Friday, November 6, 2009
As someone with a degree of proficiency in Biblical languages (by no means an expert), I sometimes get asked about which English translations I would most recommend. This is kind of a funny question for several reasons. The first being that the moment you acquire enough skill in biblical languages that you could seriously evaluate the translations, the question of 'which translation?' itself becomes much less meaningful. When I read through the First John in Greek, my collection of bible translations stopped growing. The other thing that immediately comes to mind is exactly how much pain it causes to recommend a translation when you know that they are all fail to communicate in so many ways the riches of the original. For this, I must refer you to my disclaimer in the post below.
Putting aside the fact that all Bible translations are horrible, desolating abominations of corruption against the original sacred text, allow me to recommend a few. I'm only discussing those which I have used a fair amount.
First of all, let's just get the best one out there on the table. If you really want to get in touch with the original text without actually studying Greek and Hebrew, the best thing you can get, hands down, is the New English Translation (NET Bible). The translation is very good and original, and furthermore has a vast number of notes about the translation and original languages (over 60,000). Notes are really the only way get close to the original text. They've been working on it for years, and it's constantly being subject to peer review and improved. You can get it in print, for Kindle, for various Bible programs, and you can study it online. If you can't use the original languages, this is an indispensable tool (and it still helps even if you know them). You can also get text only editions that don't include the notes. The translation itself is very good. Similar style to the NIV, but a bit more modern, and much better decisions. However, the notes are what make this THE bible to have among all what's out there. I have it on my computer, and I am remorselessly lusting after a print edition.
As for other translations, there are a couple to be careful with. Aside from the obvious, like the New World Translation (the Jehovah's Witness translation), there are some very popular bibles out there that have major problems. Let's start: The Message. It's not a translation. It's hardly even a paraphrase. It's a commentary. There are whole sentences that are not based on anything in the original text, but are instead explanations of the author. As a commentary, it's not very detailed, but it is very readable, and there is good stuff there. I would recommend this only if one views it as devotional literature. It is one man's reflections on the Biblical text. It's not bad, but it's not a Bible. The Living Bible also falls into this camp, though it is not quite as free as the The Message.
Next, on the absolute opposite side of the spectrum, the American Standard Version (ASV). This is an extremely literal translation from the end of the 19th century that gave many people a lot of funny ideas and ended up starting a bunch of cults. It's not bad in itself, and is nice if you know biblical languages, but it isn't much use in actually discovering the meaning of the text. The modern descended of this translation is the New American Standard Bible (NASB). It's been edited to provide better English syntax, and to avoid the the heresies that some people read into the ASV. However, the NASB fails on several counts. It sometimes is so literal that obscures meanings that are clear in the original. When decisions about the meaning of the text have to be made, it seems that the interpretation is based upon whichever understanding allows preservation of the original syntax, and it almost never takes into account the argument of the books as a whole. Sometimes it translates quite brilliantly, but other times there are serious problems. I must question it's value in giving a genuine understanding of the text. Furthermore, it's a bit weak in terms of textual decisions. There are good literal translations (which I will get to), but ASV and NASB are not among them. You might want to have an NASB on your shelf for comparison, but you have to know where it's weak. It's kinda like Google Translator. Google might be better.
NIV and New Living Translation (NLT) are somewhere in the middle. decent, but not great. There are much better translations out there. NIV has nice English style, but the translators of the Old Testament don't seem to have been awake at their work. There is a lot of rubbish in the Old Testament. The New Testament is better, and there seems to be some kind of logic in their interpretative decisions but it seems to be more in order to support traditional interpretation rather than to make sense of the argument of the author. They also follow the vocabulary of the King James a lot where the meaning has changed drastically. The New Living Translation is similar, but they do make some nice modern translations, and at least the style is excellent for just sitting down and reading. The main problem in this one is over interpretation. Sometimes they make the meaning much more precise and "clear" where the original is somewhat cryptic or vague. Not totally a bad thing, but you have to realize that this is what's being done.
