Yet another Bible translation?

I have read about another new Bible translation into English. This is the Freeware Bible project, and you can read about it online at www.freewarebible.com. The translator is Bill Jemas, who apparently is well-known in comic book circles. Jemas apparently felt the need to completely rethink how the original scripture texts were translated into English, so he undertook studying Hebrew in order to be able to make a new translation that breaks with tradition as much as possible. He hasn’t gotten far yet, but has released Genesis chapter 1 in a book entitled Genesis Rejunenated: Read the Word, Word for Word, where he explains what he is trying to accomplish. Genesis 1:1 reads, “In principles, the powers-that-be conceive the heavens and the earth.” A purpose in this translation is to show readers that the standard translations that they are familiar with are unreliable. However, according to a Religion New Service report, Jemas’ translation of that one chapter “has won the general approval of some religion professors who view it as a worthwhile endeavor.” A religion professor at Bard College is quoted as saying that Jemas’ translation shows how Genesis is “filled with possibilities of meaning, and not just limited to a single meaning.”

I’m not writing about the Freeware Bible translation project just to sneer at it, but to simply report on it. But what I have really been wanting to write about is the proliferation of translations of the scriptures into English. I have seen it mentioned in the comments on the Better Bibles Blog — maybe more than once — that “the more translations, the better.” And I can see the logic of that, if you know how to make proper sense of all these variant renderings of the scripture texts in English. But I think there can be harm in this as well, in that it can fragment us and lead to arguments. Well, I guess you can have arguments about how the Bible should be translated even if you don’t have hundreds of published translations. But still it seems that having literally hundreds of translations, and a small core of those competing for dominance in the English Bible market, leads to the impression that the Bible is not really translatable, or else it leads to the notion that “our group has it right and everybody else has it wrong.”

In my translation work, which is geared more toward languages that don’t yet have the scriptures, I do reference a variety of English translations, from traditional (KJV) to literal (RSV) to various flavors of free translation (CEV, NLT, Message), with the NIV right in the middle. I use these variant English renderings for reference alongside the Greek text and commentaries and other translation aids. I do see a value in having different translations for different purposes or audiences. Still, it seem things have gotten out of hand.

I raised the question the other day how many English translations of the Bible there were, and a colleague was quick to say that he had heard a figure of about 150. I’m sure that whatever figure he had was low, because just within the previous day or two of asking that question, I had heard of two more Bible translations being released. Does anybody have the latest figures?

I can see two good reasons for adding another translation to the English. First the language has changed, and the language of today is not the language of 400 years ago. Secondly, there are different sub-audiences, and the general category of “English” is really too broad for a target language for translation. Another very good reason for making a modern translation to take the place of the KJV, besides the language changing, is that we have a much better idea now what the source text should be. I do think it is legitimate to have different translations for different audiences, such as one for people who are highly biblically literate, and another where you don’t presume the audience is already familiar with biblical concepts. You may or may not want yet another translation that is good for liturgical use, or is geared toward aural use or is geared toward speakers of English as a second language.

No translation is “perfect,” and all should be subject to revision to improve them. I would have preferred if the TNIV could have been seen as an improved version of the NIV rather than as an alternative translation to stand alongside the NIV. I realize there are political reasons why that might not have been possible. I would have preferred if the NRSV could be seen similarly as a revision of the RSV rather than an alternative translation, and maybe that is the case and I just don’t realize it. The name change is part of the problem, and the fact that both versions are still available. In saying this, I have to admit that I regularly consult the NIV and the RSV in my work, and not the TNIV and the NRSV, but it is just because I haven’t done what it would take to make the switch in my Bible software, and I think I know how to make proper use of these translations.

It seems that often a motivation for a new translation is an attitude of something like, “They didn’t get it right, and we are going to show you how it should be done.” Maybe that attitude is even justified sometimes. It just seems to me that things have gotten out of hand, and we should recognize there is a down side to this.

Keep in mind that the purpose of the Better Bible Blog is to discuss ways that the Bible should be translated into English, and to suggest improvements on existing translations, and its purpose is not to promote greater fragmentation of the English Bible translation market, nor to advocate one translation over another.

