A New Translation of the Bible: A Weary World Rejoices?

I noted a while back that a new English translation of the Bible was published (NT), or in the process of being published (OT and Apocrypha), called the “Common English Bible.” Like many biblical scholars, I received a copy of the newly minted NT to consider and review. Their website is a wonderful place to understand their project and their goals. They might wish they did not send me a copy, though, as just on principle I feel that of the making of translations there is entirely too much work going on.  I should clarify that, and will do so in more depth below, but I think that translation should be an ongoing process for scholars, textual critics, interpreters and translators, although we do not need any new, whole and complete, translations of the Bible. What we need is a process and forum for the continuing refinement of the translations that we already have. There are far too many English translations in existence now and it is difficult for ordinary readers to know what translation is best. Perhaps scholars truly do feel that every other translation has until this point gotten it all wrong and their translation will set it all straight, by taking the right tone in English, or modernizing the language, or fixing up incorrect bits and pieces here and there, but I think there should be a moratorium on new translations for 25 years while we work on the ones we already have and find agreement where possible and clarification on disagreements.

There are two basic ways to translate: dynamic equivalence and word for word translation (or formal equivalence). (See the excellent chart at the CEB website on Bible translations.) Dynamic equivalence is an attempt to take a foreign language and with sensitivity to the target language, into which one is translating, give the best “sense” of the language as a whole, while paying less attention to literalness, word order, or the grammatical structure of the original. Word for word translation focuses to a greater degree on the exact rendering of the particular words in the original language, paying less attention to how this might sound in the target language. Both of these forms of translation, naturally, exist along a continuum, with neither form existing in some sort of pristine ideal state. Original languages simply do not equate word for word to any target language, and even those sensitive to dynamic equivalence know that they must remain true to the actual words they are translating, although it is not always possible to render each one literally. My point is simple: in translation the task is simple, though not easy, and there are a limited range of possibilities in any given translation.


Let me give an example with a passage, James 1:13-15, chosen randomly and given in six different translations.

a) No one, when tempted, should say, "I am being tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one's own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death (NRSV)

b) Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death. (RSV)

c) When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (NIV)

d) Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God "; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin ; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. (NAS)

e) No one experiencing temptation should say, "I am being tempted by God"; for God is not subject to temptation to evil, and he himself tempts no one. Rather, each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death. (NAB)

f) No one who is tested should day, "God is tempting me." This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone. Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them. Once those cravings conceive, they give birth to sin; and when sin grows up, it gives birth to death (Common English Bible).

We are clearly dealing with the same passage, though differences appear in terms of verb forms, grammatical structure, punctuation and word choice. Is one of these translations demonstrably better or worse than the other translations? Are any of these choices and changes so profound, though, that multiplied over the course of the translation of the whole Bible it is essential that we get this new translation or that new translation? This is not to pick on the Common English Bible, but more to point out that with so many translations we need to ask what the purpose of any translation is to its readers. Perhaps biblical translations produce money for the churches which produce them; perhaps translators feel that there is an opportunity to create a genuinely new translation that will speak to “this” generation; perhaps a Church will only accept a Bible produced according to certain standards or in which they have a translation stake. All of these might be valid reasons and there is no way, obviously, to stop people from translating the Bible or creating new translations for any number of reasons, most of which would be fuelled by the desire to make the Scriptures known and loved in the clearest manner possible.

There are occasions, of course, where the Greek is more difficult than in the passage from James chosen above. Here are a couple of more complex examples, one from 1 Thessalonians 4: 4 and the other from 1 Timothy 2:14-15. The first examples are from 1 Thessalonians:

 a) that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor (NRSV)

 b) that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor (RSV)

 c) that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable (NIV)

 d) that each of you know how to acquire a wife for himself in holiness and honor (NAB)

 e) and learn how to control your own body in a pure and respectable way (Common English Bible)

There is nothing odd about the CEB translation, as it falls into line with the NRSV and the NIV, while the RSV and the NAB translate the word skeuos (literally “vessel”) not as “body” but as indicating “wife.” These are the two common options available for translators in this context and the CEB follows one of them (and my preferred translation in this context). It does not advance the translation of this passage, with a stunning new option for skeuos, it just offers more colloquial terms for “holiness and honor,” where I would prefer these hew more closely to the Greek as they are terms of great import to Paul.

