A New Bible Translation—No Easy Matter
By “Awake!” correspondent in Sweden
“WHAT? A new Bible? Who needs it?” That is the reaction of some people when they hear about plans for an up-to-date translation of the Bible. And perhaps they feel justified, in view of the fact that the Bible is now available in over 1,400 languages. Indeed, in some of the leading languages there are already numerous versions.
Strange as it may seem to some, however, there is always a need for new translations. How so? The Bible scholar would probably offer at least three good reasons: (1) Within recent years many older and more reliable manuscripts containing Bible texts have been found and made available to Bible scholars. (2) New finds of old manuscripts on a variety of subjects have added to our knowledge of Bible languages and of the historical conditions prevailing in those ancient times. (3) The language of any translation may become hard to understand in the course of the years, some words even taking on an entirely different meaning.
How much better it is to be able to read the Holy Scriptures in the language of our own day! Who has time to be continually referring to a dictionary for the meaning of obsolete words—words no longer common in our everyday usage?
No Easy Matter
A new Bible translation is not a project that scholars undertake frequently or casually. It is no easy matter. That a new translation may become, on the contrary, a really complicated matter may be seen from what is taking place in Sweden, where a new Government-authorized version is in preparation.
There are at present in Sweden only two “authorized Church Bibles,” one published in 1541 and the other in 1917. One lasted almost four centuries, while the latest is only half a century old. Why, then, the hurry to produce a new one? The answer seems to be that the language is changing at a more rapid pace today. Linguists claim that we are experiencing a language crisis, and nobody knows what to expect as a result. So great has been the change in the Swedish language in only fifty years that a new translation has become necessary to make the Scriptures appealing and understandable to the average Swede.
It takes time to get a new Bible translation under way. In Sweden, you see, with its State Church, the matter becomes a Government issue. It was nineteen years ago that the Church Meeting of the State Lutheran Church made request to the authorities for a new translation of the “New Testament” and Psalms, for a start. Not till ten years later was a motion in favor of the request presented in the Riksdag or parliament. That same year, on recommendation of the Standing Committee on Miscellaneous Affairs, the Riksdag submitted the matter to the King, that is, to the Government. Two years later the Government appointed a Bible Committee to investigate the whole question.
After five years of research the Committee completed its report and sent it in to the Head of the Ministry of Education in February 1969. It consisted of 646 pages of fine print, and revealed the many problems that must be solved long before printing can be undertaken. Let us consider three of these, namely: (1) What should be translated? (2) For whom should it be translated? and (3) How should it be translated?
What Should Be Translated?
To what shall we go as the basis for our translation? is a question that modern translators must determine. None of the original writings of the inspired prophets and apostles have survived. However, ancient handwritten copies of both the Hebrew and the Christian Greek Scriptures abound. Will they be the source for modern translators? Yes, but not directly, for scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, men who have specialized in the study of either Hebrew or Greek, have scanned and compared the multitudes of ancient manuscripts and have produced what we may call master texts.
The Bible translator may choose one of a number of these refined master texts, or he may decide to work with several of them. As far as the Christian Greek Scriptures are concerned, he might choose that by Westcott and Hort, that by Nestle, that by Merk, or that more recently edited by Aland, Black, Metzger and Wikgren. The Swedish Bible Committee decided to work with several.
For Whom Translated?
It may seem strange that a decision has to be made about whether to translate the Scriptures for this or that section of the population. Why not simply get out a clear translation that will be understandable to all who can read? The Swedish Bible Committee seeks to accomplish much more.
One of its members, Dr. Karl Ragnar Gierow, a noted author, said that the Bible will come into the hands of “the teacher at his desk and the schoolchildren in their benches; it must suit religious historians, exegetes, philologists and those engaged in literary research. It must be suitable for a quiet moment at the end of the workday, it must serve the person with literary interests and having an eye open for the beauty of great poetry and for the reader who opens it in his most anguished perplexity, his darkest moment, his direct need and despair.”
True, a Bible translation must meet the needs of a variety of people whose experience in language varies considerably. And it is conceivable that a translation into the language of the man in the street would find little favor among some learned men. At least, that is the view adopted by the Swedish Bible Committee. It suggested to the Government the production of two versions of the “New Testament” or Christian Greek Scriptures. One would be a “Church Bible,” “philologically accurate, with a concentrated, pregnant style of language.” The other would be “for private reading, for use at home and at school, in its linguistic style of language more appealing to the reader of today.”
