Choosing a Modern Bible Translation
WHY should there be modern Bible translations? Are not the old ones, such as the King James and the Douay versions, good enough? They are good, no doubt, and have helped countless numbers to have faith in God and in his Word, the Bible. But could there be better translations?
Yes, there could be, and there are better translations of the Bible than the King James and Douay versions, and that for a number of reasons. Admittedly, it would be difficult to find an English translation of more literary beauty than the King James. Yet, as has been well noted: “The first duty of a translator is to convey as clearly as he can what the original author wrote. He should not try to inject a rhetorical quality . . . which belong[s] more truly to the first Elizabethan age in England than to the Hebrew originals. . . . It would certainly be dangerous to give the form of the translation precedence over the meaning.”
One reason why modern translations may be better than such old ones as the King James of 1611 is that the English language itself has changed over the years. For example, to “let” used to mean to “hinder.” Today the meaning usually attached to the expression is just the opposite, to “permit.” (2 Thess. 2:7) Likewise, to “prevent” used to mean to “go before” or to “precede.” Today it means to “keep from happening.” (1 Thess. 4:15) “Conversation” used to mean “conduct.” Today it most often refers to talking with another. (Phil. 1:27) And for most persons today “shambles” does not refer to a “meat market,” as it used to, but to a “scene of destruction.”—1 Cor. 10:25.
The progress made in understanding the Greek in which the Christian Scriptures were written has also made possible better translations. Ancient papyrus writings have been found that showed the everyday use of certain words not well understood. Thus “Raca” was simply thought to mean “a vain fellow,” but that did not fit in with the severe condemnation of its use by Jesus. (Matt. 5:22, AV margin) Now, however, because of the discovery of a papyrus letter, scholar E. Goodspeed has said that “Raca” was a foul name “which one sometimes heard on the lips of foul-mouthed people but never saw in print.” The New World Translation renders it “an unspeakable word of contempt.”
Another example is that of the verb apeʹkho, translated “have” in older translations, but which means “to have in full,” being used “as a technical expression in drawing up a receipt,” as stated in Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. So Jesus, in condemning those who hypocritically make a showing of their charity, said that they “are having their reward in full.” That is absolutely all they will ever get, the praise of men, which was just what they wanted.—Matt. 6:2.
Modern translations often clarify the sense of figures of speech used by the Hebrews or Greeks but with which we may not be familiar. Thus 1 Peter 1:13 (AV) reads “gird up the loins of your mind.” Far more understandable to modern-day readers, however, is the rendering, “brace up your minds for activity.”—NW.
Especially helpful in improving translations of the Bible has been the finding of older manuscripts. At the time of the translation of the King James Version only a few Greek manuscripts were available and these were of rather late origin. But since then many fine vellum manuscripts of the collected Scriptures have come to light, some going back as far as the fourth century of our Common Era. Also papyrus manuscripts and fragments have been uncovered that date back to the third and even the second centuries C.E. Usually, the older the copy, the less likely it is to have suffered changes from copying.
And not to be overlooked is the factor of an improved understanding of God’s Word. This has come about even as foretold. “The path of the righteous ones is like the bright light that is getting lighter and lighter until the day is firmly established.” (Prov. 4:18) The better God’s purposes are understood, the more accurately the Word of God can be translated.
IT MUST BE ACCURATE
Regarding the translator of the Bible into English, it has well been said that his chief responsibility is to render the Biblical meaning as accurately as possible into appropriate English.
This is a position that hardly can be argued against, and yet comparatively few translators have acted in accord with it in regard to the distinctive name of God, Jehovah. In the Hebrew Scriptures this is represented by the Tetragrammaton, that is, the “four-letter word” YHWH. There is no question as to its importance, for not only does it occur more than 6,900 times, but the Creator is referred to by it more than by all other designations used in those Scriptures.
The importance of the name Jehovah was highlighted in the Preface to the American Standard Version, 1901, which, among other things, stated: “This Memorial Name, explained in Ex. iii. 14, 15, and emphasized as such over and over in the original text of the Old Testament, designates God as the personal God, . . . the Friend of his people; . . . the ever living Helper . . . This personal name, with its wealth of sacred associations, is now restored to the place in the sacred text to which it has an unquestionable claim.”
Though stated almost seventy years ago, its position is affirmed by one of the latest scholarly translations, The Jerusalem Bible. Although many of its footnotes savor of higher criticism, this translation restores God’s name to its rightful place, but preferring the form “Yahweh.” The Editor’s Foreword states, among other things: “It is not without hesitation that this accurate form has been used, and no doubt those who may care to use this translation of the Psalms can substitute the traditional ‘the Lord’. On the other hand, this would be to lose much of the flavour and meaning of the originals. For example, to say ‘The Lord is God’ is surely a tautology [needless repetition or redundancy], as to say ‘Yahweh is God’ is not.”
Of all the many modern translations of the Bible into English, few indeed are accurate in this matter. Among those few are Rotherham’s Emphasised Bible, which translation also uses the form “Yahweh,” and Young’s Literal Translation of the Holy Bible, the American Standard Version and the New World Translation, which use the form “Jehovah.”
THE VIRTUE OF CONSISTENCY
While the virtue of consistency cannot be pressed too far in the matter of Bible translation, it does appear that many translations do not give enough thought to this factor or let their religious prejudices interfere. As has been well observed, “There must be consistency in the translation of technical words with a rather sharply fixed content of meaning, not allowing translation to blur the distinctions carried by different words in the original. In the New Testament there is a distinction between ‘Hades’ and ‘Gehenna’. The former is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew ‘Sheol,’ the world of the dead; the latter is the final place of punishment for the wicked.”—Why So Many Bibles, American Bible Society.
