Which Version Is Best?

We all know that the KJV was old-fashioned 300 years ago, and that the RSV is a revision of the KJV. Although it has been widely used by evangelicals over the last 15 years or so, we tend to forget that it, too, is a staid at tempt to modernize the KJV. Because it belongs neither to the seventeenth century nor the twentieth, the language barrier stands. . .

-Richard France lectures in Biblical studies at the University of Ife, Nigeria.

A TEENAGE girl came up to me after the service.

"What were you reading from?" she asked. She seemed completely puzzled.

"Genesis," I replied.

"But it wasn't from the Bible was it? I mean, I could understand it!"

This girl was a regular church attender and an A student in school. Yet for the first time she felt that the modern version 1 had used really made Genesis clear.

We all know that the KJV was old-fashioned 300 years ago, and that the RSV is a revision of the KJV. Although it has been widely used by evangelicals over the last 15 years or so, we tend to forget that it, too, is a staid at tempt to modernize the KJV. Because it belongs neither to the seventeenth century nor the twentieth, the language barrier stands.

But what about The New English Bible? It gives us an entirely fresh translation from the original Greek and Hebrew texts. Doesn't that solve the language problem?

No, not necessarily.

Soon after the above incident we started a Bible study for teen-age Christians. Most didn't reach the educational standard of the girl mentioned above. They were down-to-earth types with more practical skill than book-learning but they were by no means illiterate. We launched our study with the NEB New Testament. Then came the disillusionment. It was not only that I had to keep pointing out that various NEB phrases were not quite what the Greek said, and that some times the translation gave a very one-sided interpretation; but that we had not yet destroyed the language barrier. This was not the language of ordinary folk, but of the professor, the lawyer, and the Times Literary Supplement. I was constantly appealed to with questions like, "What does 'truckle' mean? . . ." (Mark 12:14). Sometimes I was stumped, too: what does "bedizened" mean? (Rev. 17:4).

When you are dealing with a book written in another age and another culture, what is a "good" translation? No two languages are the same; word-for-word translation of the original Bible texts would only produce nonsense, certainly not English.

The translator is faced with two ideals, each very desirable, indeed essential, but frequently in conflict with each other. On the one hand, he wants to be accurate, to translate as nearly as possible exactly what the Hebrew or Greek says, in words which allow the mini mum of misunderstanding or distortion of the original sense. Ideally, he would like to use the same English word for every use of a given Hebrew or Greek word but languages don't work that way.

He also wants to be readable, to produce good English, as vivid and powerful as the original, not "translationese." This means paraphrasing, substituting English idioms for unfamiliar Greek ones, letting the literal word-equivalents go, provided that the translation conveys what the original really means in the sort of language a modern English-speaking person would understand.

But here, too, the problems are immense. What is "English idiom," that of Parliament or of an American busdriver? And there is no agreed interpretation of what the Bible "really means"; to enshrine your own interpretation in what purports to be a translation smacks of dishonesty.

Between these two ideals there is a vast range of possible approaches, and every translator must make up his mind which accusation he would rather face: that he is unreadable, or that he is unreliable. He will be lucky if he escapes criticisms from both directions at once. It is a thankless task.

Perhaps it may be fairer to class translations not so much as "good" and "bad" (although there will always be a place for such judgments), but in terms of their suitability for different purposes. One may be ideal for detailed study, where literal equivalence is at a premium, another may be suitable for reading in church, another for "devotional" study, another for children, another for those who seldom read more than the local paper. None will be ideal for all uses.

Fortunately, we now have a vast range of recent translations to choose from. I am going to attempt a "consumer's guide" to the strengths and weaknesses of some of the better-known versions. Its brevity may make it seem unfair at times; I can only plead the limitations of space. The verdicts are my own, of course.

Translations of the Whole Bible

Revised Standard Version (1952). The revisers aimed to keep as close as possible to the KJV, reproducing its cadences and its actual words except where either the Hebrew or Greek text used by the KJV had been found to be inaccurate, or the English words or constructions used were no longer current. The Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-10) are identical with the KJV apart from the substitution of "those who" for "they that (which)," and the alteration of one word each in verses 6 and 9 ("satisfied" for "filled," "sons" for "children"). Hardly a radical or meaningful revision! There fore, it is not surprising that the RSV has little appeal to those who have not been brought up on "KJV-English," and who do not normally refer to each other as "blessed."

On the other hand, the virtue of such close translation lies in its reluctance to paraphrase. It is as near to a literal translation as the English language allows, and is therefore unsurpassed for close study of individual words. As far as possible, the same English word is used for each occurrence of a given Hebrew or Greek word, which makes word-study a more practical proposition with the RSV than with any other modern version. Hence, it boasts remarkable popularity among evangelical Christians, who are often unnecessarily suspicious of paraphrase, and sometimes also sub consciously feel on safer ground the closer they are to the KJV.

