The Challenges of Bible Translation: Part 1 of 2
Announcer:The 21st century has ushered in events and issues that cause us to ask, "Where is God in today's world?" In response Dallas Theological Seminary presents DTS Dialogue - Issues of God and Culture: Bible Translation. The last century has seen a drastic increase in the number and style of Bible translations, resulting in considerable debate over the benefits of literal versus non-literal translations. Thanks for joining us as we discuss the unique challenges facing Bible translators as they wrestle with the task of transferring words and ideas from one language to another. Part 1.
Mark Yarbrough:Welcome to another edition of Dallas Theological Seminar podcast. I am Mark Yarbrough, the Executive Director of Communications and I am joined here at the table, to my left is Dr. Darrell Bock who is the Research Professor of New Testament Studies and Professor of Spiritual Development and Culture. Across from Dr. Bock is Dr. Hall Harris, Professor of New Testament Studies. To Dr. Harris's left is Dr. Robert Chisholm who is the Department Chair and Professor of Old Testament Studies at Dallas Seminary. And today's topic is Bible translation. If you were to walk into a store today...an average Christian walks into the Bible bookstore, and you see, the ASV and the CEV and the GNT and KJV and the new KJV and the NRV and the NRSV and the TNIV and the NET. So immediately I am going to put Dr. Bock, and let him set the scene of some of the issues that are going on in our Christian culture that relate to this topic and have him put a backdrop for that and then we will jump in with some questions.
Dr. Darrell Bock:Well one of the interesting things, of course, about Bible translations and Bible translation work that your introduction suggests is that there is such a variety out there. I remember when I first went in to buy a Bible, I went into a bookstore. It was an episcopal bookstore. I had just become a believer, hadn't been a believer one week. And I said, "Could you show me a Bible?"; and I picked a Bible that had notes in it, because I wanted to know a little more than just the translation. I ended up picking an NAB which I didn't even realize at that time that it was a Roman Catholic translation and started to read it. There were books there that I hadn't expected, an Old Testament... all kinds of surprises. Sometimes when you choose a Bible you are just kind of on your own.
What we thought we would do is gather together some people who have translation experience, who have worked with translations. We teach language at the seminary and both Greek and Hebrew and the students are required to do this so that they can work directly with the text. There is a lot of discussion about how to do translation, how literal to be, how interpretive these translations, etc. I think the first time I came across this was with the old Living Bible, which I am sure you all remember with the famous green cover that had a pad feel to it. The discussion was, could you really trust the Living Bible because it was a paraphrase and some people would say, "It was a p-a-r-a-p-h-r-a-s-e", kind of negative tone to it. So what we wanted to do is explain and talk about the task of the translator in doing the translation and the choices that they have to make. We have brought together not only three people who teach language in this particular case, but people all of whom have had experience working with translations of various sorts or another. And Hall, why not you and then Bob tell us what your experience has been with translation work before we dive in and talk about the actual task of translation.
Dr. Hall Harris:Well, I have been involved in Bible translations for somewhere in the neighborhood of about 15 years now in some form or other. I was one of the consultants/editors on 1995 update for the New American Standard Bible, that was produced to improve and bring up to date the original New American Standard, which was published, I think, in 1973 or so. At least the New Testament came out then. After that, in 1995, I became involved with a group of scholars and translators and editors who were producing a new translation of the Bible, which is now available in its first edition called the NET Bible or New English Translation. It is called the NET Bible because it is available on the Internet for free at a website called bible.org. That translation was a new one in the sense that it was done from scratch, from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek text. It wasn't an update or a revision of a previous translation. So I have not only done some of the translation work myself, particularly in the New Testament and the Gospel of John, but also was the project director and managing editor for the entire translation.
Darrell: Bob, your experience?
