Bible Translations: It Doesn’t Matter What You “Like”

Guess what: Yet another new Bible translation is being rolled out this summer. The big announcement came a week or so ago at the International Christian Retail Show in Atlanta. Actual copies will be on sale by Labor Day.

Have you noticed that Bible translations even have their own Facebook pages now? The NIV, the NLT, the ESV, the NASB and others are busily telling their stories and collecting tens of thousands of “likes” from their fans. They’re all getting whupped, however, by the venerable King James Version, which has nearly 1.8 million.

This is an understandable part of the big, competitive marketplace that sells 25 million copies a year in the United States alone. The battle for customers is hot. (I speak from experience, as a former vice-president and publisher at Biblica-International Bible Society, which holds the NIV copyright.) To get individual Christians to form an enduring allegiance to a particular English translation is, as the saying goes, money in the bank.

Stop by any Bible study group and you’re likely to hear sentences that begin with “Well, I like to read the _________. It’s so understandable” (or alive, or accurate, or cool, or …). No wonder the YouVersion app offers 39 different English options; BibleGateway.com has 46. Take your choice, consumers. You’re in the driver’s seat.

But I’m wondering … should this be only a matter of personal taste? What about the product itself? Did God give us his holy, inspired Word just so we could slice and dice it into market shares?

Actually, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if we could read ancient Hebrew and Greek (plus a little Aramaic). Then we could stick to the original texts. I’ve always thought it was a shame that God didn’t choose to deliver his message in English. It would have made our lives so much simpler here in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and similar nations. We wouldn’t need to debate what it says (except for a few minor textual variations).

Unfortunately, we have to get by with translations of what God actually gave us.

And translation is a tricky business. There’s lots of room for head-scratching about whether our wordings are precise enough. I’ve talked to enough Bible translators to know that theirs is not a simple task. We owe them all a debt of gratitude for even trying.

But in the end, it’s still God’s Book. He created it. It is not a lump of Silly Putty to be mashed and mushed to our preferences. We’re stuck with the way he delivered it. Seems a bit presumptuous for us to tidy it up so more people will “like” it.

Here’s a scenario that I imagine sometimes: I’m in Starbucks with one of my longtime writer-friends, an award-winning wordsmith. We’re talking about a book of mine that was published last year. I’m proud of what I’ve created. He says, “Well, Dean, I read your book, and it’s good. Some real strong concepts there. Of course, some of the passages could be a little clearer. I could help you out if you want—just touch up some of the muddy places … give it a little more polish … smooth out the syntax….”

Do you know what? He would be telling the truth! No doubt his wise attention could produce a more scintillating book than what I’ve done on my own.

But that begs the question of whose book this is. If the Holy Spirit opted (for whatever reasons) to breathe divine truth through unschooled writers such as the fisherman Peter and the fig-gatherer Amos, who are we to offer to “help” him out? If he chose to let certain ambiguities stand, is it really our right to clarify? He is the One to drive both the content and the styling. Our job is to humbly listen.

Meanwhile … Wycliffe Bible Translators reminds us that there are more than 1,900 languages around the globe that have no Bible at all. Not a single line of Genesis or John has even been started. Christians in those areas are, for the time being, stuck with having to read God’s Word in secondary trade languages, not the dialect of their heart.

Millions of other believers are somehow making do with clumsy translations done up to 100 years ago by British or American missionaries who had just begun to learn their language. It reads like a bumpy ride on a frontier buckboard. They wait in vain for a text that will do justice to the Holy Scriptures.

I think sometimes about another scenario: It’s the Judgment Seat of Christ, where “each of us [will] receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). The angels are standing at perfect attention left and right. The Lord of All Things taps his gavel and says, “Now I’d like for all the English speakers to come up here to the bar. As you know, I blessed you on earth with abundant time, health, energy, and financial resources. Now I have a question for you. Can you explain why you chose to invest such huge amounts of what I gave you into launching more and more redundant translations of My Word, then fussing about which one was superior … while millions of others waited with empty hands? What was the point of all that?”

What will we say? How will we defend ourselves?

Maybe it’s time to regain the perspective of the apostle James, who called us to be doers of the (translated) Word, and not consumers only. What we “like” is not exactly the main point, is it?

 

2 Responses

  1. Great article Dean! Thanks

  2. Excellent point Dean. I’m recommending this to a retired Wycliffe friend .

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