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.