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 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.

Obligatory possession and Bible translation

Each translation has its particular approach, and should have an audience in mind. The translators have to ask, “Who is going to read this translation, and how can we render the source text in a way that is suitable for them?” We are blessed in English to have a number of different translations of the Scriptures, and where there are differences among those translations, the differences can be attributable to different approaches, and perhaps different audiences in mind. A big part of this is the translators’ conception of what translation really is, and that leads to different choices in how to approach translation. We can criticize particular “faults” of different translations, but generally translations are the way they are because of the translators’ different conceptions of what is most important to focus on and preserve in translation. In analyzing the differences in translations, rather than focus on perceived flaws, I prefer to deal on the philosophical level, where the real differences lie. I’m fascinated by the question, “What is translation, really?” There certainly isn’t universal agreement on the answer to that question. Once you identify a philosophy of translation, that goes a long way towards explaining why a particular translation is the way it is. I have to add, though, that even if a body of translators shared a common philosophy of translation, they could still produce different translations if they have different subgroups in mind as their audience, and different purposes in mind for the translation, e.g. meditation, study, liturgical use.

In order to talk about what translation is, I want to start by talking about the nature of meaning. Everybody should agree that meaning is a central concern in translation. You want to produce a translation that has the same meaning as the original text from another language. I hope I’m not overstating the situation when I suggest that meaning is universally understood as the bottom line in translation. This is sometimes explained in terms of equivalence. You want a translation that is in some important way — in fact, in every way possible — equivalent to the source text. You want a translation that enables the reader to plumb the depth of meaning in the source text in all its richness.

So here I’m just going to meditate some on the meaning of meaning, and later I can go on to make more explicit the implications for how we translate. In order to consider this very deep subject, I’m going to start with the topic of obligatory possession in Bible translation, and use that as a basis for thinking about the nature of meaning.

Obligatory possession. This is a topic that Bible translators need to understand before working on a translation into a language that doesn’t yet have the Bible. I’m not talking about English here, but the concept is interesting and worth considering. The fact is that sometimes, when one is translating, one needs to actually make the translation more specific, in certain ways, than the source text. It’s not that it is desirable to do that, but rather that it simply isn’t avoidable sometimes. That fact is true even with respect to translation into English in certain cases. But it is most obvious when one is translating into another language that forces choices that the translator may not be prepared for. You may have heard of languages that don’t have a single word for ‘brother,’ for example, but rather words meaning specifically ‘younger brother’ or ‘older brother.’ The translator has to figure out which word is the best choice in each context, and the choice can’t be avoided. More relevant for today’s topic, there are languages that have obligatory possession for certain categories of noun, particularly body parts and kinship terms.

In The Bible Translator 1.4.166-69 (1950), William Thompson describes the Guajiro language in which one can’t talk in detached ways about eyes, arms, legs, fathers, sons, etc. Obviously, each of these things has a possessor, semantically-speaking, and in Guajiro, one can’t talk about these concepts as if they weren’t possessed — though one can in English and in Greek. In languages like this, you can’t just talk about “the heart,” “an eye,” “a father,” “sons,” and so forth, but instead you have to specify “a person’s heart” or “your eye” or “the boy’s father” or “our sons.” It only makes sense, when you think about it, because each of these things naturally has a possessor. Some languages just don’t allow for discussing naturally-possessed things in abstract ways. So the translator has to do some thinking to translate, for example, Matthew 6:22a, “The eye is the lamp of the body.” Fortunately, vv. 22b and 23 do get more specific: “So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness” (RSV). Matthew 7:3 wouldn’t be a problem: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (NIV). But what about Luke 10:23, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see,” or I Cor. 12:14-26, with language like “The eye cannot say to the hand“? Or when it comes to kinship terms, how do you translate Gal. 4:2-6, with language like “…until the date set by the father” (RSV; NIV specifies “his father” for Greek τοῦ πατρός) and “because you are sons” ?

When you think about it, all body parts and all kinship terms are possessed. In English and Greek, we can talk about eyes and hands and bodies in abstract ways, but each of these things is possessed, implicitly if not explicitly. Even if you see a detached hand, you know it came from a body. You can’t have a daughter without having a parent. The point I wanted to get to is that, even though we may talk about meaning in abstract terms, it, too, is something obligatorily possessed. That’s true semantically speaking — just not grammatically speaking. We can talk about “the meaning (of a text),” but that meaning must be in relation to a person. A text means something to a person. Meanings cannot be disembodied. They must go along with a mind, or they don’t exist at all. (I’m going to address the theological side of this shortly.)

It is common to think and talk about words and texts as though they have meaning, and in a sense, this is right. But in a deeper sense, the meanings aren’t really in the language itself, but in the minds of the people who are using that language as a medium of communication. Language is a systematic, socially-agreed-upon way of expressing meaning among individuals. We use language because we want to influence each other, whether it be in the way of informing, comforting, exhorting, bonding, warning, and so forth. Much of language has to do with informing, namely, I have something in my head that I want you to get into yours, so we use the medium of language to do that. Words and grammatical constructions have meanings because we attribute meanings to them.