The examples from 1 Timothy 2:14-15 are as follows:

 a) and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty (NRSV)

 b) and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty (RSV)

 c) And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing--if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety (NIV)

 d) Further, Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and transgressed. But she will be saved through motherhood, provided women persevere in faith and love and holiness, with self-control (NAB)

 e) Adam wasn’t deceived rather his wife became the one who stepped over the line because she was completely deceived. But a wife will be brought safely through by giving birth to their children, if they both continue in faith, love and holiness, together with self-control (Common English Bible).

The CEB here attempts to both modernize the language and read into the passage aspects of ideas which are simply not present in the Greek. The CEB attempts to relativise the disobedience of Eve by casting the first verse as a comparative, "completely deceived," which is not present in the original. The interpretation of v. 15, though, runs afoul of many complexities in the Greek translation. As I wrote elsewhere on this verse. “Yet, when we get to the hard case of the actual passage under consideration, issues arise which make muddy a clear and clearly stated principle. With respect to 1 Timothy 2:15, there is a genuine debate about how to translate this verse. The NAB has “but she will be saved through motherhood, provided women persevere in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” In the NAB translation, the assumption is that the plural verb refers to women, even though the preceding verb is singular, and even though the word “women” does not occur in the verse. The RSV has “yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” This translation, however, has the problem of taking a plural verb and bringing it into agreement with a singular verb when such agreement does not exist in the Greek and adding "woman" where it is not found in the original. The best translation is the NRSV, “yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty,” which translates the Greek simply and straightforwardly (as does the KJV by the way), but leaves open room for the interpretation of “they” as the children of women and not the women themselves.” The CEB translates the plural “they” as the combination of the singular “wife” (which is not present in the Greek, it is "she") and the children to which she has given birth, "if they both...," which is nowhere alluded to in the Greek.  

What can I say? This is the nature of translation. People disagree, even with respect to the word of God. All of the translators involved in the Common English Bible are superb scholars and translators from many different faith communities. If you are interested in the translation, you will find a high level of scholarly acumen and care. So, while I might disagree with the translation of this word or that passage, I could do that for any translation. I disagree, for instance, with the translation of “son of man”, either in Aramaic, Hebrew or Greek, as “Human Being” or “The Human One” in the Common English Bible (CEB, NT, viii), though I like it no more in the NRSV when it is translated as “Human Being” in Daniel 7:13. I have a proposal, which I think is a nice solution to an ongoing problem, not of quality of translation or translators or differences in translation, but of too many translations which are frankly similar in most respects. My proposal is that instead of publishing new translations, we create a website, open to biblical scholars, who will publish on the site their arguments for this or that translation of a particular word or passage, or why “Son of Man” must be “Human Being,” or why “holiness” should be “purity,” with other scholars responding to these posts in the comments section. We might also on this website suggest passages that are fine the way they are, in whatever translation(s) are brought forward, that do not need any tweaking, additions or deletions. This might seem like a way to produce a chaotic mess, but I think there would be far more agreement on most translations than there would be disagreement. I am not suggesting either that I will not still disagree with other scholars, or they with me and many others, but that there will be a place to make the linguistic and philological possibilities clear for all interested readers on one site. Now, I know it is the case that too many cooks ruin the stew, but every translation is already a potpourri of many cooks. The issue is rather that we are all working on the same dish but not talking to each other prior to serving it. Is it such a ridiculous dream that there might one day be a genuinely common Bible in English, shared by all Christians and Jews? I say we start with the NRSV as the base of the recipe and see what we need to produce a dish that all can serve.

 John W. Martens

 Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

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