18 thoughts on “Yet another Bible translation?

  1. J A Carter says:

    So help me, the first thing I thought of when you quoted the Freeware Bible was Ferrar Fenton’s translation: “By periods God created that which produced the Solar System; then that which produced the Earth…”

    Personally, I do not have a problem with a multitude of Bible translations. As you mention, different translations can fill different purposes. It is more the constituencies that form around them (mainline prefering the NRSV, evengelical gravitating to the NIV, etc.) that bothers me.

  2. Thomas says:

    I think what motivates a lot of these new translations is (1) the need for the translators to put their hard work of learning Greek/Hebrew to use and (2) the fact that Americans buy 25,000,000 Bibles every year. If church leaders got together and called for a moratorium on new Bible translations I would be all for it. Perhaps one new translation per decade would serve to assuage those who think this is conspiratorial or subversive of free speech in translation. Those scholars could put their talents to work translating Philo, Josephus, etc. Why do we still have to read the old English of Yonge and Whiston in this day in age?

  3. Dru says:

    I know that for a site devoted to the production of a better bible, this sounds like sacrilege. Nevertheless, here goes.

    I’ve already said a few months ago that I think there are too many translations. I referred to one that was reported to be in preparation as the NAV, or Not Another Version. That was one that sounded OK but as though it was going to be hard to differentiate from several others that already exist. If there are still many languages that do not have a decent Bible at all, it seems wrong that scholars apply their efforts to yet another English version in stead of putting their effort into the languages that have not got them.

    As for the FV (Freeware Version) or the GRV (Genesis Rejuvenated Version), as far as I’m concerned it starts by failing the basic Wayne test. V1
    “In principles the powers that be conceive the universe.”
    That is neither normal English nor comprehensible to people whose normal language is English.

    I regret also, that as far as I am concerned, a random selection of virtually any other verse one chooses fails for the same reason.

    “As one, all gods made
    life on earth for perpetuity
    every kind that lumbers
    or scampers the ground for
    perpetuity.”

    I appreciate that this is meant to sound poetic and different, but it unfortunately doesn’t sound like English poetry.

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    Dru, I agree with you that we have enough (actually, more than enough) English Bible versions. Until the English language changes enough to warrant another version, I personally don’t think we need any other new ones.

    Could some new English translations improve upon the versions we already have. Sure! But will they? I don’t know. It’s going to take some proactive training for English Bible translators before we get beyond the law of diminishing returns for the numbers of versions being produced.

    English versions cost a *lot* of money to produce. It often costs much less to produce a Bible translation for people in other countries who do not yet have a single version of the Bible. English Bibles are not perfect (but never will be, either), so why don’t we shift some of our resources and exegetical personnel to those around the world who have no Bibles in their languages.

    I am grateful for the English versions that have been produced. If, as someone in this comment thread, I think, suggested, one reason for making new versions is so that exegetes can have employment, I would rather that exegetes spend their mental energies on improving the Bible versions we already have. But then I am biased, I am sure, as someone who is part of the worldwide Bible translation movement. I check Bible translations in other languages as my vocation. I check English Bibles as an avocation because I believe that people deserve to have translations in their language (including English) which are not only accurate, but also reflect the way people actually speak and write those languages. Much spiritual (and other) benefit comes from having Bibles worded in the language that is closed to our hearts, which is the way we actually speak and write. There is no need for dumbing down or losing literary features in the process. In fact, I would like to see greater attention paid to literary beauty as part of the revision process of Bible versions which have already been published. There are poets who can help us make English translations of biblical poetry better reflect poetic features. There are English scholars who can help us raise the quality of English in all English Bible versions. There are communication scholars today who understand the dynamics of oral communication and can help us revise translations so that sound better in the oral media in which Bibles increasingly appear (iPods, etc.).

    And there is at least one major publishing house which has produced a major Bible translation which quietly donates a percentage of the sales of its Bibles to help fund translation for Bibleless project around the world. That, to me, puts Bible translation in a better balance tha what we have had so far, with such a high percentage of Bible translation monies going to fund English Bibles for people who may already have several Bible versions, and sharing with the effort to bring the Bible to those who have no Bible in their language.

