How to Choose a Bible Translation for All It’s Worth (continued)

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Normally, this would not be the type of book I review on this site, but it is very good, and at least tangentially related to the topic of biblical studies and Evangelicalism. Plus, my good friends at Zondervan gave it to me, so I figure I owe them one.

This is a relatively brief and highly readable book not only on how to choose a translation for one’s Bible reading, but on what goes into making a translation so that readers can make informed decisions. It comes with an impressive array of recommendations (e.g., Don Carson, Walt Kaiser, Dan Block, Darrell Bock, plus several pastors), and the accolades are well deserved.

The book is divided into five main chapters divided into various subsections: The Task of Translation; Making Words Work; Translation and Culture; Other Translation Issues: Text and Presentation; The Bible in English. It also includes a helpful glossary and index. Each chapter also comes with suggestions for further reading.

One might expect a Zondervan-published book to push the TNIV, but that is certainly not the case. To be sure, the authors recommend the TNIV as the best among “mediating” translations, but for those who prefer a “formal equivalent” translation, the NRSV and ESV are among their picks. Top “functional equivalent” translations, they prefer the NLT. Having said this, however, don’t think that such advice is predominant in the book. In fact, one must wait until the final two pages of the last chapter before such suggestions are given. The authors are clearly much more interested in walking readers through the ins and outs of translation techniques and theories. The issues are laid out in a dispassionate manner and great balance is achieved.

One of the highlights of the book for me what the very patient way in which the authors discuss the issue of gender and translation. This is one of those issues that tends to generate more heat than light. The authors argue for “gender accurate” translation, not “gender neutral,” i.e., when the original masculine language seems meant to include men and women, it is actually more accurate to use non-gender specific language. Of course, the matter is more involved than I am presenting it here, but the general approach is sound and avoids some of the abrasive accusations of political correctness towards those who wish to make the Bible as accurate and meaningful to a changing world.

I have some relatively minor criticisms of the book, one of which concerns the authors’ view toward the “original text.” Although the authors evince some nuance, their discussion of textual criticism leans more towards a New Testament scholar’s perspective (which both Fee and Strauss are), where “variant readings” is a working concept, and decisions need to be made over numerous witnesses. (In OT studies, the issue is more one of translations such as LXX and Aramaic that bear witness to a Hebrew original rather than a collation of Hebrew manuscripts, but that is another story.)

Regardless, I am well enough acquainted with textual criticism and its proper role in biblical studies, but I always become a bit quizzical when I read a sentence like “…the translators’ first task is to be sure that the words being translated are the words that the original authors actually wrote” (p. 111, emphasis original). I am sympathetic, and this is not the place to discuss the nuances, but that “first task” has been with us ever since manuscript differences were known to exist (going back at least to Origen), and have only become more involved since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Personally, I feel a discussion of the “original text” (which the Spirit has, for some reason known only to him, not left for us), needs to move out of the realm of a prolegomenon for biblical studies, and become more an object of hermeneutical and theological study (i.e., the hermeneutical and theological implications of not having original texts).

Still, this is a book I will be recommending to anyone—lay or otherwise—who has an interest in Bible translation.

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