My position is that all meanings are localized. None are disembodied. I’m not saying that there is no such thing as absolute truth. I’m talking about meaning, not truth. But I equate absolute truth with God’s truth, and we as people should want to get our truth in line with God’s truth. That isn’t always easy, because we are limited in our understanding. Similarly, the closest thing to objective meaning is God’s meaning. It is not impersonal; it is God’s. Let’s not quibble about the fact that God doesn’t have a body. He has a mind, and thoughts. He is infinite, while we are limited in our understanding and perspective. The Scriptures are God’s message, God’s communication to us, and as I have argued before, their meaning is even above and beyond the individual humans who wrote them. Yet God uses human vessels and a human means of communication to express His knowledge and love and will to us.

There are implications of this for translation, but I’ll write more about that soon. This is all part of an overall philosophy of language and meaning and communication and translation that can guide us in how we seek to spread God’s message through translation. Once you have a sound philosophy of translation, choices in how you translate flow out of that.

What is a translation, and how might it be bad?

A translation is a text with qualities of equivalence to a prior text in another language, such that the new text is taken as a substitute for the original. You may not realize it, but “equivalence” is a problematic concept in translation theory. I include it anyway in my definition of translation, because without some notion — some intention and perception — of equivalence, you wouldn’t call the new text a translation. My solution is to make it subjective. For something to be considered a translation, the translator and the audience for the translation have to recognize that the newly constructed text is somehow equivalent to the original text.

I’m not going to try to explain translation in objective, scientific terms, because all attempts I have seen to do so have been problematic and unsatisfying. Despite the problems, translation has been taking place as long as there has been a diversity of languages, and the fact of translation is not dependent on scientific explanation. As philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser said, “To explain why a man slipped on a banana peel, we do not need a general theory of slipping.”

You might call this explanation of translation anthropological or sociological, rather than linguistic or psychological. All definitions that I have seen that attempt to be psychological or linguistic have either recognized their own inadequacy, or else have just looked wrong to me. If this definition doesn’t jive with common sense, then as far as I am concerned it is wrong. It is based on people, and the central character is the translator, who has to be able to understand two languages. Of course the intended audience for the translation is crucial too. For the translation to accomplish its purpose, the audience has to accept it as a substitute for the original text.

Okay, now, given this definition of translation, what counts as a legitimate translation and what does not? For a translation to be good, it has to accomplish its purpose(s). Basically, that means that the translation has to be somehow equivalent, in the mind of the translator, to the source text, and the audience of the translation has to accept it as a substitute for the original. One could add the theological element in the case of Bible translation, namely that God is also one of the active participants in the process, and He gives His blessing on the resulting translation as a new expression of His message. But that part of the equation is least susceptible to analysis, except that you could say that the success of the translation and the happy reception of the translation among the target audience is a sign of God’s blessing on the translation as an expression of His own message.

What does it mean to say that a translation is bad? Notions of “good” and “bad” are a little naive in relation to translation, and I would rather talk in terms of a translation as being successful or unsuccessful, or to use terms that I like but are maybe a little more pretentious, felicitous or infelicitous. There are three ways a translation can get off track. First, the translator could misunderstand the source text. Secondly, the translator could produce a translation text that doesn’t communicate well because the translator isn’t in tune with the language of the intended audience. These are two types of mistranslations. A third thing that could go wrong is that the translator is dishonest, and presents the translated text as an equivalent of the source text when he or she knows it is not.

It should be obvious that if the translator misunderstands the language of the source text, a mistranslation will result. If we are talking about Bible translation, that is where exegesis and hermeneutics and a knowledge of the Biblical languages are important. Or, the translator may not be able to correctly anticipate how the audience of the translation will receive and understand the translation. There are lots and lots of examples, many humorous, where the translation doesn’t work because the translator doesn’t adequately understand the target language, or otherwise fails to anticipate how the audience will receive and understand the text. Here’s a recent example I like: According to the BBC, the Swansea Council wanted to make a bilingual road sign in both English and Welsh that read, “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only.” They sent this text by e-mail to a translation service, and when they got the response, they added the Welsh to the road sign, and what the Welsh part of it says, in back translation, is “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.” For other examples of humorous mistranslations, go to

Now in addition to mistranslations based on misunderstandings of either the source language or the target language, a third way a translation might be what we could call infelicitous is if the translator is either dishonest or cavalier in how the translation is presented as an equivalent of the source text. I don’t have specific examples to give, and we have to be careful about accusing people of dishonesty, but I am saying that it is something conceivable. And one reason I bring it up is to say that unless it can be demonstrated that the translator misunderstood the source text, or unintentionally communicated poorly to the target audience, or was dishonest, then I don’t think you can say that the translation is bad or wrong. This message has gotten too long, and I will have to continue this thought later, but there are some translations that are unfairly criticized as being out of the bounds of proper translation, when in fact there was no dishonesty and nothing unintential.

