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
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
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
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
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
vi Ryken, 13-18.