How We Got Our Bible (11): Evaluating a Translation

We have looked at the ancient origins of Scripture, at the way in which God safeguarded the survival of His Word, and the ways in which men of God dedicated their lives to the task of translating Scripture into the English vernacular. We have come, most recently, to 1611 and the translation of the King James Version(KJV).

This may seem a strange point at which to stop. Four centuries have passed since the KJV first appeared, and it is certainly not the case that the intervening years have been barren of translation. In fact, it has been estimated that at least 3,000 translations of Scripture into English have appeared since 1611. Some of these versions have been noteworthy, many have been helpful, and some, sadly, have been perversions of God’s Word and its truth. All, however, lie outside the direct scope of this series. There are a number of reasons for this. These articles have sought to tell the story of how we got our Bible and this is, perhaps, a description better fitted by the KJV than by any other translation. Furthermore, while the histories of many later translations are of interest to the specialist, they are far more prosaic affairs than those that have occupied us so far. And, of course, one has to stop somewhere.

Before concluding our series, however, it is worth our while to extend the scope of these articles by thinking about how we evaluate a translation of Scripture. Not all translations are equally good and, given the importance that we do and should attach to the Word of God, it is vital that we think carefully about our choice of translation. This is particularly true when we think of our main translation.

Most of us, in our private reading and Bible study, will refer to a range of versions. This is a very valuable practice, and can often give us a clearer understanding of the truth of Scripture. However, using a translation in this supplementary way is a different thing than selecting the main translation for our individual and collective use. When it is this decision that we are making, a number of important factors need to be carefully considered.

Principles of Translation

This is, perhaps, the most important feature of any translation. There are essentially two approaches that are adopted to Biblical translation. One, often called formal or literal equivalence, or essentially literal translation, attempts, as far as possible, to convey the meaning of the original word for word. These translations are the most faithful. However, because of the differences in word order and other features of the language, at times they can seem wooden in their style.

The other method of translation, usually called “dynamic equivalence” is less wedded to the words of the text, and translates thought for thought. These versions prioritize easy readability and, in theory at least, good style. Dynamic equivalence requires the translator to identify the thought that is being communicated, then translation and interpretation become dangerously entangled. For the believer in the verbal inspiration of Scripture, this is not a difficult choice to make. We seek “the words of eternal life,” not the general thoughts. It must be acknowledged that no translation is completely formally equivalent, but we should ensure that we use one that is as close as possible. In today’s Bible marketplace this limits our choice considerably. As belief in the verbal inspiration of Scripture has weakened in Christendom, the trend in modern translations has been away from formal equivalence. The KJV, the Revised Version, the New King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the English Standard Version are all regarded as essentially literal translations. However, only the KJV and the NASB take literal equivalence seriously enough to identify words supplied by the translators to help the sense by setting them in italics. For the reader who is committed to the plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture, this is an essential feature. The commitment of the KJV translators to the word-for-word meaning of the text is one of the major advantages of this translation.

English Style

On the face of it, this might seem a frivolous consideration when choosing a translation: it is not. It was once fashionable to argue, as C. S. Lewis most notably did, that Scripture ought to be translated in as ordinary a style as possible. Those who took this viewpoint, quite correctly, declared that the koine Greek of the New Testament is not the language of literary or rhetorical endeavor, but the quotidian language of the common people. What they fail to take account of, however, is that the writers of the New Testament use this language, with great effect, to vividly convey a variety of styles from the simple narrative of Mark’s gospel to the close legal reasoning of Paul’s epistles, and the visionary language of Revelation.

The Old Testament manifests, if anything, an even greater array of literary styles. The transmission of this is one of the greatest weaknesses of most modern translations. Though some of them have included in their translating bodies specialists in English, they seem either to have chosen these specialists poorly, or to have ignored their advice. The variety and verve of Scripture are flattened into a dull mediocrity. This cannot but impoverish our public gatherings. Scripture need not be couched in complicated and outdated language. However, the version of the Bible that gives texture to our worship, our prayer, and our preaching, ought to have a dignity of language, and a versatility of style that do justice to the original.

Preference as to style is inevitably a subjective matter. However, it is difficult to think of any modern translation that matches the majesty of the KJV. Translated as the English language enjoyed its heyday of literary achievement, it was translated by men whose other writings clearly indicate that they did not need the advice of “style consultants.” These men were united in their appreciation of the importance of God’s Word, and they did their best to ensure that it was expressed in the best that English had to offer. In doing so, they helped to shape that language, and their translation is hard to beat both for beauty and, on the whole and certain archaisms notwithstanding, for clarity.

The stylistic advantages of the KJV become particularly clear when we think about memorizing Scripture. Memorizing Scripture in some modern translations is about as easy as learning from an instruction manual. The cadences and rhythms of the KJVcommend themselves to the memory as well as to the ear, and assist us in the invaluable exercise of memorizing the Word of God.

Collective Practice

When we are choosing our main translation of Scripture, it is important to consider the translation that is used in the assembly of which we form a part. The confusion caused by the use of multiple versions in the public reading, or quotation of Scripture, is best avoided. And, as we will find the words of the translation that we most use in private reading and Bible study coming most readily to mind, it makes sense to be guided in our individual choice by collective practice. This does not mean that we cannot or should not consult other translations. It does mean that we ought to carefully consider our choice of translation, for the benefit of the assembly and of all those who attend our meetings.