Books I Have Read: One Bible, Many Versions

Right, let’s not mess around; this is a good book, a very good book. If you have any interest in Bible translation or in English versions of the Bible, then you must read it. There is no reason not to. Is that clear enough?

One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? is different to most other books about English Bible versions in two key ways. The first is that it doesn’t base its opinions on translation theory or what the publishers of the various translations say about their work; it is grounded in solid analysis of what the translations actually say and do. There is a wealth of tables and information to illustrate the sorts of decisions that different translations have made. The second great feature of this book is that it is written by an experienced Bible translator; Dave Brunn worked in Papua New Guinea as a translator with New Tribes Mission. His experience in a language very different to English allows him to analyse the current discussion about English versions from an objective approach not available to many.

I have my own theory on why there is often disagreement among English speaking Christians about Bible translations. I believe it is in part due to the fact that most of us live in monolingual societies. The majority of native English speakers have never learned a second living language to full fluency. And of those who have, most learned another Indo-European language – which of course, would be related in some ways to English. Many English speakers base their view of New Testament translation entirely on translating from Greek into its Indo-European relative, English I believe this narrow perspective is a major reason for many of the disagreements that exist regarding English translation. (p.145)

Ouch! But, it is hard to disagree with this.

The book deals head on with some of the shibboleths of Bible translation pundits. For example those who advocate more literal translations often insist that their should be lexical concordance – that is a Greek or Hebrew word should always be translated by the same English word. Brunn doesn’t spend a lot of time looking at the theory of this; he just examines what different translations actually do. For example, the King James Version,which is often regarded as very literal, translates the Greek word logos in 24 different fashions (p.74). Perhaps lexical concordance isn’t all that its proponents would have us believe.

Word for word. When Bible scholars describe an English Bible Version as a word-for-word translation, they know among themselves that they do not mean that each word in English corresponds to a word in the original. But to the average reader, the term “word for “word could imply that translation is an exact science, almost like mathematical encryption. By now, it should be clear that there is no such thing as a consistently word for word translation in English. (p.129)

Perhaps someone should tell the marketing department of one major Christian publisher!

The book also looks in some considerable detail at the way things such as idioms are translated across different English translations. It is fascinating to note that so called dynamic translations such as the NIV often preserve more of the original form of the original language than formal translations such as the ESV.

One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? very helpfully points out that it is impossible to place translations at points on a scale from literal to dynamic. Each translation occupies a range on the scale; in some places they are more dynamic, in others they are more literal. For the most parts, the ranges of the main translations overlap. The ESV is generally more literal than the NLT but there are places where the opposite is true.

The book concludes with a series of helpful statements that more or less sum up where we are at the moment regarding translations into English. Here is a selection

  • Every version translates thought for thought rather than word for word in many contexts.
  • Every version gives priority to meaning over form.
  • Every version translates some Hebrew or Greek words many different ways.
  • Every version paraphrases in some contexts.
  • Every version uses interpretation when translating ambiguities.
  • Every version replaces some masculine forms with gender-neutral forms.

Different English versions have a lot more in common than many people (especially marketing departments) would have you believe.

If I haven’t made it clear yet, let me do so. One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? is an excellent book. It is well researched, thorough, non-partisan and reliable. Anyone who wants to pontificate on the value or otherwise of different English versions will have to interact with this book. Or to put it another way; if you haven’t read One Bible, Many Versions then you should refrain from saying to much about English translations until you do.

This may well be the best book I read this year.

Meanwhile, back in the outside world, there are still over 300 million people without a single translation of the Bible in their own language.

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