The Power of Tradition in Bible Translation

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Back in 2003 I picked up a copy of the newly minted English Standard Version (ESV) classic reference Bible.  And I admit that I was skeptical at first.  I thought, “Why do we need yet another translation, especially one that is trying to squeeze into the same niche as the NASB/NRSV/NKJV?”  But it didn’t take long before I truly fell in love with the ESV.  When I read it, it just sounded right; it sounded like the Bible was supposed to sound.  And as I learned more about the translation philosophy, I developed a deep appreciation for what the ESV folks were trying to do; sure, there were some awkward parts, and sure, there were some places where I would have done it differently, but overall I still agreed.  I had just finished my seminary career where the NRSV enjoyed Vulgate status; however, I had always remained a little suspicious of some of the NRSV’s translation choices and overall philosophy.  And so I thought I had found the perfect Bible in the ESV.

Fast forward to 2007.  I picked up a copy of Today’s New International Version (TNIV), mostly because it was new and I didn’t want to be uninformed of what’s happening in the world of Bible translation–a world that I am passionate about.  About all I knew of the TNIV was its annoying usage of the third person plural to avoid using masculine pronouns for people (e.g., “Whoever [singular] wants to be my disciple [singular] must deny themselves [plural]…” Mark 8:34).  The TNIV mostly sat on my shelf until this fall when I began consulting it for sermon preparation.  To my surprise, the TNIV was accurate, even in places where it was not politically correct to be so (e.g., “there was no guest room available for them.” Luke 2:7)!  My heart has been strangely warmed toward the TNIV as of late; sure, there are some awkward choices, and sure, there are some places where I would have done it differently, but overall I still like what they’re doing.

And so I am torn: Which one is better?  Which one should I promote in our church, give to our youth, and build our ministry around?  We are an NIV church now, but what will happen when our pew Bibles finally fall apart and the youth need a good, grown-up Bible?  The ESV, on the one hand, is so familiar, despite its problems.  And the TNIV, on the other hand, is so fresh and accurate, yet I’m not ready to let go of the ESV either.  To quote Paul, I am hard pressed between the two (Philippians 1:23)!  It’s like I have become the TNIV-ESV battle in one person!

Maybe other pastors don’t torture themselves over such things, but I do.  Choosing a Bible is important, especially when it has ramifications for one’s church.  Of course, I know that working from the source languages is still pre-eminent, and that’s what I do week to week.  But for most people, a translation is all the closer they will ever get to the original biblical texts.

So why is it so hard to choose?

I grew up in a traditional Presbyterian Church in the 1980’s (I was born in 1975), imbibing God’s Word through the venerable Revised Standard Version (RSV).  We sang from the 1955 maroon Hymnbook (none of that 1970 Worshipbook stuff for us!), and we read responsive readings from its index, which were straight out of the RSV.  Even the big pulpit Bible, which I thought was very impressive, was RSV.  And so, as I reflect on my RSV-saturated childhood, it’s really no surprise that I prefer the sound of the ESV today.  It’s like going home (I suspect this is how John Piper feels, too.  He has discussed his long history with and his affinity for the RSV, although he hasn’t admitted that his preference for the RSV-ESV is purely familiarity).  But is fondness enough of a reason to choose it?

A while back I read about a study that concluded that young people who are raised in a particular church tradition develop a firm sense of what is “normal” by the age of 13, and that their expectations are difficult to change.  (That explains why, when I take our church’s youth to an African-American charismatic worship service or an Eastern Orthodox liturgy, they leave with eyes as big as saucers, never so glad to be Presbyterians.  But I digress…)  I wish I had kept a link to that study, because I believe it explains a lot when it comes to those who engage in the war over which is better–the ESV or the TNIV.

Tradition plays a very strong role in Bible translation.  It’s why the ESV sticks so closely to the KJV’s rendering of Psalm 23, even though there are no fewer than 7 footnotes (!) giving the better translation.  It’s why some churches are KJV-only, despite the lack of clear logic why.  And it’s the reason why I have trouble shaking the gut-level feeling that the ESV is the clear heir to the Bible in English.

I hope that in all our discussions about Bible translations, we will be respectful of others, who naturally come from different backgrounds than us.  And I hope that all of us who have engaged in arguments over which translation is “better” will take a moment and reflect on our own hard-to-change expectations.

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11 thoughts on “The Power of Tradition in Bible Translation

  1. Pingback: ESV or TNIV? « Better Bibles Blog

  2. Hello Ray,

    I totally understand how you feel. I left the NKJV, for the ESV in 2001, then in 2007 I started reading the HCSB, and made that my primary reading/study bible. But just a few months ago after reading various blogs I began to read the TNIV, and to my surprise I found myself really liking it. For 2009, I plan to read out the TNIV and compare it to the HCSB and see which one I personally prefer.

