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Review of “One Bible, Many Versions”

11 Mar

“My work as a translator brought me to the realization that literal Bible versions in English often take turns being the most (or least) literal among their peers. . . I was shocked to find that not only are literal versions not always literal, but sometimes the notably nonliteral versions are more literal than the so-called literal ones.”  (p. 30)

“All translations use meaning-based translation principles to varying degrees.  It is not a question of whether or not translators will change the form but rather how much of the form will they try to preserve.  It appears that the one thing that is truly consistent in Bible translation is the fact that it is impossible to be truly consistent.” (p. 132)

The following is a helpful review of a recently published book. The review itself is well worth reading. The review was written by Doug Kutilek, and published in his monthly e-magazine. The magazine is free to subscribe, and contains helpful articles on diverse subjects. You can find more information at http://www.kjvonly.org/aisi/aisi_intro.htm.

One Bible, Many Versions by Dave Brunn.  Downer’s Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2013.  205 pp., paperback.

The author is “director of education for New Tribes Mission Missionary Training Center” (to quote the back cover) and was formerly phonetics instructor at the NTM Language and Linguistics Institute.  He is an experienced Bible translator, having made a translation of the Scriptures into Lamogai, one of the tribal languages of the interior of Papua New Guinea, a twenty-years-long labor.

Brunn discusses at length the theory and practice of Bible translation, particularly the tension between “formal equivalence” / “essentially literal” translations such as, e.g., the KJV, ESV and NASB, and “functional equivalence” / “meaning equivalence” versions such as the NIV, HCSB and NLT.  With numerous charts, he shows that while on the whole the ESV and NASB are more “literal,” there are numerous times where one or both of these abandon a formal equivalence translation for a meaning equivalence one, and in not a few of these cases, one or more of the meaning equivalence versions is more literal than the “essentially literal” versions!

While it is true that the form of the Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek is verbally-inspired, inspiration also includes the meaning of those words (see my article from As I See It 7:6, “Inspired Words and Inspired Thoughts, or Variant Readings in the Inspired Autographs”).  Sometimes strictly preserving the verbal form of the original–say, an infinitive, or a genitive case, or subjunctive verb form, or a participle, or an idiom–, would actually impede comprehension by the reader of the translation, and in such cases strict adherence to the form of the original would fail to convey the meaning of the original.  So there is always this tension: how literal is too literal?  How free is too free?  This is why Bible translation is commonly referred to as both an art and a science.

The issue of literal versus literary translation is less an issue in languages not related to Greek or Hebrew.  English is part of the same family of languages as Greek (Indo-European; of the 6,909 known living human languages, “only” 426 are I-E), and so formally and syntactically has many features in common with Greek, making literal translation possible much of the time.  But Hebrew is from a wholly unrelated family (Semitic) and so literal translation from Hebrew into English is much less often possible (anyone who has studied Hebrew and the OT original can testify that this is the case); on the other hand Hebrew can be much more readily and literally translated into other Semitic languages such as Aramaic, Syriac and Arabic.  But when you seek to translate both Greek and Hebrew into wholly unrelated languages such as Lamogai (or Japanese, Chinese or Swahili), it immediately becomes apparent that meaning must take precedent over form when the two are at odds, if the translation is to be intelligible and effectively and accurately communicate God’s inspired truth to the target people.

Among the difficulties every translator faces is dealing with the matter of gender in translation.  Some languages have three grammatical genders, some have two and some have none, possessing only “natural gender” or even none at all.  The nature and use of pronouns varies from language to language, and there is regularly an imperfect correspondence between languages, which renders formal equivalence translation impossible.  This requires adjustments and improvisation in translation.  The work of translation, if done accurately and intelligibly, is often extremely laborious and exhausting, and those who haven’t or couldn’t do it have insufficient appreciation for the difficulties that it involves.

The author affirms with entire justification that one major cause of much of the long-standing controversy in English over Bible translations is the monolingualism of our culture and of most English speakers.  Such is not the case in many other parts of the world–e.g., bi-lingual continental Europeans are commonplace, and tri- and quadra-lingual Europeans are not rare.  We on the whole don’t have the broad linguistic experience, exposure and knowledge to have a clear and well-informed perspective on the issue.