    Thanks for your comments.

  5. Peter Kirk says:

    I really don’t think we should be discussing the Freeware Bible on the Better Bibles Blog, because I can’t see any way in which it can be considered “better”. See this post, and my comment on it which starts:

    This guy hasn’t got a clue about Hebrew, translation or theology. …

    Jemas claims to have studied Hebrew, but in fact all he seems to have studied is a dubious transliteration of an unpointed text, which he then subjects to an entirely spurious kind of analysis.

    David, I have already asked two of your colleagues not to promote this version on their blogs, and having read what I wrote they agreed with me.

    Meanwhile Wayne wrote:

    I would rather that exegetes spend their mental energies on improving the Bible versions we already have.

    But that is only possible if the people who control the Bible versions we already have are willing to accept that these versions need to be improved, and to actually make changes. What we have seen in practice is that even when they have done so, when the changes have been more than trivial they have been published as a new version, e.g. NRSV and ESV based on RSV, TNIV based on NIV. Indeed there are good reasons for doing so, as it can be very confusing to readers to make significant revisions without changing the name, as happened with NLT. So we need to accept that ESV is not going to be revised into something like TNIV, nor vice versa – nor even that either will be revised into something half way between them. Does that mean we shouldn’t point out the deficiencies in these translations and how they could be improved? I’m not sure.

  6. David Ker says:

    Hi, it’s the other David. 😉 I’m in agreement with Peter on the translation but at the same time there is an interesting thread started regarding the need for new English translations so keep talking, folks!

  7. Kevin Walker says:

    I grew up using the NIV, and really just the NIV. I was really only aware of that and the KJV at the time. When I went to college, I started enjoying reading the NLT, while still using the NIV as my main translation. From there, it exploded, and I started reading from all kinds of translations – NASB, NKJV, ESV, NCV, and so on. For me, having the different translations has at times been both a burden and a gift. A gift when I can look through and see alternate translations of a verse or book, and come to a better understanding. A burden when I can’t decide which one I want to read, and end up not reading anything at all. It’s been said so often, but it’s true – the best translation is the one you will read. Plain and simple.
    Right now, I’m reading through the RSV for the first time. Still using the NIV in my preaching/teaching.

  8. David Frank says:

    In writing my post I didn’t intend to open up a discussion on Bill Jemas’ Freeware Bible project, but I may have inadvertently done so. I don’t think his project is worth investing a lot of discussion time on. As Dru observed, it “is neither normal English nor comprehensible to people whose normal language is English.” Or another way of putting it is that it sounds like a translation made by someone who doesn’t know either the source language or the target language well, and who is basing his translation on a bilingual dictionary that he is not skilled to use. But let’s move on.

    I agree with JA Carter that it is not the existence of a proliferation of translations into English so much that is a problem, but the constituencies that form around them. But it is difficult or impossible to disentangle them. In the past couple of years I have become convinced that the sociopolitical side of translation is way-underemphasized in Bible translation circles, and I have written one article on that topic that is in press. In Bible translation studies, usually the linguistic and psychological factors are emphasized, but that is only part of what is going on.

    I am 100% behind what Thomas says. Thomas, I understand you to be saying that one reason for so many translations is that there are a number of biblical languages specialists and Bible scholars and theologians who think they can do better than what everybody else has done before, and they are itching to put their expertise to good use. It is not just a matter of finding employment, because these same people may already be gainfully employed. Still, there are issues of a huge market share there for the dividing, and profitability, and even without a profit motive there is the desire to make one’s own distinctive brand win out over others’. This sounds cynical, doesn’t it?

    I do have an interest in how the Bible is expressed in appropriate English, as well as a concern for seeing it translated into languages where there is not yet a translation, but I don’t have an interest in seeing the English Bible translation market fragmented even further, nor to see fighting among the different contenders for dominance. But the detached scientist in me says that this is a normal process. In fact, if one is detached and scientific enough, there is no right and wrong or good and bad, and I am not satisfied with that thought.

