Why do People Continue to Produce New Bible Translations?

by William E. Paul
(Bible Editions & Versions, January-March, 2003)

The above question is being asked countless times by people when a new Bible translation or version comes on the market, or when they learn that there are so many out there. What could possibly motivate someone to go to all the time, trouble and expense of producing a new translation when there is such an abundance of them already available? Rather than just one aim, perhaps some translations are attempted with several objectives in mind. And some may simply project a certain bias or bent, not even overtly stated or intended by the translator. Of course, it would be a bit presumptuous for this writer to claim to know why every person producing a translation did so. Fortunately, most translations contain a Preface or Introduction which spells out the reason or reasons for its features. Unfortunately, there is the very real possibility that a few translations are produced to further a hidden doctrinal or theological agenda held by the translator. Others seem to be produced for the purpose of making a statement, whether political, theological or social. Let’s look at some of the perceived reasons why people make Bible translations.

1. TO ACHIEVE ACCURACY WITH READABILITY

Undoubtedly, the most predominant reason has to do with the desire by the translator(s) to produce a version that reflects an accurate, readable rendition of the Hebrew and Greek texts into English. Of these, the two primary approaches to translation are the “formal correspondence” method and the “dynamic equivalence” method. The former, using literal wording to varying degrees, attempts to present only the words of the Greek text, apart from paraphrase or amplification (unless such words are placed in italics). The King James Version, the American Standard Version the New American Standard Version and the New King James Version are usually held to be prime examples of this approach. The second method incorporates varying degrees of paraphrase in its attempt to translate the thought or idea of the text. The word order of sentences is often rearranged to comply with current ways of stating things. Such versions in wide use today are The New International Version and The Revised Standard Version.

2. TO REMOVE OBSOLETE WORDING

With the passing of years, and the inevitable change in the English language, there are those who periodically feel the need to update the language of Scripture. Hundreds of words used in the King James Version no longer have viable meanings to those living in the 21st century. One reference work I consulted listed more than 400 such words (almug, amerce, alamoth, assupim, bekah, calamus, choler, ciel, etc.). So some translations substitute modern-day equivalents for such archaic words. Translators are correct in assuming that few (if any) persons reading the Bible containing such words would have the slightest idea of their meaning. While such words may still appear in certain reference works, it becomes a distinct deterrent to continuity and possibly even to understanding for a person to have to look them up while reading the Bible. Most all 20th and 21st century translations have sought to update archaic and obsolete wording.

3. TO UTILIZE MODERN LANGUAGE

Besides the removal of obsolete words as a motive, there are numerous new words that have entered the English language that some translators feel better express the Biblical concepts than those used 50 to 100 years ago. Such translations are usually dubbed “modern speech translations.” With the dawn of the 20th century several of these became quite popular (The 20th Century NT, Moffatt, Weymouth, Goodspeed, and in recent times, Phillips, to name a few). One characteristic of such translations is the tendency to use even slang words, or contextually inappropriate words (Goodspeed has the Ethiopian treasurer sitting in his “car,” Acts 8:28). In recent years there have been a very large number of such translations, and because they appeal to the masses, sell in the hundreds of thousands. These translations are often categorized as to school grade reading level. The English Version for the Deaf, produced for the benefit of deaf persons, who have a very limited vocabulary, it is geared to a 3.87 grade reading level. Then there are the excessively loose paraphrases, which sometimes go well beyond “modern speech,” even using occasional crudities (The Living Bible, I Sam. 20:30; John 9:34), and rewriting some passages (The Message, Matt. 6:9; 1 Cor. 6:18).

4. TO APPEAL TO A SUBCULTURE

Going beyond traditional slang words, these translations gear their message to a specific subculture having its own peculiar terminology. The idea was that if the Scriptures were made to speak the language of a certain group that would not normally read the Bible, such language was acceptable. In the late 60’s, it was Letters to Street Christians, which used such hippie language as “dig it,” “turn on,” “Jesus trip,” and “right on.” A similar effort of that era was Burke’s God is For Real, Man, and God is Beautiful, Man. Also, a unique effort was Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Version, which substituted for Bible words place names and situations in the Deep South that focused on the Civil Rights issues of the day.

5. TO EMPHASIZE DOCTRINAL DISTINCTIVES

While this may seem like an ulterior motive, some individuals have felt so strongly about a particular Scriptural word or concept that they set about to produce a translation which carefully incorporates what they feel was neglected in other translations. This is true of the more than 44 ‘immersion’ translations. In place of “baptize,” or “baptism,” these versions use the word “immerse” or some other word which conveys the idea of the candidate going completely under the water. In this category may also be included those versions which use a form of the tetragrammaton (Jehovah, Yehveh, Yahvah, etc.). The New World Translation emphasizes such words as “Jehovah,” “cutting-off,” and “impale,” in keeping with Watchtower Society doctrine. Other versions are merely adaptations of older translations, with “the proper term” for God’s name inserted (Restoration of the Original Sacred Name Bible is based on Rotherham’s The Emphasized Bible; The Bethel Edition Sacred Scriptures is based on the American Standard Version). One recent translation even stresses the lack of intoxication in certain uses of the word “wine” (A Purified Translation). Several recent translations emphasize the Hebrew root origin of certain New Testament words, so give them an unusual spelling or state them with some Jewish significance not readily comprehended by most readers (The Orthodox Jewish Brit Chadasha, Jewish New Testament, etc.).