    So far I really like them both, there are a couple of places that I totally prefer the TNIV and that may be enough for me to switch. Either way the HCSB will be used when I do my studies as I find great value in it. I find it to be very accurate in my opinion that I feel safe not having to consult with the ESV. But the ESV will also play a great role as I own the ESVSB, and the reverse interlinear new testament.

  3. Yes, there are a lot of different translations. I don’t mind reading and comparing translations. What I do detest is when the Bible study teacher requests the students around the table to read the selected passage one verse at a time – – and each student is carrying a different version. I totally lose the ability to understand the passage when read that way.

  4. Titus 2:4

    and so train (sophronizo) the young women to love their husbands and children (ESV)

    Then they can urge (sophronizo) the younger women to love their husbands and children (TNIV)

    Sophronizo = to recall one to his senses, admonish

    I don’t keep a hit list on the ESV and this example, “Urge” and “train”, may seem insignificant. I feel examples like this display that the TNIV has had more exactness put into it.

  5. I know exactly how you feel. I have been in the same situation for several years. I have now settled down to using mainly the TNIV. I grew up in a KJV church, then after college started using the NIV, and what a difference! I actually understood what the Bible was saying! It was a whole new world. Now there is a wide variety of English translations to choose from, for which I am grateful. I use almost all of them at different times, but I find the TNIV, at least for me, to be the the best balance between English and the original languages. I am not a scholar and I know very little Greek or Hebrew, so I rely on the translators to put it in the language I do understand. I found the book “How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding and Using Bible Versions” by Gordon D. Fee and Mark L. Strauss very insightful. The bottom line for me is that, while I find tradition very useful in the Christian life, I need God’s word in language that I both speak and can understand, translated by biblical scholars that I trust.

  6. Kathy,
    There is great value in reading and comparing different translations: it can alert us to difficulties in translation–the places where it just doesn’t cross over very well from one language to another. Over the past 10 years I have read through the Bible in 10 different translations. But, as you pointed out, there is something to be said for using a common translation. In my middle school youth group I usually have one kid read a passage from the Bible (most of them have NIV). And invariably, the kids with the New Century Version and the Good News Bibles shake their heads and ask where we are. Frustrating.

  7. My underlying point in this post is that there is a definite psychological-emotional dimension to Bible preference. If it were purely up to accuracy-clarity, then there would be fewer arguments, but there is more to it than that.
    A few years back (once again, I wish I had kept the link) I read a news story of a young boy (something like 10 years old) who was a pentecostal preacher who swore by the King James Version of the Bible. Asked why he preferred the KJV, he said something like, “It’s the most easy to understand.” Which is not true, especially of a 3rd grader. What he was actually saying was, “It’s the one I’m most familiar with, and it sounds ‘right’ to me, so I use it.”

  8. I’d run a simple test with the membership, a blind comparison of passages. Have them select which they like better. More formal translations are generally liked better as bible literacy increases. I think in a blind test 75% or more of your membership will like the TNIV better.

  9. (That explains why, when I take our church’s youth to an African-American charismatic worship service or an Eastern Orthodox liturgy, they leave with eyes as big as saucers, never so glad to be Presbyterians. But I digress…)

    Digressing on your digression, I have observed from 20 years of Presbyterian Youth Triennium, young people from Homestead Presbytery come home “spoiled” by the more interactive workship style and they wonder why their home-church worship can’t incorporate those elements.

    I would suggest there is a time and place for different translations of “the Living Word of God” (living meaning applicable, active and open to interpretation)…sometimes The Message just lays it out there in language people (especially young people) can grasp onto. Fortunately, I am not incumbered by a knowledge of Hebrew or Greek…so the intricacies of word choice are often lost on me. But I will admit, for the Christmas Eve worship, not every Luke 2 passage will suffice. Even Linus on the Charlie Brown Christmas Special got it right.

    And, like congregations, certain believer groups have their favorites, too. In my parent’s Mennonite congregation is was the King James well until the 1980’s when a pastor’s weekly reading moved them toward the NIV. My well-worn Revised Standard Version was a must-have acquisition during my Campus Crusade for Christ days. No other translation seemed have acceptability within the group.

    Our congregation fought/discussed/debated/fretted more about the choice of hymnal for the pews than the translation of the Bible. Perhaps that says more about what membership is interested in…

    That said, here are the lyrics to a favorite Youth Triennium song that is stuck in my ear (sung to a tune very similar to “Mr. Postman”:

    “Milk, milk, milk
    Drink that milk, milk, milk,
    Eat The Word, Word, Word
    and be strong…

    Mr. Postman sent to me
    A copy of the NRSV
    I need the Bible to get stronger…
    I can’t wait any longer!

    Shoobie doo wah, doobie doo wah…”

  10. I believe we should be going for accuracy above tradition. Is it always easy? No!

    This is one weakness the ESV shows every now and again.

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