Dr. Robert Chisholm:My experience in translation began in the late eighties. I was a translation consultant for the international Children's Version which was an interesting project, because we had limits in terms of word length, sentence length, because we were translating for children. So it was challenging in many ways. That translation was so popular it became the New Century Version for adults. They took the children's Bible, tweaked it a little bit for adults. I worked as a consultant on that as well, and then NET Bible project came along, and I have been the senior Old Testament editor for that. I did a lot of the initial translation on NET Bible, Joshua, Judges, Kings, Chronicles, Isaiah, Psalms, some of the minor prophets. Along the way I have done a lot of editing as well and contributed to the study notes. So I have been involved in this translation work for quite some time now.
Mark: Darrell, what about your background?
Darrell:My background started actually with a conscious paraphrase called The Message, and I was one of the New Testament consultants for that project with Gene Peterson dealing with the New Testament side of it. Then I participated with the NET Bible as well, particularly Luke and Acts. Also, Luke and Acts again for the New Living Translation. That is really my experience.
What is interesting about this collection that we have in the room is that it really represents the spectrum of what is possible in doing translation and probably the right place to start would be to ask what that spectrum is.
Mark:I'll will ell you what, Darrell. Before we get into some of those issues, let's take a step back and let's do a brief synopsis of the history of Bible translation. Hall, I am going to plunk that to you, why don't you start and everybody can jump in as you want to.
Hall:Well it may come as a surprise to a lot of people that the issue of Bible translation came up before we even had a New Testament to translate. That is, back in the second and first century BC, there was a need to translate the Hebrew scriptures, the Hebrew Bible or what we call the Old Testament, out of Hebrew and into Greek; because many of the Jewish people, particularly those who lived outside Judea, throughout the Mediterranean world and the Roman Empire, could not speak Hebrew any longer, and therefore couldn't read their Bibles. Sort of an interesting parallel to the reason we're doing translation today from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek into English or other languages because people today don't speak those biblical languages and therefore can't read the originals.
It's interesting that this translation of the Old Testament in Greek, which is known as the Septuagint or, for short, the LXX, which stands for "seventy", because tradition holds that it was done by seventy scholars, but that's only tradition. It actually was done over a period of a couple of centuries, and it exhibits almost all of the difficulties and problems that we have in Bible translation today. Some of the books that were translated were done very literally; some of them were done very loosely and periphrastically. There's all kinds of different translation philosophies represented. It's not a single, unified work. They didn't have a managing editor to oversee consistency in this thing.
Mark: And it was because there were a multiplicity of translators.
Hall:Exactly right, and it grew over time. We think the oldest books they translated were the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; because they put a high priority on those because it's the law given to Moses, etcetera. And the later books were the writings and the prophets, that's like Psalms and Proverbs and the prophetic writings. Then we get the Bible also going into Aramaic sometime after that, because many of the people in the holy land - that is, in Judea and surrounding areas - they don't speak Hebrew. They don't speak Greek as their primary language, either. They speak Aramaic. And so there was a need to have the Bible from Hebrew into Aramaic.
Initially, this was done in oral form, extemporaneously. They would have somebody read one verse of the law of Moses, or three verses from the prophets or the writings, out loud in the synagogue service, and then have somebody standing there do a live translation from the Hebrew into the Aramaic. In the process of this live translation, many interpretive comments would get tossed in for good measure, to explain to people things they might not be familiar with, like unfamiliar words or phrases. Eventually, these things - which became known as Targums, because the Targumist was the translator into Aramaic - these things came to be written down, eventually, after a number of centuries. Most of that, some of it before the time of the New Testament, some of it after the time of the New Testament. So we've now got, if you will, a Bible with explanatory notes; only the notes aren't out in the margin or at the bottom of the page, they're in line with the text itself.
Darrell: Because they couldn't be, they couldn't have been. It was oral.
Hall:Yes, in oral form, they had no other way to put them there. So those came to be written down, and we have the Bible in Aramaic today, the Targums recorded, and they give us a kind of a snapshot of the way a lot of passages in the Old Testament were understood at approximately the time of Jesus and Paul in the first century.