There are those who would go farther, who claim that at least three versions are desirable: one scientifically rendered version, one modern version that would as faithfully as possible reproduce the contents and stylistic qualities of the basic text, and a third rendered in common terms of today, so that the contents of the original text might reach the average reader.
How Should It Be Translated?
A third and most vital question in producing a new Bible translation concerns the method to be followed in translating the original-language texts. The translator must determine how closely he is to follow earlier translations, whether he should make a revision of an earlier translation or a completely new, independent translation. If he decides on the first, he will follow the earlier translation as closely as possible, only correcting inaccuracies and making some adjustments as to language. A new translation, on the other hand, is made directly from a basic text, and the translator must draw upon all language resources available—dictionaries, grammar books, commentaries, translations, special investigations, and so on.
If one asks an experienced translator which of the two he would prefer, it is quite likely he will favor the completely new translation. Even if the new translation involves more time and work, it is usually found to be more practical than to make an extensive revision of an earlier translation.
Translators must also choose between a so-called literal translation and an idiomatic translation. The literal translation aims at conveying as much as possible of the original language form, while the idiomatic method seeks to transmit the message of the original, using all the language resources available. In other words, the literal translation directs itself to the original text, while the idiomatic directs itself to the reader.
Should a translator decide on a literal translation, he must determine how literal it should be without losing the sense of the text. He must also keep in mind that literal translation demands consistency, which means that, by and large, every time a given word appears in the original text it should be rendered by the same word in the translation.
Idiomatic translation, on the other hand, gives the translator greater liberty. Nevertheless, as he seeks to render the sense of the basic text, he must also try to transmit its style. And what makes this phase of his work more difficult is the fact that each of the Bible writers has his own personal style of writing. For example, Matthew, Mark and Luke, while covering essentially the same material, differ considerably in word choice and composition. Mark writes a fresh and natural Greek of high quality. Simplicity and liveliness characterize his account. In comparison, Luke’s style is more professional; his terminology very precise. His use of medical terms and his familiarity in dealing with nautical terms, as in Acts, chapters twenty-seven and twenty-eight, are notable. He uses a much greater vocabulary than Matthew and Mark. Matthew, for his part, chooses a middle course in his style as compared with Mark and Luke.
Further complicating matters for the translator is the fact that a single Bible writer may change his style. The apostle Paul is especially noted for this. A member of the Swedish Bible Committee, who is also a professor of classical languages, remarks about Paul: “He has an enormous register: elevated prose poem as in 1 Corinthians 13, moving eloquence as in Romans 8:31-39, but also dry explanations. . . . His vocabulary is great (900 words that are specific only for him). He was a brilliant master of speech.”
A good Bible translator wants to convey these characteristics of the different writers as well as the variations in style of each individual writer. He must be able to imagine how the writer would have expressed his thoughts, had he been writing in our day and in our language. Probably this is why the Bible Committee declared that a real stylistic genius was needed for the job. But can such translators be found? The theological member of the Committee answers: “In our search for qualified translators I am apt to say that this country is becoming an ‘underdeveloped’ country as far as capable translators are concerned.”
Another question with which the translator must cope is, To what extent shall provision be made for clarifying footnotes or explanations of passages that are difficult to understand? The famous passage in Matthew 5:13 where Jesus speaks of the salt losing its strength is cited by the Committee as a case in point. Since ordinarily salt does not lose its strength, the Committee suggests the following footnote to that verse: “The illustration of salt losing its strength and being thrown outside to be trampled on by men, can be explained by the way bedouins still use slabs of salt in their primitive ovens, where the salt at first stimulates the burning of camel manure, but later, through a chemical change, has the opposite effect. The now unusable slabs of salt would be used as road fill.”
Many footnotes of this nature would require extensive research in addition to the labors of translation. And yet this does not exhaust the problems of turning out a new translation. Still remaining to be determined are such questions as, How should the text be set on the pages? How should chapters and verses be arranged? What printing type should be used?
New Bible Translations Needed
There is no doubt that new, up-to-date translations of the Bible are needed in many languages, though, as we have seen, the filling of that need is no easy matter. From the foregoing, one can begin to understand the vast amount of work involved in the translation of a complete Bible into any language, such as that produced in English in recent years by the New World Bible Translation Committee. The Bible translations produced by that Committee are familiar to many readers of Awake!
Most persons of honest heart appreciate the importance of making the Bible available to the peoples of all races and nations. It is equally important to make its message understandable to these people. Modern translations can go far toward achieving that goal.