  9. codepoke says:

    Oooo! Oooo! Oooo!

    David (#1), your post here makes me want a “Possibilities Version” of the bible. The PV would have every weird, imaginitive, out-there way of looking at a verse, and could only live as software. Imagine the shared thinking that could happen! The WikiBilities Version.

    OK. How does this sound?

    + The bible/site is aggressively moderated.
    + Only registered users can author or comment. Every registered user has an algorithm-derived reputation, and casual users can filter for only versions written by people with X reputation.
    + An author can choose his source text for a given verse. A couple defaults are available, or he can type in his own source text with adequate references.
    + The author then presents his English translation.
    — Why stop at English?
    + The author can provide a defense for it if he’d like.
    + From that point, the translation becomes like a blog post, allowing comments (registered visitors only) and linking.
    + The author can subscribe/unsub to comment emails for each verse
    + Registered users can vote a given translation “up” or “down”
    — Perhaps make scores for “literary”, “equivalence”, and “readability”
    + A visitor can look at Genesis 1:1
    — By highest vote-count
    —- By highest literary, equivalence, or readability score
    — By any given author
    — By all authors above a given reputation in a dynamic parallel version format
    — By source text used
    — By text match
    — By “outliers” – Match all the versions that contain the most unusual words or word orders
    — By target language
    + A visitor can search for a given string
    — In translated texts
    — In translation defense statements
    — In comments on verses
    — In any combination of the above

    I think Jemas’ reputation would plummet quickly from his initial starting point of zero, but I’d love for outliers like him to be able to stretch my thinking.

    (I should never type while excited. It always gets me in trouble.)

  10. Wayne Leman says:

    TC wrote:

    I see the TNIV as an improvement of the NIV. Zondervan wasn’t ready and isn’t ready to part ways with the NIV – hence the lagging TNIV.

    Plus Christian bookstores boycotting of the TNIV has had a significant impact. The crusade against the TNIV put enough doubts in the minds of many people, including bookstore owners, that people who wanted to be sure that had proper translations stayed away from the TNIV. It has been difficult work for conservative biblical scholars to slowly make headway through professional conference papers and other forums to correct many of the misimpressions people have had about the TNIV. The fact is that it is a more conservative (esp. in terms of translation philosophy) of a translation, including with gender language, than some other English versions which Christian bookstores seem to happily stock.

    I don’t know how better information about Bible versions can be more widely distributed, including to bookstore chains. I do know that once doubt about a version has been established in the minds of people, it becomes more difficult for people to objectively study that version to see if its purported problems are genuine problems, or, rather matters of a different point of view with regard to translation philosophy or interpretation of specific Bible passages.

    I know that endorsements from well-known Bible preachers make a lot of difference for how confident the conservative Christian public is about buying some Bible version.

  11. Wayne Leman says:

    TC wrote:

    I also find it interesting that some who bash the TNIV are behind the NLT.

    Who are the people you are thinking of, TC? I think I know Mark Taylor, president of Tyndale House Publishers, who produced the NLT, well enough to be confident that he would not approve of bashing of any other English translation.

  12. tc robinson says:

    Wayne, I’m not talking about any of the translators or anyone from Tyndale.

    I’m talking about folks who would use the NLT in their writings but not the TNIV. I hope that’s clearer. 🙂

  13. Wayne Leman says:

    TC responded:

    Wayne, I’m not talking about any of the translators or anyone from Tyndale.

    I’m talking about folks who would use the NLT in their writings but not the TNIV. I hope that’s clearer. 🙂

    Yes, much clearer. Thanks, TC.

  14. Nathan says:

    I’m a long time comic fan and a relatively new Bible fan…to see the two collide with a Bill Jemas translated Bible is kind of surprising.

    For non-comic book fans, Bill Jemas was a major force in “rewriting” Spider-Man’s origin story for a new generation of readers (do a Wiki search for “Ultimate Spider-Man” if you want more). I guess re-imagining the most famous work of Stan Lee wasn’t enough, he wanted a hand in “improving” on God’s best work too.

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