Let Go and Let God

Humans are inescapably subjective. That is part of the human condition, and that is part of the difference between us and God. Yet we act, and we aim to do God’s will, and we even translate. Translation is something done by flawed human beings, yet the product of their work can be used and purposed by God, and a translation of the Bible can be God’s communication to a new audience. A translator doesn’t have to be perfect or have to find just the right formula for God to be able to do His will through the translation. Does that mean that a translation is, or can be, inspired? I would rather not try to answer that question, except to say that God can use our feeble efforts, including Bible translation, to communicate His message and accomplish His will. When it comes to arguing about Bible translations, I say to lighten up and don’t try to put ourselves in the place of God. Bible translation is an essential thing, and looking at history you can see that it is a central component of the Christian faith. Others like Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh have written about that.

As someone who has been involved in the art and science of Bible translation, I have given up on the idea that we have to do our part just rightbefore God can do His part. Just do your best, trust in God, and let God do what we cannot do ourselves. This goes not just for translations I have worked on myself, but also the LXX, the Latin Vulgate, Martin Luther’s translation into German, the KJV, and modern English translations, such as the one we might personally prefer to use today.

A key passage in this for me is Isaiah 55:8-9, here quoted in the TNIV (not that it matters):

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

If we think of the scriptures as a purely human communication, we have a problem. If we think the original authors understood all the ramifications of what they were saying, well, I don’t think that is correct. If we think we understand the text completely, I think we are fooling ourselves, because it is God’s communication, ultimately, and God’s ways are above our way, and His thoughts are above our thoughts.

This same passage in Isaiah goes on to say, in verses 10-11,

“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

This says to me that as the scriptures are translated, God is sending out His word, and it will accomplish what He intends. We have the privilege of participating in this act of communication, but it is not about us. God is reaching out to a new audience, which now has His message.

A little humility here about our limitations, and a little less possessiveness, will help us avoid turf wars, and dismissing other people’s work as inauthentic. It is God’s word, and not ours.

When we had finished translating the New Testament into Gullah, we were humbled to realize that the Gullah audience now accepted it as “the Bible” — not just a translation. And it moved people to now have God’s Word in their language. The translators faded out of the picture. God was speaking to a new audience, and it was deeply moving to them that God would do that. Didn’t they realize that the translators were imperfect humans? Should they know about our questions and doubts in the translation process, and about how we had to simply quit fiddling with it (after a couple of decades of work) and get it out there? It is good to be honest, but this translation wasn’t about us, the vehicles. It began to sink in that God’s message was now there for this audience, and they embraced it as such. Maybe there is something right about that.

Have you read the Bible?

Most people would say, “Of course I’ve read the Bible.” Some might add something like, “I read it in a different version every year.” But this brings to mind the seminary professor who pointed to a copy of the Bible in English and said to his students, “This isn’t the Bible. It is a translation of the Bible.” How do you respond to that? Should we acknowledge, “Well, that’s what I really meant when I said I had read the Bible”?

I’m going to argue that when you have read the Bible in English, you have read the Bible, and it doesn’t have to be qualified. This raises questions, though, that linguists, theologians and philosophers might argue about. It raises questions about the nature of meaning, communication and identity. These are questions that I have been trying to come to grips with, and my first published paper on the subject should be coming out in 2009, for a technical audience. I am coming up with a definition of translation that I, at least, find satisfying, and the feedback I have gotten is that it works, more or less, for some others as well. This isn’t the place to wax too philosophical, but I will get back to the point by saying that, according to my view, when a book has been successfully translated, then the translation becomes a substitute for the original, for a new audience. So a translation of the Bible is the Bible.

I appreciate the insights expressed in the original preface of the 1611 Authorized Version of the Bible:

“We do not deny, nay, we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession… containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God. As the King’s speech, which he uttereth in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every Translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, everywhere…. No cause therefore why the word translated should be denied to be the word, or forbidden to be current, notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it.

I would agree with these very self-aware 17th Century translators that, even if a translation isn’t somehow “perfect,” if you’ve read the Bible in English, you have read the Bible. Similarly, if you have read, for example, War and Peace in English, you have read Tolstoy’s book, or if you have read For Whom the Bell Tolls in French, you have read For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Now, I have another point to make about this identity issue that I will get to in part two, and I will just give you a preview here: the message is to lighten up. In English, because there is such a large market, we are privileged to have all kinds of translations of the Bible, sometimes with different translation philosophies behind them. If the Bible in English is the Bible, then how do you make sense of the variety of expressions? Is only one right and all the others wrong? Or do all translations sharing a certain philosophy contend for being called “right” while another set is “wrong”? Or should every translation be considered imperfect, yet varying in degree of closeness to the (unobtainable) ideal?

In trying to answer these questions about variety and good vs. bad translation, in part two of this message I am going to bring in some theological factors that I believe are well-grounded and not speculative. The result may surprise you.