Now, we can take a big leap from that - well, not so big a leap. In the fourth century, and actually starting in the second century AD, we start getting the Old and New Testament, because now we're in the Christian era, translated into Latin, because the church in the West is Latin-speaking, not Greek-speaking. I'm thinking Rome and the Mediterranean world. And so the Bible is translated into Latin. The great Bible translation into Latin - it was done at the end of the fourth century by Jerome, the great biblical scholar, thought to be the greatest biblical scholar of his day - was an attempt to standardize all the different Latin translations that were floating around and make a copy for church use. This came to be known as the Vulgate. Jerome's translation into Latin, the Vulgate, became the Latin Bible of the church throughout the Middle Ages.
Darrell: In fact, we have more manuscripts of the Vulgate than we do any other version, isn't that true?
Hall:Correct. Actually, we have about ten thousand manuscripts or fragments of the Bible in Latin, compared to about five thousand in the original Greek for the New Testament. So there's a huge number of Latin manuscripts out there that have survived.
Now, starting with the Bible going into English, you have early people like Tyndale and Wycliffe, who were pioneers of putting the Bible into the English language, which was the common speech of that day. Because the same problem comes up over again: by the fourteenth century and fifteenth century, common people don't speak Latin anymore. Only the priests and clergy of the Roman Catholic Church speak Latin, and so the Bible is again a closed book to the common people. So there's this movement to translate the Bible into English. To make a long story shorter, the culmination of that was the production of the Bishops' Bible, the Geneva Bible, and then the King James Bible of 1611, which remained really, the Bible of the English-speaking world until the late nineteenth century.
Darrell: But Hall, when that was done, wasn't it controversial to put the Bible into the common vernacular of the people?
Hall:Oh, yeah. Initially, there was some objection to doing this, because the feeling was that you'll create all sorts of heresy and abuse and misuse; you can't understand the Bible properly unless you're instructed by a priest; all sorts of ideas. And some of the early translators like Wycliffe and Tyndale would make statements like, "By the time I'm done with this, the man who walks behind the plow in the field will know more about theology and about God and salvation than the priest in the church."
Darrell:You know, the same thing happened with chapters and verses in the Bible. Some people think that Bibles came originally with chapters and verses in them, and when they added the chapters and verses, some people complained about the innovation - this was adding to the Bible, etcetera. And where would we be today without being able to cite text with chapters and verses in them?
Hall:Correct. And the King James Bible was an interesting exercise. It was translation done by a committee; it was a revision of earlier work. In fact, depending on who you talk to and what numbers you get, something on the order of seventy to eighty-five percent of the words in the King James Bible actually are borrowed from John Wycliffe and his earlier English translation. But they also included, and it's not a very well-known fact, marginal notes that explained difficult words and phrases for the reader who might not be familiar with some of the biblical terms. So the King James Bible also made use of the best manuscripts they had available in their day. They used the most up-to-date texts that they could find to translate.
Now, if we move down to the modern era, we begin with the Revised Version of 1886 in England, which became - the Americanized version of that is the American Standard Version of 1901, which, by the way, I believe is still the most recent Bible translation that's public domain; it's not under copyright. Then, from there, we go to the Revised Standard Version of 1952.
Darrell: Before we go too quickly, why, all of a sudden, did we get this spate of translations at the end of the 19th century?
Hall:Well, that's an interesting question. A large part of it was the fact that the English language itself had changed over 350 years from King James' day, and so there were words that were not familiar to average readers.
Another part of it was there were discoveries taking place in Egypt and other places in the Middle East -- archaeological discoveries and discoveries of manuscripts -- that led many scholars to think they could reconstruct the text, particularly for the New Testament, that was closer to the original than the texts that had been used to translate the King James Bible.
Mark: So that's two topics. So it was driven from need and an issue of accuracy, based upon recent discoveries.
Hall:Correct. That's a good summary. Right. Now, we have a virtual explosion of modern translations in the mid-20th century and later, and so now we're in the situation where there's something in the neighborhood of 30 complete Bibles and over 40 New Testaments in English alone. That's created the situation that you find if you walk into your Christian bookstore, or even your regular bookstore, and look on the shelf: you see 15 or 20 different English translations being displayed.