Another drawback of the RSV is a tendency to be rather free with conjectural emendations of the text in the Old Testament, which are not always admitted in the footnotes. (This tendency is not limited to the RSV; the NEB displays it much more blatantly.)

The "Biblical Warehouse"

The Amplified Bible (1964) is not so much a translation as a Biblical storage ware house, giving several alter native renderings for significant words and clauses, with interpretative paraphrases added in square brackets. Here, for instance, is Galatians 5:22, 23, 26: "But in fruit of the (Holy) Spirit, [the work which His presence within accomplishes] is love, joy (gladness), peace, patience (an even temper, forbearance), kindness, goodness (benevolence), faithfulness; (meekness, humility) gentleness, self-control (self-restraint, continence). Against such things there is no law [that can bring a charge]. . . . Let us not become vain-glorious and self-conceited, competitive and challenging and provoking and irritating to one another, envying and being jealous of one an other."

In the last sentence eight English translations are offered for three Greek words. The result is a document which cannot be read, but which may be a useful tool for study. However, the danger is that it could be come a happy hunting-ground for those seeking Biblical support for their own pet theory, rather than a guide to what the author really meant in a certain context: few authors use words with an eye to all their possible meanings at once!

The Jerusalem Bible (1966). This superb piece of work is astonishingly neglected. It is a recent Roman Catholic translation of the whole Bible (including the Apocrypha), backed by the weighty scholarship of the School of Biblical Studies in Jerusalem, in forceful though not colloquial modern English. "Thou" has completely disappeared. The most startling change is the use of the original name "Yahweh" in the Old Testament where other English versions used "the Lord," a change which makes for clarity and accuracy, and which most Hebraists are likely to welcome, but which will inevitably jar those brought up with the KJV.

The obvious standard of comparison is the NEB, as that translation also covers the Old Testament as well. I made the mistake of buying both on the same day, with the result that I have hardly looked at the NEB since. In the poetical pas sages especially, The Jerusalem Bible seems to me to win hands down: its word usage is vivid and economical, like the Hebrew it translates, and it avoids overly refined language. Take Psalm 2, for instance:

Why this uproar among the nations? Why this impotent muttering of pagans

kings on earth rising in revolt, princes plotting against

Yahweh and his Anointed,

"Now let us break their fetters!

Now let us throw off their yoke!"

The One whose throne is in heaven sits laughing,

Yahweh derides them.

Then angrily he addresses them, panic. . . .

There you have the force and vividness of the original conveyed in no less exciting English, yet with close accuracy of translation. It is not far from the ideal translation!

Another favorable feature is the system of section-headings, frequently inserted and boldly printed, which are invaluable for keeping your bearings among the varieties of sacrifice in Leviticus 1-7 or the lists of kings and cities in Joshua.

The New English Bible (1970). Criticisms of the New Testament section of the NEB have been voiced for some time. Some have been ironed out in the new edition; e.g. the very misleading "those who know that they are poor" for "the poor in spirit" (Matt. 5:3) has been changed to "those who know their need of Cod," no less a paraphrase, but a much more probable one, indeed very helpful. But the stilted language referred to above still re mains; do you greet your friends with "How blest are you!"?

The Old Testament translation is often illuminating, and is certainly much easier to read than the RSV. But its literary style deprives it of the force and appeal achieved by The Jerusalem Bible at its best. Psalm 2 in the NEB reads as follows:

Why are the nations in turmoil? Why do the peoples hatch their futile plots?

The kings of the earth stand ready, and the rulers conspire together against the Lord and his anointed king.

"Let us break their fetters," they cry,

"let us throw off their chains!"

The Lord who sits enthroned in

heaven laughs them to scorn;

then he rebukes them in anger, he

threatens them in his wrath.

Furthermore, aside from its lack of vitality, the poetic language is often ruined by sheer pedantry. Ecclesiastes 12:5 is a classic example, where the fine symbolic description of old age contains the incredible clause, "The locust's paunch is swollen and caper-buds have no more zest."

On the other hand, obscure passages of prophetic poetry emerge as both beautiful and meaningful, for those accustomed to fine poetry. The traditional Christmas reading from Isaiah 9 makes excellent and moving sense in the NEB (even if "in battle God like" is a quite unjustified watering down of "Mighty Cod"). The obscure language of the KJV in verses 3-5 lives in the NEB:

"Thou hast increased their joy and

given them great gladness;

they rejoice in thy presence as men

rejoice at harvest,

or as they are glad when they share

out the spoil;

for thou hast shattered the yoke

that burdened them,

the collar that lay heavy on their shoulders,

the driver's goad, as on the day of Midian's defeat.