The author does not quote two of the most famous aphorisms regarding the issue of translations, though I am sure that he would affirm their accuracy.  The first is the Italian, “traduttori traditori,” lit. “translators are traitors,” that is, they always fail to do full justice to the text they translate in conveying its meaning but only its meaning in translation.  The second is the “golden mean” of translation: “As literal as possible, as free as necessary.”

It is suggested that a person should, if possible, regularly read both an “essentially literal” and a “functional equivalent” translation.  I whole-heartedly concur (see As I See It 10:3, “Which Bible–For Today?” in which I recommend two of each sort–NASB and ESV, and NIV (1984) and HCSB.  Decades ago (1965), F. F. Bruce produced a parallel edition of Paul’s epistles, The Letters of Paul, with the highly literal ERV of 1881 in parallel to Bruce’s own paraphrase of these letters.  I read it through with considerable profit.  Zondervan has a parallel NASB-NIV edition with an interlinear translation of the Greek text [Nestle 21st ed.]–a very handy format, especially for the beginning student of Greek.  I also own and use a parallel Spanish Bible with the RV 1960 and NVI, and a four-version Spanish NT, as well as a two-translation German NT with the Nestle Greek [26th ed.]).

Two subjects not addressed in this volume are 1. the matters of translator bias—corrupt theology and down-right dishonesty–which seriously, even fatally, mars the reliability and usability of such English versions as the Jehovah’s Witnesses New World Translation, the RSV and NRSV, the NEB and several others; and 2. translator competence, that is, does he have the necessary language and linguistic knowledge and training to produce an accurate and reliable version?  Brunn no doubt assumes that a Bible translator should be both honest and competent before beginning his work.  Oh, that all in fact were!

There are a few factual errors.  On p. 77, he writes as if Wycliffe made his translation from the Greek (logos) when of course his work was made from Jerome’s Latin translation of the Greek; and it is implied that Tyndale was influenced in his translation by Wycliffe, when this was almost certainly not the case (both knew and used the Latin Vulgate, which no doubt accounts for their common rendering in the place in question; Tyndale also had Erasmus’ Latin version and Luther’s German NT).  On p. 80, in quoting a word from the Greek of Rev. 22:18 (three times on the page), he gives the nominative singular “vocabulary” form logos instead of the form actually found in the text, logous, the plural accusative.  On p. 97, note 27, he inadvertently incorrectly inserts the words “of-the” in his literal rendering of a phrase from Matthew 1:6

This is an worthwhile book on the theory and practice of Bible translation, and will introduce that reader to the problems, pitfalls and possibilities of Bible translation in the modern era.  For those with limited or no foreign language training or knowledge, it will certainly serve as an eye-opener.  Some who are unjustifiably vehement in their opinions regarding English Bible versions might find cause for re-evaluation of some of their dogmas.

Doug Kutilek

Some quotations from One Bible, Many Versions.–

“My work as a translator brought me to the realization that literal Bible versions in English often take turns being the most (or least) literal among their peers. . . I was shocked to find that not only are literal versions not always literal, but sometimes the notably nonliteral versions are more literal than the so-called literal ones.”  (p. 30)

“All translations use meaning-based translation principles to varying degrees.  It is not a question of whether or not translators will change the form but rather how much of the form will they try to preserve.  It appears that the one thing that is truly consistent in Bible translation is the fact that it is impossible to be truly consistent.” (p. 132)

“In such a version as the one commonly in use [i.e., the KJV] in this country [i.e. England], there are scarcely two consecutive verses where there is not some departure from the original such as those indicated, and where these variations may be counted by tens of thousands, as admitted on all hands, it is difficult to see how verbal inspiration can be of the least practical use to those who depend upon that version alone.” (p. 162.  Quoting, not approvingly, Robert Young [1822-1888], famous for his analytical concordance of the Bible, and his literal English translation (1863).  Young strongly favored the translation principle of “as literal as possible, and then some.”  The quote is notable in being the opinion of a strong literalist toward the KJV’s frequent lack of literal translation–Editor)

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2014 in Bible Study

 

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