Next, let's get to the good literal translations. You can't talk about good literal translations without mentioning the King James. It sets the bar, and it sets it high. KJV is undoubtedly the most beautiful English translation ever produced. It generally preserves ambiguity where the original is ambiguous, and it is not afraid to bend English syntax here and there when it can be done. The Translators worked long and hard, going through multiple levels of peer review, and the result is a monument of Anglican scholarship. There are some problems, however. English has changed a great deal. Words mean different things now. I'm not just talking about 'thee' and 'thou.' I'm talking about 'rest' and 'conscience' and 'justification.' We think we understand these words, so much that the modern translators usually continue to use the same, but they meant something different 400 years ago. The King James translators were very right to use them where they did, and the modern translators are very wrong. In addition, there are places were our understanding of this or that Hebrew idiom (including those found in the New Testament) have improved over the years, as has the approach to translation. It is occasionally hard to follow the authors train of thought in the King James. Finally, perhaps the greatest problem is that we have discovered Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that are much older and generally believe to be more reliable than those available to the the KJV translators. My Greek teacher always would say that it was an excellent translation of bad manuscripts. However, the Old Testament is still useful, as is the New when compared with modern translations and a good dictionary may be helpful for getting at those antiquated meanings. I don't particularly recommend the NKJV, by the way, as it basically just diminishes the beauty of the King James without really addressing the weaknesses of the translation.
The other good literal translations are revisions of the King James (in fact... I think most of the bad ones are too). I can speak about three of them: Revised Standard Version (RSV), New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and English Standard Version (ESV); The latter two being revisions of the first. The ESV being branded as "Conservative," and the NRSV being labled "Liberal." It would be more correct to say that ESV is traditional and NRSV is academic. First off, None of these are quite as literal as the KJV, NASB, or NKJV, but they still follow the original languages quite closely and often also preserve the vocabulary of the King James (unfortunately, in some cases). The RSV is from the 50's, and I think it is the most beautiful translation into modern English. I haven't used it so much, so I'm not in a place to comment on it's strengths and weaknesses further. The ESV very nice in terms of style. It's literal, but it reads smoothly, and preserves the traditional interpretations very well. I have also notices that this is one of the best at avoiding the temptation to over-translate something. If they original is cryptic, they translate it as cryptic in English. The NRSV is also excellent. I prefer it to the ESV because it's interpretative decisions are based more on a thorough understanding of the text as a whole, as opposed to a rewording of traditional interpretation (which is what most of the modern translations amount to). This is also the one of two translation in English that I'm aware of that takes the science of Old Testament textual Criticism seriously (the other is the NET Bible, mentioned above). I can't go into what that means right now, but believe me that it is one of the best if not the best translation of the Old Testament out there. The New Testament is also great. The NRSV is the standard in the academic world as well. The NRSV is also an Ecumenical work, with scholars from all branches of the church including Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Mainline Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal, and so forth. They even had a Jewish guy working on the Old Testament. It has been approved for use by more denominations than any other. Evangelicals don't like it because it says "young woman" instead of "virgin" in Isaiah 7. To that, I say who cares?
One literal translation that I haven't checked out too much yet is the NAB, New American Bible. It's Catholic, and I hear that it's very good, but it does suffer slightly from the fact that it necessarily must uphold Catholic doctrine. Still need to get my hands on this one and see how it is.
Finally there are the idiomatic translations that I like; TNIV (revision of the NIV), HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible), and New JPS (Jewish Publication Society). The TNIV is what I generally use for my devotions. It is awesome. Very similar to the NIV, but improves upon all the weaknesses. Tends not to over-translate as much. Makes decisions in light of the argument of the book, and re-evaluates the value of traditional vocabulary at certain key points. Great. There are still a few dodgy bits in the Old Testament, but it's a lot better. HCSB is a Baptist translation. It likes Baptist doctrine. I realize this sounds awful, but it's not. They have made good use of their lexicons and come out with some brilliant translations. Not as strong as the TNIV, but very useful for comparison. It's actually also quite literal, come to think of it, but it still feels smooth and modern to read. Good translation there. Occasionally some senseless interpretive decisions, but what the heck, they're Baptists. The New JPS is a Jewish Translation. As you might guess, it's only the Old Testament. It gives a very good sense of the Hebrew in very readable English. It competes with NRSV and NET as best translation Old Testament, though it sticks to the traditional Jewish text, and doesn't touch textual criticism. Of course, they do their best to translate in such a way that would obscure the Messiahship of Jesus, but it's still pretty obvious if you ask me.
In summery, the best translation by far for study of the text is the NET Bible. Other favorites translations are NRSV, TNIV, JPS. I also like KJV and ESV because they are quite beautiful, though they have problems (the modern reader will probably get more millage out of the ESV, by the way).
Of course, nothing beats the originals in terms of beauty and clarity... (but the notes in the NET Bible still rock...)