The Word of God: English Bible Translation

How do people translate the Bible into English? The answer is a fascinating one, not least because it begins with the remarkable William Tyndale.[1] Tyndale is the giant on whose shoulders all English Bible translators after him have stood, while he himself worked largely from scratch!

With no English translation of the Hebrew and Greek in front of him, few readers of the original languages around him, and the opposition of church and state against him, he single-handedly produced English translations of the NT, Pentateuch, and OT historical books, in language so beautiful it shaped the English language forever, and so timeless it can be easily understood today. Add to this accomplishment his linguistic qualifications (he knew eight languages, including an expertise in Greek beyond all other European scholars of his day) and his spiritual qualifications (his single-minded passion to make the Bible accessible to the people, even at the cost of his life), and he becomes our standard of comparison for all translators after him.

Translation Process of the KJV [2]

While Tyndale completed his work alone and on the run, the KJV was produced by a team of approximately 50 translators fully supported by King James I in every means but money. The King even drew up, along with the wily Bishop, Richard Bancroft, the rules of translation which were to guide the committee.

The translation team was divided into six companies; each was assigned a different section of Scripture, or, in the case of the second Cambridge Company, the Apocrypha. The translators themselves were chosen on the basis of competency (of which there was no shortage) and politics. Men from both the Anglican and Puritan camps would need to be included for the King’s dream of a united Protestant reign to come true. It was a diverse group, ranging from the devout John Reynolds to the debauched Richard Thomson. All were skilled in languages, and some were utterly brilliant. For example, John Bois was writing Hebrew at the age of six, and Lancelot Andrewes had the command of 21 languages, both ancient and modern.

Using the Bishops’ Bible as their starting point, each translator was to work independently on the portion of Scripture assigned to his company and then the whole company would meet together to compare. Upon completing a book, the company would send it out to the other five for their review. Finally, a general committee made up of delegates from each company met in Stationers’ Hall in London to review the submissions and produce a final volume.

Picture a man reading a section out loud while 11 other divines listened attentively, comparing the words they heard with an alternative translation in their hands, interrupting the reader only to make objections or suggestions. The result was a text that had gone through four rounds of checks, not only for accuracy to the Hebrew and Greek, but also for pleasantness to the ear. No wonder the KJV is still praised for its literary beauty.

Translation Process of Modern Versions [3]

Thankfully, it was also a text that no longer resembled the Bishops’ Bible on which it was based. Some modern versions also started with an earlier translation: the ESV used the 1971 RSV, and the NKJV is a revision of the KJV. Both are committee translations that seek to carry on the legacy of the KJV.

Solely in the interest of well-roundedness, then, and because so much information is available as to its translation process, I’ve chosen to focus on the New International Version. The NIV is truly a “new” version in the sense that, like Tyndale, it started with a blank page.[4] Governing it is the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), which got the project started by designing the translation process and by preparing guidelines and sample translations for the translators. Ten teams were assigned to the OT and five to the NT, each team generally consisting of two translators, two consultants, and one stylist consultant. The assignments tried to match translators to the books of the Bible in which they had expertise. The translators produced preliminary translations of their book which the consultants would review, sending suggestions back to the team for approval or disapproval.

Intermediate committees, consisting of approximately five translators, performed the next stage of review, and the translation was then checked over verse by verse by one of the general editorial committees, each of which included an English stylist. At this stage, manuscripts were sent out to pastors and teachers to field test the translations. At last the CBT gave it a final thorough edit, checking it for oral readability and once again seeking the feedback of English stylists.

It’s thought that over 100 scholars invested over 200,000 man-hours in the new translation. The scholars were from different countries and church backgrounds (including Anglican, Baptist, Brethren, Mennonite, Presbyterian, and Reformed), but all involved with Bible translation were required to affirm the inspiration and inerrancy of all of Scripture.

Lists of the translators who worked on the NIV and other modern versions are available online. They include many believers who are well known for their godliness and for their expertise in the original languages. I won’t pretend to be qualified to judge their competency against that of the men behind the KJV. I suspect most modern translators would hold their 17th century counterparts to be superior, even while recognizing our knowledge of Hebrew and Greek has advanced over the last 500 years. If some of the KJV translators were controversial, it’s only fair to acknowledge that so are a couple of characters associated with modern versions.

I do feel qualified to make one comparison. Whereas translators of English versions today have made very real sacrifices, none has made so great a sacrifice as William Tyndale. Translators today are criticized, Tyndale was killed, yet we owe a debt of gratitude to God for them all.

[1] For Tyndale, look no further than the biography by David Daniell.

[2] See Alister McGrath, In the Beginning, and Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries.

[3] For this section see “The NIV: How It Came to Be” by John Stek in The Challenge of Bible Translation, the JETS article by Carolyn Youngblood, “The New International Version Translation Project” (available online), and The NIV Story by Burton Goddard. To watch a committee wrestle with a thorny translation issue, see the video “ESV Bible Translators Debate the word ‘slave’ at Tyndale House” on YouTube.

[4] The 1978 NIV that is. It has been revised in 1984 and 2011.