6. TO ENHANCE PERSONAL DEVOTION

Some people have chosen to translate the Bible in order to enhance their personal understanding of the Scriptures as part of their personal devotional life. By having to grapple with the meaning of each verse or passage, they were able to see the truth of God’s word unfold before them in a unique way. Some had little or no interest in having the work published beyond a few copies distributed to close friends and relatives. Jack J. Blanco’s, The Clear Word Bible, was initially produced “to enrich [his] own spiritual life” as was this writer’s effort with An Understandable Version. Some of these translations, though often not of the caliber of those produced by committees of scholars, are eventually produced in larger quantities for wider distribution, while others remain obscure and are often in high demand by collectors because of their scarcity.

7. TO SIMPLIFY LANGUAGE

This group of translations is to be distinguished from the “modern speech” translations. Where persons speak English as a second language, it is often the case that they have a very limited vocabulary. Some versions have taken this deficit into consideration by producing a translation using shorter and fewer English words. S. H. Hooke translated The New Testament in Basic English in 1941, based on a language called “Basic English,” consisting of 850 words. He added 50 more special “Bible words” plus another 100 to produce his translation. Gleason Ledyard and his wife, while doing missionary work among the primitive Eskimos in the Central Canadian Arctic in the 1940s, produced their New Life Testament to aid these Indians in learning English and eventually in reading the Scriptures. Norlie’s, Simplified New Testament uses simpler words and shorter sentences to appeal to teen-agers and young people. Many other such translations have been geared to readers who find the standard translations somewhat difficult to understand in places.

8. TO MAINTAIN EXACT LITERALNESS

Some translators, who take the position of “formal correspondence” to an extreme, insist that the best version is the one that retains an exact word-for-word translation of the original text, often using the same English word every time its Greek counterpart appears. Some even follow the Greek word order, which makes for very difficult reading in English. While such translations use varying degrees of exact literalness, an early one that comes to mind is that by Robert Young. Later came the Concordant Version by Knoch and in more recent times some of Jay Green’s many translations. Interlinear word-for-word translations would fall into this category as well.

9. TO INCORPORATE PERCEIVED INSIGHTS

Some persons entertain the notion that they have been in some way especially endowed (inspired?) to alter or improve on the standard translations of their day. Some insist that the original language of portions of the New Testament was Aramaic (or Syriac), and that only when one is familiar with such languages can they do an adequate job of translating the text (Lamsa, Torrey, Lewis). Others claim some supernatural guidance or direction in their “translation” effort. Pershall states “I have been given divine authority … to bring the true translation of the original Greek text.” Greber states that “the divine spirits” told him which Greek texts were correct, and when none was found he “used the text as it was given to me by those spirits.” Of course, it is well known that Joseph Smith doctored certain portions of the KJV as he felt supernaturally led.

10. TO UTILIZE A PREFERRED GREEK TEXT

The school of thought that considers the Textus Receptus to be the only accurate Greek text insists that any translation made from other texts cannot possibly be a true rendition of the Scriptures. Some translators developed their own Greek text, based on the study of numerous manuscripts (Weymouth). Others make use of an eclectic Greek text (Westcott-­Hort, Nestle-Aland, etc.)

11. TO INCORPORATE GENDER-INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE

While the issue of gender-inclusive language is being dealt with in a wide range of versions, and in varying degrees today (New Revised Standard Version, New Century Version, Contemporary English Version, etc.) most versions of this type simply use such language as “person” or “human being” for “man.” However, there are several versions that seem to carry the principle far beyond these versions. The New Testament of the Inclusive Language Bible uses “Parent” in place of “Father” and “Sovereign” instead of “Lord”; The New Testament and Psalms, An Inclusive Version reads “Our Father-Mother” in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9). Such versions open themselves up to accusations of being influenced by advocates of the radical feminist movement.

12. TO AMPLIFY THE MEANING

Some translations are characterized with certain words in brackets or parentheses. These are not considered by the translator to be part of the Biblical text, but are placed there to clarify its meaning, to explain an unusual word, to identify a person or place, or to give the reader a clearer understanding of the passage. The Amplified Bible, Wuest’s An Expanded Translation and An Understandable Version qualify for this category.

13. TO IMPROVE GRAMMAR

Because differences occur between the Greek language and the English language, certain words in one language, when translated, may not convey a precise meaning. For instance, English lacks a plural form for the word “you” but the Greek has words for both singular (“you”) and plural (“you all”). The tenses of Greek verbs also convey either a “once for all time” sense or a “continued action” sense. There are other, more subtle, differences that are not always considered important by some translators. Translations that expressly state that at least one objective was to improve grammatical constructions of words in the interest of accuracy are Charles B. Williams’ The NT in the Language of the People and Ruth Martin’s The Pioneers’ NT.

14. TO SHOCK THE READER

Admittedly, this motive is a judgment call by the writer. But, the purpose for The Queen Jane Version can hardly be anything else. It portrays pornographic photos and dialog in such a way as to cater to the prurient interests of the reader. Its rank disregard for propriety suggests that its intent is to derogate the Scriptures. Thankfully, the number of such translations is mercifully few. Undoubtedly, there are other reasons why people produce what appears to be a never-ending array of Bible translations. It is regrettable that a few translations make such grandiose claims that they alone are “better” or “truer” to the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. But, no doubt, in the eyes of the translator that is probably the case. Usually, however, the passing of time and the testing by countless scholars and readers determine which ones will survive and best succeed in conveying the eternal truth of God’s holy Word to those hungering for the true meaning of the Scriptures.

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