempts to do, by finding the closest natural equivalent expression in the new language, whether it is English or a language having the Bible translated for the first time. Dynamic equivalence involves appreciation of a number of factors in its implementation, including cognizance of the varied functions of language, and the needs of the audience using the translation. In many ways reflecting a similar orientation to language as is reflected in the linguist Noam Chomsky's early work on transformational grammar (e.g. Syntactic Structures, 1957), Nida developed his concept of kernel sentences as a means of handling grammatical problems within this theory. Rather than transfer items, such as individual words, from the surface structure of one language to another, Nida proposes a process by which one breaks down the source language into its underlying structure or kernel, and then transfers this meaningful unit across from one language to another, restructuring the kernel into the appropriate expression of the receptor language. Thus, the expression in Greek literally rendered ‘love of God’ can be analysed into the kernel ‘God loves’.

The classic example that Nida has used through the years is Mark 1: 4 , which is often rendered literalistically with something like ‘John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. Nida contends that ‘baptism of repentance’ and ‘forgiveness of sins’ are phrases that reflect the literal expression in Greek but carry very little meaning for a contemporary reader. He believes that there are five kernel sentences in this verse: (1) John preached something (which the following phrase captures), (2) John baptizes people, (3) the people repent, (4) God forgives something, and (5) the people sin. Nida believes that a sentence such as ‘John preached, “Repent and be baptized, so that God will forgive the evil you have done” ’ captures the sense of the verse.

Nida's principles were largely behind the Good News Bible, as well as the more recent Contemporary English Version. About 30 years ago, he encouraged projects to provide translations that would in some way enshrine his principles in a translation that could be used by field translators, who either did not have adequate knowledge of the original language or who needed a check on their own understanding. In 1973 the Translator's New Testament was issued by the British and Foreign Bible Society, but the equivalent Old Testament project failed. The reasons for its failure are related to what some have seen as the major shortcomings of his theory of translation. The range of discussion of Nida's theories cannot be entered into here, apart from noting some of the major questions that have been raised. Many would disagree with the major presupposition that equivalent meaning in the receptor language is either possible or worthy of attempt. To be fair to Nida, he is certainly not the first to have had the transfer of meaning as a goal of translation. Benjamin Jowett, the great classical scholar and translator of Plato, among other ancient authors, worked from this perspective. This perspective was also consciously in the minds of E. V. Rieu and J. B. Phillips when they translated. Nevertheless, ancient languages are sufficiently removed in place and time that modern interpreters cannot hope always to be able to reproduce the same meaning, or to elicit the same effect as the biblical writers did, especially since one often has very little knowledge of what that effect might have been. If this is removed as a possible or achievable goal, then one is left with close analysis of the language or formal analysis. However, whereas it is easy to posit a distinction between meaning and form, virtually all translators must have some concept of meaning, the question being how closely they choose to stay to the original text. The attempt to determine this meaning, rather than leave the matter open, is not one that Nida devised, but was articulated in the previous century by Jowett, and has been articulated since by others. However, there are many instances where, even if one believes that the original audience understood the text (but is it certain that they always did?), modern interpreters are still not certain of that meaning. Any translation that forces one to decide the meaning of each passage, therefore, runs the risk of excluding viable options for meaning that may be better off left ambiguous and subject to further consideration.

The influence of Nida on Bible translation continues to be felt. As a result of his work, most modern translators are far more aware of a greater range of issues in Bible translation, even if they do not agree on the principles for all of these issues. There is, for example, a much greater respect for the larger context in which translation occurs, including not only the world and culture of the original authors and readers, and the current receptors, but also in terms of the entire text as a discourse. One is also much more conscious of the possibilities and limitations of translation, and how one can influence meaning through the process of translation. Many of the features of the grammar of language that were taken for granted in the past now are seen to have hidden complexities that must be addressed in understanding and translating. These issues will undoubtedly continue to be confronted and debated in future Bible translation projects—or at least they should be.

