Imagine that you’re planning to head to a bookstore. Just as you leave, your friend explains that he lost his Bible recently, and he wants you to pick one up for him. You agree to do it… after all, the task seems simple enough, right?
At the bookstore, you approach the section filled with Bibles. And you start to notice all these strange labels on each one. NIV? TEV? NRSV? Suddenly, this errand becomes more daunting than you first imagined. You quickly text your friend to ask which specific Bible you should get.
As you drive home, questions start to enter your mind about all these Bible versions. Why can’t Christians all agree on one version to use? How does someone know they have the right version? And isn’t it a problem for Christianity that there are so many versions of the Bible out there?
We can start addressing these questions by understanding that the Bible was originally written in non-English languages – Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). Whenever you have a text from one language and want to write it in another language, translation is needed. Even though it’s needed, there are problems associated with translating from one language to another.
There’s the problem of vocabulary – a word used in one language may not have a precise equivalent word in another language. There’s the problem of sentence structure, where the basic sentence form of one language may be completely different than that of another language. And there’s the problem of cultural references that may be hard to translate from one language in a particular context to another language in a totally different context.
Translators have different ideas of how to address the problems. But no matter how they’re addressed, the final translation needs to be understood by a reader, and needs to represent what the original text said to some extent. These needs cause translators to find a balance between accuracy and understandability.
Accuracy involves staying as true to what the author wrote down as possible. A focus on accuracy could involve translating words literally, even if the resulting text doesn’t make much sense to the modern reader. Translators who focus more on accuracy try to get to the formal equivalence of the original text – what’s written in the translation is the same as what the author wrote.
Understandability involves making the translation as easy to read for modern readers as possible. A focus on understandability could involve replacing cultural references from the original text with cultural references that have more of an impact in the present day. Translators who focus more on understandability try to get to dynamic equivalence of the original text – the meaning of the translation for modern readers is the same as the meaning that the readers of the original text would have had.
All the Bible versions fall on a spectrum between a formal equivalence (accuracy) focus, and a dynamic equivalence (understandability) focus. For example, the King James Version (KJV) falls heavily towards the formal equivalence end of the spectrum, the New Living Translation (NLT) falls heavily towards the dynamic equivalence end, and the New International Version (NIV) falls close to the middle.
But why do all these concepts matter? Understanding the concepts can help us address questions similar to the ones posed towards the beginning of this post. To explain how, I’ll list those questions again and address them one by one.
Why can’t Christians all agree on one version to use?
Christians who translate the Bible do agree that translations should be produced from the original text (using the most reliable copies of that text that we have). The disagreement comes from how this text should be translated. Christians use different versions because there are many versions available that use different translating methods, all of which have both advantages and disadvantages.
How does someone know they have the right version?
There isn’t necessarily a “right” version, where all the others are “wrong” versions. Proper selection of which version to use depends on the purpose of using the Bible. For example, if you want to do an intense study of the Bible with the purpose of learning what an author originally said, a version with a formal equivalence focus is likely better to use. If you want to quote the Bible in a book that will be geared towards people who don’t have much experience reading the Bible, a version with a dynamic equivalence focus is likely better to use.
Isn’t it a problem for Christianity that there are so many versions of the Bible out there?
The Bible versions actually provide a solution to a problem. The problem is that the Bible is written in languages that many people do not understand. The solution (aside from learning those languages) is comparing versions with different translation focuses. Doing so can give you a fuller picture of what the authors originally said and originally meant.