Tuesday, July 26, 2005

On English Bible Translations

The English Bible that we have in our hands are actually translations of the original languages. My first Bible ever was an English translation, the Good News Bible. Historically, the first English translation (New Testament) was the Tyndale Bible named after William Tyndale who were eventually accused of heresy and treason in an unfair trial, and executed. The Old Testament (OT) were written in Hebrew and Aramaic while the New Testament (NT) were written in Greek. Translators will thus have to have a strong knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek in order to do the work of translation. The English Bible is thus not an original language Bible. Having said that, the quality and quantity of translations we have nowadays have helped English-language readers capture a greater understanding of the Bible. For the serious student without knowledge of Hebrew or Greek, and who wanted to do a good exegesis, Professor Gordon Fee of Regent College recommended 7 different good translations. Several members of the faculty at Regent College have also been involved with translations, namely JI Packer (ESV), Bruce Waltke / Gordon Fee (tNIV), Phil Long (NLT), Eugene Peterson (MSG).

My First Encounter
When I became a Christian many years ago, a good friend of mine gave me a Good News Bible (GNB) and that was my very first Bible I used. It was easy reading but soon I wanted something more solid. I adopted the King James Version (KJV) and fell in love immediately with its beauty and prose. The translation seemed so majestic and royal. Maybe that was why there is a 'King' in KJV.

At my first Bible School, I came to recognize that the New American Standard Bible (NASB) was a more literal translation in terms of its close adherence to the original languages. My Church then used the New International Version (NIV). So my main translations were the NIV, KJV followed by the NASB in terms of its frequency of usage. Most of my memory verses were done in KJV. Those days, I packed in Philippians, several Psalms, the Sermon on the Mount as well as parts of 1 Peter into my memory. My little KJV was all worn out. Today I can still recall parts of these chunks of memory verses, though not as good as my earlier years due to lack of review.

Now my scholarly professors at Regent College recommended me to use the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). Another reason to use it for study is because the NRSV includes the Apocrypha. Though the Apocyrpha is not considered canonical, it still provides some good reading. Another version I particularly like is the New Living Translation (NLT) because of its freshness and accuracy of its translations. Some of the versions are summarised in the diagram below:

There are 3 main categories of Bible translations, namely Literal, Paraphrase and Dynamic Equivalence.

#1 - Literal
In short, this form of translation is 'Word for Word'. Useful for those who wanted to be as faithful to the literal wording of the original languages.

Strengths = Good for word for word comparison and study.
Weaknesses = Some aspects of culture and meanings might be lost.

Well known versions in this category is the NASB and the KJV. [King James (KJV, NKJV), Revised Standard (RSV, NRSV)New American Standard (NAS)]

#2 - Paraphrase
Here, there is a greater level of translation based on the interpretor's understanding and theological persuasion.
Strengths = Easy to understand in terms of language and context

Weaknesses = Not exactly allowing the reader to interpret for himself as the translation is already in a large way already interpreted for the reader
Popular versions include the MESSAGE and the Living Bible. It is useful for general reading and for discussion purposes. [Phillips Translation, The Message, Open Bible, Living Bible, New Living Translation, Amplified Version]

#3 - Dynamic Equivalence
This approach attempts to strike a balance between the literal and the paraphrase. In essence, it tries to be as close as possible to the original languages, while interpreting the ancient contexts and cultures and modernise it for the current reader.

Strengths = Tries to remain faithful in terms of language and accuracy
Weaknesses = Such approaches is still prone to problems of subjectivity as well

Having said that, the Bible versions have been improved to a large extent. [NIV, NAB, NEB]

So here are my recommendations for good Bible study. Have at least 3 Bibles, one from each category. For me, if I were to buy 3 Bibles from scratch, I will choose the NASB, the tNIV and the NLT. The tNIV is a level better than the NIV and is the updated version of the very popular NIV. It has better scholarship and more gender inclusive. Of course for scholarly perspective I will choose the NRSV. Other good versions are the MESSAGE good for devotions, and of course the good old 1611 KJV. If you have money to buy only 1 Bible, choose the tNIV (Today's New International Version).

Of course there are other factors to consider like the theological background of the translators, the Greek and Hebrew texts used in the translations, textual criticism, interpretative framework, suffice to say that we in the 21st Century has been richly blessed with the amount of Bible Study tools available in a language many of us are comfortable with. So go ahead, open your Bibles and read them!


Some Sites on Bible Translations (these sites are for informative purposes only and does not imply my full agreement with everything there.)

  1. http://www.bible-researcher.com/versions.html

  2. http://www.greatsite.com/timeline-english-bible-history/

  3. http://www.tyndale.cam.ac.uk/Scriptures/

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