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Why All the Translations?

By Denny Burk

When one wanders into the Christian bookstore to buy a Bible, the sheer number of versions available can be quite overwhelming, and yet many Christians have no criteria by which to evaluate which translation is the best. This essay proposes to set forth some of the historical reasons for new translations and to explain some of the different translation philosophies that drive the production of so many different versions in our own day. Thus, we must address the question posed in the title of this article from both a historical and a philosophical perspective. Historically speaking, we are compelled to consider why there has been such a proliferation of English translations of the scripture. The question emerges why each generation undertakes the task of translation. Also, we need to have an idea about the different philosophies of translation. We need to understand what it is that causes the various English versions to differ from one other in significant ways (especially the modern ones).

Historical Reasons for New Translations

As each generation of Christians has the responsibility to preach the gospel, so also do they have the responsibility to make the written word of God available to all. This is the task of Bible translation. Every generation witnesses changes in the textual basis for translation, in the translation language, and in other areas that require either revisions of old translations or the production of new ones. The one thing that has remained constant over the years is that the exigencies of history require new translations into English.

John Wycliffe, a powerful preacher and lecturer at Oxford University, sought to reform what he saw as the corrupt Roman papacy and church hierarchy in his day. Part of his protest movement consisted in providing a translation of the Bible for English Christians into their own language. He wanted the average layman to have access to the word of God. Up until that time, no one had ever produced an English translation of the entire Bible. Wycliffe wanted to see a revival take place in England and is reported to have said that "it helpeth Christian men to study the Gospel in that tongue in which they know best Christ's sentence."i  So in 1382, Wycliffe completed the first edition of his handwritten English translation of the whole Bible.

While John Wycliffe's English translation of the scripture was an important and momentous achievement in his generation, it was not the best translation that was possible. Wycliffe's translation was based not on Greek and Hebrew manuscripts (the original languages of the Bible), but on Jerome's Latin translation (The Vulgate, circa 403). Later translations would correct this shortcoming. Moreover, Wycliffe's translation was in Middle English, a form of English that would be too archaic for subsequent readers.

William Tyndale, lecturer at Cambridge University, undertook his translation of the New Testament and based his work on a Greek text of the New Testament. Tyndale's was the first printed translation of the New Testament in English (1526). Tyndale completed translating portions of the Old Testament from the Hebrew text also, but he died before finishing it.  Tyndale's move back to the original languages of the New and Old Testaments was a needed improvement over the work of Wycliffe. Another improvement consists in the fact that the English of Tyndale's translation belongs to the Modern English period.iii  It would not be until the work of Miles Coverdale that a complete Bible, Old and New Testaments, would emerge (1535).

There were many other translations of the Bible into English after Coverdale, but the watershed English translation is without a doubt the King James Version (1611). Whereas many of the English translations from Wycliffe forward were produced by translators working alone, the King James Version is the result of the work of about fifty translators working in committees. Translating from the original languages, some of the best and brightest biblical scholars of that day contributed to the work. King James I (1566-1625) of England commissioned these men in an effort to provide a translation that would be acceptable to both Anglicans and those following the Puritan or Reformed traditions.iv  The result of their efforts produced one of the greatest religious and literary masterpieces of the English language. Until the Revised Standard Version and the proliferation of other versions in the second half of the twentieth century, the King James Bible was without rival among English readers.

A growing understanding of the languages and cultures of the Bible, as well as a discovery of thousands of ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts comprise at least part of the reason that new English versions have appeared over the centuries. Also, the changes in the English language require updates of older versions that use more archaic forms of English.

Philosophical Reasons for New Translations

One of the reasons that we find so many translations being produced today is because of a variety of philosophies that govern translation. Translation involves much more than a mere substitution of words from one language to another. Any translation is at bottom an interpretation of the Bible's meaning into another language, and translators have differed with one another on the best way to render the ancient texts into English. There are basically three translation philosophies current today: the formal equivalence approach, the dynamic equivalence approach, and the paraphrase.

The formal equivalence approach is the most literal method of translation. Translations that utilize formal equivalence are essentially word-for-word translations. They attempt to reproduce the various forms of the original language with the appropriate English forms. For instance, if there is a participle in a given Greek text, a formal equivalence translation will often try to translate the participle with an English participle. The King James Version (1611), the New American Standard Bible (1971; update 1995), the Revised Standard Version (1952), and the English Standard Version (2001) all reflect this approach to translation.

The dynamic equivalence approach does not attempt a word-for-word rendering of the original, but rather a thought-for-thought rendering. For example, if a translator comes across a participle in a given Greek text, he will not necessarily attempt to render it with a corresponding English participle. Oftentimes an English form is chosen that may not include a participle at all, as long as it faithfully captures the thought of the original. Translators who utilize this approach recognize that a word-for-word translation does not always adequately capture the meaning of the original text, and a dynamic equivalent rendering is necessary. Two popular translations that fall into this category are the New International Version (1978) and the New Revised Standard Version (1990).

A paraphrased version is not technically a translation because it is not seeking to translate from the ancient texts. A paraphrase is a "Free rendering or amplification of a passage, expression of its sense in other words."v  Versions in this category include the Kenneth Taylor's Living Bible (1971) and Eugene Peterson's The Message (NT 1993; OT Wisdom Books 1997; OT Prophets 2000).

These different translation philosophies account for no small part of the various translations that have appeared over the last century. The NIV Bible, for example, is the direct result of a translation philosophy that gained popularity in the 1970's-dynamic equivalence. But a debate still rages among scholars of the Bible as to which approach is the best. Eugene Nida has been very influential in promoting a dynamic equivalence approach, while Leland Ryken and others have been advocating for an essentially literal approach.vi

Sources:

Bruce M. Metzger, The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001).
Leland Ryken, The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002).

Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999). 

i Wegner, 281-82.

ii Metzger, 59.

iii Wegner, 289.

iv Ibid., 307.

v From the concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, quoted in Metzger, 175.

vi Ryken, 13-18.