All the boots of trampling soldiers and the garments fouled with blood shall become a burning mass, fuel for fire."

But how much fine poetry means to the majority of English readers is still a serious question. The NEB has deliberately gone for a literary audience, and done it well. But was Isaiah understood only by the Hebrew intelligentsia?

New Testament Translations

J. B. Phillips (1958). Phillips' paraphrase is too popular to need much comment. It is a freer paraphrase than any of those considered so far, in vivid, even exuberant, English, which constantly shocks you out of your KJV-inspired torpor. For bringing an obscure (or too familiar!) passage to life, Phillips could hardly be bettered. He is excellent for reading to those with no knowledge of or interest in the Bible, though the occasional occurrence of words like "dissipation" and "denouement" (Luke 21:34; Titus 2:13) restricts the audience. But never forget that this is a paraphrase, and one which interprets the original freely. The interpretation is fairly reliable in general, being inspired by a true grasp of the New Testament (as opposed to much modern theology); but for close language study some thing much nearer to the original is needed.

Good News for Modern Man (alias TEV, Today's English Version; 1966). At funeral services I used to read the long passage from 1 Corinthians 15 in the Phil lips version until I discovered TEV. If Phillips is lively and thought - provoking, TEV is simple, basic, and drops all esoteric language. It speaks the language of the ordinary man.

The TEV is a Bible Society production, designed to be used by those who speak English as a second language. Consequently, it avoids obscure terms. It is not afraid to paraphrase where the Greek will not translate into simple English, but it aims always at accurate translation of the meaning of the original. It is not as exciting as Phillips, nor as elegant as the NEB, but it is reliable and easily intelligible, and these are virtues of great price. It was TEV that in the end proved to be the answer for our teen-age Bible study, and it is TEV that is unlocking the New Testament to thousands here in Africa. But let the educated not despise it: if it does not tickle the ear, it will present the real meaning of the Greek to him in as uncomplicated a structure as 1 can imagine.

What a relief, for instance, to find Paul's famous twelve-verse sentence (Eph. 1: 3-14) divided into fourteen short sentences! Or listen to Romans 3:21: "But now God's way of putting men right with himself has been revealed, and it has nothing to do with law. The Law and the prophets gave their witness to it: God puts men right through their faith in Jesus Christ. . . . God offered him so that by his death he should become the means by which men's sins are forgiven, through their faith in him."

And after all, Paul and the others wrote basic Greek, as near that of the market-place as that of the philosophical schools. He talked of "common clay pots" (2 Cor. 4:7, TEV), not "earthen vessels." If the gospel is going to get across to people who read and speak ordinary English, there can hardly be a better tool than TEV. Helpful section-headings, and ingeniously simple line drawings, complete this remarkable step forward in Christian communication.

The Living New Testament (1969). Kenneth N. Taylor's paraphrase of the New Testament is a freer paraphrase even than Phillips. It aims to be thoroughly colloquial, and generally succeeds well its language is vivid and arresting. Romans 2 begins, " 'Well,' you may be saying, 'what terrible people you have been talking about!' But wait a minute! You are just as bad."

The element of interpretation is strong, of course, and it is consistently in a conservative direction. If not elegant, and seldom suitable for public reading, at least in a normal church setting, this paraphrase has much to contribute to our private study, and to our efforts to get the Bible into the hands and the hearts of those who think it is unintelligible or irrelevant.

Shorter Translations

Perhaps this list is already too long, but nonetheless, I must mention one or two significant shorter attempts. For the Old Testament, you will find some helpful insights in The Psalms: A New Translation (the "Gelineau Psalms"; 1963), and in J. B. Phillips' Four Prophets (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah 1-35, Micah; 1963).

At a quite different level, you will derive more than amusement (though you will certainly get plenty of that!) from The Gospels in Scouse (Dick Williams and Frank Shaw, 1967), a rollicking, carefree interpretation of some Gospel passages in the Liverpool vernacular, and from Carl Burke's God Is For Real, Man (1966), a similarly free treatment of selected Bible passages in American down-town slang by young people of the inner city. Don't regard either of these last two as a joke; they are serious, and generally highly successful, attempts at communication to persons that most of us prefer to forget about.

So what is my verdict? For detailed study, I use the RSV, though with an eye to anything that other versions can contribute on any point. For more "devotional" reading, I find it does me good to change versions from time to time. My staple diet is Jerusalem Bible for the Old Testament and TEV for the New. For work with children and young people, and those with little pretension to literary prowess, I would generally use TEV, or perhaps The Living New Testament for some passages. But for each separate occasion, I try to use the version which gets over the meaning most clearly and effectively for that particular group, and it will not always be the same version.

 


This article is reprinted from Voice Magazine, 1971. Used by permission.

 

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-Richard France lectures in Biblical studies at the University of Ife, Nigeria.

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