The question of the difference between translation and paraphrase is appropriately raised at this point. Often a distinction is drawn between these two types of Bible rendering, usually either with paraphrase being denigrated as something less than faithful to the original, or with translation being put down as wooden and impenetrable by the untrained. There is some truth, but much falsehood, on each side. In one sense, all translations are paraphrases, in that it is impossible to reproduce the original language word for word. Even selecting the translational equivalent for each word is an act of interpretation and requires paraphrase. If one ever reads an inter-linear Bible, where an English equivalent is placed under each Greek or Hebrew word, one gets a sense of how a strict literalism results in nonsense. Therefore, in offering a critique of a version, it is not a significant criticism to label something a paraphrase. Originally, Phillips's version was called a paraphrase, but now it is thought of as a progressive translation, one of the best personal versions of the century. Much of the difficulty with resolving this debate is what Nida has been concerned with, in terms of establishing criteria by which one more than simply examines the words of the original language but looks at the larger patterns of meaning, and renders the text into the corresponding forms of the receptor language.

Language change and the changing purpose of translations

The brief history above shows that two of the major issues that have prompted the increase in the number of translations are the changes that have occurred in English through the centuries, and the changing purposes for which translations are made. These are closely related to each other.

© Dean & Chapter of Westminster.

In the same way as Shakespeare reads as English of a previous period, so does the Authorized Version. In fact, the Authorized Version itself reflected language that was already in many ways dated by its large-scale adoption of the language of previous translations, such as that of Tyndale and the Geneva Bible (it has even been argued that the Authorized Version deliberately archaized its sources, such as Tyndale's English!). What many devotees believe is the spiritual quality of this Bible is nothing more than its archaic language by today's standards. Much has changed in English since 1611. This includes some fairly significant and radical changes in the meanings of words, as well as changes in syntax and grammatical features, such as the use of pronouns (‘thee’ and ‘thou’, for instance). One of the major problems with the Authorized Version was that the style in which it was written soon became revered as a literary masterpiece. These features were often equated with theological features, and, the more this became enshrined due to archaism, the more difficult it became to promote a revision of the text, even though this was more and more needed. The Revised Version attempted such a revision but failed, to a large extent because the revisers did not go far enough in revising the English to make it sound like late nineteenth-century English, instead attempting to preserve the earlier wording as much as possible. The need for constant vigilance with regard to the text is shown by the fact that the next revision, the Revised Standard Version, was undertaken so relatively soon afterwards, and succeeded more satisfactorily because it took a more aggressive stance towards the issue of preservation of the language of the Authorized and Revised Versions. Taking an aggressive stance towards the tradition of the Authorized Version does not guarantee success, however, especially since one of the major difficulties of a translation is still to fight against its being compared directly with the Authorized Version. Undoubtedly owing to the Authorized Version, several translations have taken the view that they are trying to create an equivalent of or replacement for the Authorized Version, putting the English into a timeless form. Such a goal is almost certainly one that cannot be achieved. In fact, it is probably not a virtue for a translation to become timeless. One of the reasons for the success early in the twentieth century of a number of personal translations was no doubt because they were not trying to replace the Authorized Version, and certainly not trying to create timeless translations, but rather trying to render the Bible into the modern English of their times. The contexts out of which these translations developed were often the translator's work with people, including young people, who did not have great familiarity with the traditional language of the Bible, and for whom the translator was creating something for their particular situation. Thus, in the light of these findings, it is perhaps wise to consider the changing nature of the English language when translating, such that translations may well serve their audiences best by forecasting and building in revision and updating (and the expectation of such revision and updating) at regular, periodic intervals to take into account developments in the language.

Related to this issue is that of the intended purpose of a translation. There are a number of linguistic contexts today in which it is unreasonable for a people or group to have more than one translation. These contexts might include those of extreme poverty, where it is impracticable for people to own more than one Bible when they can barely find enough money to survive. Another context is one in which the Bible is the first written document for a language group, and where the size of the language group or other considerations make it unlikely that more than one Bible will be produced in the immediate future. Whether one agrees that more than one translation is necessary or even desirable, the reality of the English-speaking world is that there are numerous affordable translations available to almost anyone who desires one. One of the effects of the Authorized Version was that it effectively limited the English-speaking world to one Bible for use for all purposes. Before the Authorized Version had become the most popular English Bible, English Bible readers were accustomed to hearing the Great Bible read from the pulpit, and often to having the Geneva Bible for private study—both of which functions were subsequently taken over by the Authorized Version. One of the distinctive contributions of personal translations early in the twentieth century was that individuals took it upon themselves to translate the Bible for a particular purpose. Often it was related to the lack of understanding that they sensed when working with a particular group of people, or in a particular context where greater understanding was required than the traditional translations seemed to offer. The individuals were able to effect translations for these particular contexts and help to bring about a loosening of the stranglehold that traditional translation had on Bible versions. Much of this was because of their recognition of the changing use of language.