There's a whole range of different translations -- some with lots of notes, some with almost no notes, some of them paraphrases, some of them very literal and word-for-word. So the modern reader, and the modern Christian, is left in the situation of, "Well, what's the best translation for me?" That is a fairly difficult question to answer, and there is some degree of personal preference involved in that.
Mark:Right. Words that often show up in this discussion -- and you've actually hit on both of those, but I want to see -- can you make a very clear distinction between "translation" and "transmission?" If we can use those two distinct words before we jump into the process of translation, which is, I know, where we want to spend some time. Can you make a distinction between those two words?
Darrell:Well, transmission, I think, has to do merely with the idea that how the Bible gets passed on from generation to generation, how it gets copied, and of course, before there was a printing press or before there were computers -- depends on how far back you want to go here!
You know, you had to copy these texts. We're spoiled: we're used to carrying our own Bible, being able to open it and read it whenever we want. In the time of Jesus, people weren't carrying their own Bibles and reading them; they had to go to the synagogue to experience what the Bible was doing. And they often heard it; they didn't read it. Part of this had to do with just the literacy rate of the culture, but part of it also had to do with just the distribution problems.
But transmission of the Bible is the process of copying the manuscripts. Actually, oftentimes someone in a scriptorium would read out the text and there would be people on desks copying them -- copying what they were hearing.
And then, of course, once we got to the printing press, then you could standardize that process. And now, of course, with computers, we've gone to a completely different level in terms of potential availability. So I think that' s what you mean by the transmission of the text, or the passing on of the text.
Darrell:The actual process of translation is actually the work of moving from one language to another language. So now, once you have what this text is, what the original text is -- in Hebrew and Aramaic, in the case of the Old Testament, and Greek, for the New -- now we're going to put it in English, we're going to put it in French or German or whatever. That's the process of translation. And with that comes all kinds of decisions.
Mark:I think that's a great distinction to make. I mean, I hear those words an awful lot. "Transmission" is from one generation to the next. It is a movement, a preservation...
Darrell: That's right.
Mark:...of the words themselves that are recorded. We would be making a distinction at certain points about oral tradition, and then even written tradition, that is carried from one generation to the next. "Translation," then, you're fully defining that as from one language to another. And obviously when we're talking about the English text, it is a translation.
Darrell:That's right. And then there are kinds of translations, and really there's a spectrum, is the way to think about it. The two terms that you often hear is there is "dynamic" translation and then sometimes -- and these are not the best words -- and then "formal" translation. Dynamic's usually associated with paraphrase, and formal is usually associated with what's often called more literal.
I'm going to ask Bob to talk about the variety represented here, because he's worked on everything from a children's translation, which I imagine you're limited in vocabulary, you're limited in sentence length, as to what the person's going to be able to understand, because of your audience. Talk about why we have that spectrum. Why, when someone sits down and says, "I'm going to do a new translation," the first decision they might have to make is: What kind of a translation is it going to be? What goes through a person's mind in trying to decide that kind of a question?
Robert:Well, the first question you have to ask in communication in general is: What is the nature of my target audience? Translators have to make decisions as to age level: What age level do we want to hit? Hall knows the statistics better than I do on this, where NIV age level falls and all of that. Could you fill us in on that, Hall? NIV is geared toward what age level, as compared to KJV?
Hall:Right. Well, the numbers vary because, quite honestly, there are different scales that are used to measure the difficulty of the English language. It has to do not only with the length of the words and the length of the sentences, but the complexity of the words and the complexity of the sentences.
There are several major scales, but in general, the NIV has advertised that they are aiming for slightly above a seventh-grade reading level, so 7.2 or 7.3 or 7.4, or somewhere in that reading level. By comparison, the King James Bible is traditionally placed at above 12th-grade level; that is, you'd have to be at least a high-school graduate or older to understand significant parts of the King James Bible. So that just gives you a kind of a feel.
I think that the NIV is a good benchmark here, because not only is it widespread and well-known, but it's also, in many respects, very much middle-of-the-road, if you will, between a very word-for-word or literal translation on one side, like the New American Standard Bible and the older 1901 ASV, and more of a paraphrase, like The Living Bible, for example, or The Message, on the other end of the spectrum.
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