However, some translations, such as Today’s English Version, The New Testament in the Language of Today (by W. F. Beck), and that by Monsignor Knox are doubly inconsistent in that they use more than one English word to translate Haiʹdes, one of these being “hell”; and they translate both Geʹenna and Haiʹdes by the English word “hell.” Among those that are consistent in this matter are the American Standard Version and the New World Translation.a—Matt. 5:22; 10:28; 11:23; 16:18.
Lack of consistency is also shown on the part of many translators in failing to distinguish between douʹlos, meaning a purchased slave, and diaʹkonos, meaning servant or minister. In the Scriptures Christians are referred to as slaves because they have been bought with a price; so they are slaves to Jehovah God and Jesus Christ their Masters. They are not mere hired servants, free to quit whenever they please. Apparently many translators do not like the sound of the word “slave,” but Bible writers had a reason for using it instead of “servant.” Among the few that are consistent in this regard are C. B. Williams’ New Testament and the New World Translation.—Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 7:23.
The foregoing are but a few of the many examples that could be cited to show how Bible translators at times are inconsistent. They also show the value of consistency if the reader is to get the sense of what was originally written.
A FAITHFUL TRANSLATION
Bible translation is by no means easy. In ever so many instances the merits of a certain rendering are relative. By that is meant that the evidence is not unequivocal. Thus a goodly number of the oldest and best manuscripts may read a certain way, while a lesser number, but still highly regarded manuscripts, read another way.
However, at times translators betray unfaithfulness to the original text. For example, the Catholic Confraternity version has Jesus asking his mother, at the time of the wedding feast in Cana, “What wouldst thou have me do, woman?” This is just the opposite of the way Roman Catholic Monsignor Knox renders the text: “Nay, woman, why dost thou trouble me with that?” Obviously the Confraternity let religious bias influence its rendering.—John 2:4.
Concerning the Bible translator Phillips we are told that he disregards “the first, second and last rule of the translator: that he be faithful to the original. Why is it necessary, for example, for him to translate in Luke 24:49, ‘Now I hand over to you the [command] of [my] Father,’ when the clear meaning of the text is, ‘And I myself will send upon you what my Father has promised’? The reference to the future coming of the Lord in 2 Timothy 4:8 ‘to all who have loved his appearing’ is lost in ‘to all [those] who have loved what they have seen of him.’” Then after listing other examples, this criticism goes on to say: “Other examples could be cited, but these are sufficient.”—Why So Many Bibles.
Another modern translation that can be charged with a lack of faithfulness to the original is Moffatt’s New Translation of the Bible. Time and again he arranges chapters and verses in a way to suit himself in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Greek Scriptures. Particularly is what he does with the book of Isaiah open to censure, rearranging the chapters and verses to suit himself. The Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah, going back, as it does, about a thousand years earlier than the accepted Masoretic text, leaves Dr. Moffatt without any justification whatever for such rearranging of Isaiah. This makes it difficult to find certain Bible texts.
IS IT A HELPFUL TRANSLATION?
At times the conscientious translator may feel justified in adding a word or two to make the meaning clear. However, there is always the danger, when this is done, of misleading the reader. Thus in an attempt to aid the reader the translator of Today’s English Version replaced “he” with “Christ” at 1 John 3:2. However, in this he erred, for Jehovah God and not Jesus Christ is here referred to, even as is clear from the preceding verse 1Jo 3:1. Likewise at 1 Timothy 6:15, he added “God” to the text and so misleads the reader since the apostle was speaking about Christ’s being the “happy and only Potentate . . . the King of those who rule as kings and Lord of those who rule as lords.”—Compare 1Ti 6 verse 14.
Where done in keeping with the context and free from religious bias, such renderings can be very helpful. Thus Matthew 26:26 (NW) reads, “This means my body,” for this is obviously what Jesus meant, since he still had his own body and so the bread could not literally have been his body. Likewise when koimaʹomai, a word used to refer to sleeping, is used to refer to death, the New World Translation ordinarily reads “he fell asleep [in death],” as at Acts 7:60. The brackets show that “in death” does not appear in the original.
This same translation is also quite helpful when rendering the word kyʹrios, which means “lord” or “master.” Whenever the context indicates that Jehovah God is referred to, it will render kyʹrios as “Jehovah.” Is this too radical? No, for in every instance except one such is also found to be the way a number of Hebrew versions have rendered kyʹrios. (Matt. 1:20, 22) Especially is the name Jehovah fitting in the Christian Greek Scriptures when these quote from the Hebrew Scriptures where “Jehovah” is used.—Matt. 3:3; 4:7, 10.
Today the English Bible student has many modern translations from which to choose. By far the greater number, however, consist of only the Christian Greek Scriptures. Some of these translations have become quite popular by reason of their smooth flow of language and many apt turns of speech or felicitous expressions. However, as seen from the above examples, these are prone to err by taking too many liberties, because of misunderstanding or due to religious bias. Since accuracy and dependability are the most important requirements of a modern Bible translation it would seem that a largely literal translation is to be preferred, especially by readers who have faith that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Which translation do you think is the most desirable for you?
a To be consistent, however, As should have left Tarʹta·ros untranslated, instead of translating it “hell.”—2 Pet. 2:4.