The two functions of liturgical use and private study still continue to be the two primary uses of a Bible today. One can see, however, that the two functions are quite different. Today, among other things, a Bible for public reading must be euphonious enough that it does not cause the reader or the hearer to stumble in the process of reading and hearing, since only the reader and not the hearers usually have the printed page before them. Today, the sentences should be short enough so that the sense can be retained over the course of the reading, and not lost in a maze of subordinate clauses. The vocabulary should be different enough and vivid enough to convey the sense of the passage, retain the interest of the readers, and yet maintain coherence. The Bible might also be well served to have division markers with brief descriptive headings to guide the reader, and possibly the congregation that hears it read (as many versions currently have). In some contexts, it might be appropriate for the Bible used for public worship to be compatible with singing and public recitation. A Bible for private study may have very different characteristics—for example, the aurality of the study Bible is probably less important. One has the printed text in front of oneself, and can consult it, if there is some item of meaning or sense that is missed, or if a sentence is too long. For those acquainted with the original languages, a study Bible has the advantage of being able to reflect the original text more closely, in terms of using similar words for the same vocabulary in the translation or having sentence structure and length that are imitative of the biblical writer's style. For those without the languages, a study Bible may still retain some features that are better represented for reading than for hearing, such as vocabulary choice and sentence structure. There is also the possibility and usefulness of having study notes included in the Bible itself, either at the beginnings of books, at the back, or even on the same page, as marginal material. From this description, one can appreciate that a single individual might find use for several quite different translations.

As a result, it may well be appropriate to commend the fact that there is a wide variety of Bibles currently on the market since they provide opportunities for use of different Bibles according to varying purposes. For example, one might highly recommend a Bible such as the New American Standard Bible as useful for those studying the original languages, while rejecting it strongly as a general study Bible or reading Bible. Instead, one may endorse the Revised Standard Version or New Revised Standard Version for private study, and the Revised English Bible as a fluid reading Bible. In any case, it is probably wise to be cautious of any Bible that claims that it can be equally effective for all purposes. The history of English Bible translations in the modern era suggests that few have been able to serve effectively in both public and private capacities, since the requirements of each are significantly different.

Gender-free language

One of the most highly contentious issues in recent discussion of Bible translation is that of gender-free language. Known by several different terms, such as gender-neutral or -inclusive language, the issue is how one renders what is sometimes seen as gender-biased language in the original languages of the Bible into gender-free English, despite the fact that English seems to have its own gender bias by failure to have a gender-inclusive third-person singular pronoun. The implications of these grammatical issues reflect on larger issues related to the male orientation of the biblical world, and how one might address that through translation.

The New Revised Standard Version and the Revised English Bible were the first Bibles with an established and widespread potential clientele to be published as gender-sensitive Bibles (the New Jerusalem Bible made some attempt to address the issue). The appearance of the New Revised Standard Version, more so than the Revised English Bible, caused some eyebrows to be raised. The success of the Revised Standard Version, the reputations of those involved in the translation, and the widespread and relatively mainstream placement of many of the Bible's users, however, meant that the new Version was generally welcomed. Critical scrutiny of the translation has been in terms of correction, rather than rejection of the concept of gender-inclusive language. The same cannot be said for attempts to introduce in the United States a New International Version revised to reflect gender-free language. Whereas such a Bible was published with not much fanfare in the United Kingdom (1995), a concurrent attempt in the United States brought a reaction of hurricane proportions. Battle lines were drawn between groups, much name-calling ensued, books were written on this translation and the issue of gender-free translations, and conferences were the sites of often acrimonious debate. In the end, the publisher withdrew the revised New International Version as a result of widespread pressure being exerted, including large-scale media campaigns. The United Kingdom edition, as a result, often had to be brought into the United States if the Bible was to be sold.

This type of exaggerated conflict is not unusual in theological debate in the United States, but one might still ask why this issue caused such a furore. The immediate issue stems from the linguistic questions involved. Like many languages, Greek and Hebrew are gendered languages. In other words, they have grammatical gender, that is, certain kinds of words must appear with a designation of gender (e.g. nouns in Greek are masculine, feminine, or neuter). This gender often follows natural gender, but not always so (e.g. ‘woman’ is feminine, but ‘child’ is neuter, even though the ancient Greeks knew the difference between male and female children). The pronoun system is similar. Greek also used these gendered categories in such a way that, if there were to be a single male in an audience of women, reference to the group would require a masculine word-form. An example is the use of the Greek word ‘brethren’, which is masculine, when speaking to a group of Christians that might include numerous women. Further, there are certain words that are used to speak of representative individuals, and these words, such as ‘man’, are gendered also. The questions this grammatical system raises are compounded by a similar system in English, with reference to representative figures often using the third-person singular pronoun, ‘he’. A further set of questions raised by gendered language involves how one speaks of God. In Greek, the word for ‘God’ that is used in the New Testament is grammatically masculine, so grammatical reference is made with masculine pronouns. Grammatically, concord of a masculine noun and masculine pronoun may be required, but recent theological discussion has raised the question of the ‘sexuality’ of God. Is it now advisable to speak of God being masculine or feminine, or masculine and feminine, or are these terms even relevant at all? In the Bible, especially the Old Testament, there are numerous depictions of God in terms of masculine imagery, but there are also depictions in terms of feminine images. This has further implications for a number of related issues, such as how to refer to Jesus Christ, since in traditional theology he is both ‘man’ and ‘God’, and the nature of the Trinity, which has at least two masculine members (and one grammatically neuter member!). In any case, there are questions raised by all of these issues.

The gender-free Bibles have attempted to overcome some of these difficulties by adopting a number of translational features. These are to be found in several different types of translational situations. For example, in some contexts it is easy to change a reference to a group that includes women to something that has the word ‘they’ in it. Or, when the word ‘man’ in Greek is used in a generic sense, one might well use the word ‘humanity’ or ‘humankind’. In other contexts, where a word is used that refers to a group with women, use of a masculine and a feminine form might suffice, such as ‘brothers and sisters’, where earlier translations may have had only ‘brothers’. However, beyond this point, there are a number of further difficulties raised by renderings. For example, there is the problem with God mentioned above, and there is the problem of Jesus Christ, who is clearly depicted in the New Testament as both a man, and as the saviour of humankind. For many, it is not an issue that Jesus is still referred to as a man, so long as his being the Christ is seen not to be gender-based. For some, however, this raises issues related to some of the earliest Christological controversies of the church, regarding the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ and their interrelationships. There is further difficulty with the title that Jesus often uses of himself, ‘son of man’, which raises questions by its twofold gendered reference. Although some have proposed alternatives (is ‘offspring of humanity’ quite what is meant?), the traditional language is usually retained. One soon realizes that tension can often be created between the gendered basis of the original language and attempts to eradicate such reference in modern English.

One of the common questions raised by gender-free translations is the relationship between the gendered nature of the original languages, which seems to be based both in the languages themselves and in distinctly patriarchal kinds of societies, and the desire to be gender-free in a modern English rendering. It is at this point, perhaps, that one should entertain the possibility of the use of several modern translations, depending upon their purpose. One of the purposes of the gender-free translation is to provide a Bible that does not exclude fully half of all Christians by sexually marginalizing women through language. It is difficult to deny that overly literal renderings of the biblical language strike the modern ear as often more exclusive than ever was intended in the original. This is particularly important in public contexts of worship and Bible reading. However, one cannot escape the reality that the Bible was originally written not in late twentieth-century English, whether that be British or American English, but in ancient languages with cultures that may have been restricted by grammar or insight, or both, into gender-related issues. For one who is attempting to come to terms with this world, through study of the Bible, perhaps a gendered version that reflects in many instances the gender-laden language of the original text is more useful, if for no other reason than it makes one aware of the issues involved.

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