Translations of the Bible

As a slight break and diversion from my ongoing discussion about the Fall and the Bible, some general and informal thoughts about English translations of the Bible.

Pre-eminent, of course, is the King James Version (KJV).  It is one of the fonts of English as we know it, the beloved Bible of the English-speaking peoples for four centuries, the epitome of beauty and poetry in our language, the standard for what “religious language” is supposed to sound like–one could continue indefinitely.  I firmly believe that every English-speaker of all churches, and for that matter, of all religions (and of none) should read the KJV at least once in his or her life.  No matter what one’s belief system, there will be something to be learnt, something of value; and one certainly cannot understand English literature without it.

Even for spiritual use, it is surprisingly relevant even now.  I don’t count churches–usually Fundamentalist–that are “King James only”.  There are too many logical and historical problems with such a view, and as a Catholic I certainly belong to no such church.  Still, it is common to view the KJV as outmoded and irrelevant today.  A year or two ago I decided to re-read the Gospels for Lent; and I decided, I know not why, to do so in the KJV.  Surprisingly, I really got a lot out of it.  More so, in fact, than I had the last time I’d read them in a modern translation.

Having said that, I’d still admit that for study or in-depth reading, the KJV,  for all its grandeur, is not the most suitable translation.  Certainly Paul’s Epistles are nearly impenetrable in the KJV, as are parts of the Old Testament (Leviticus springs to mind).

I should point out at this juncture that the Catholic equivalent of the KJV is the Douay-Rheims version (DR), released about thirty years before the KJV.  It had some influence on the latter, in fact.  Many Catholics of a Traditionalist bent prefer the DR.  Actually, they don’t; the original DR is almost unreadable in places, being excessively Latinate.  The edition that most Catholics who own a DR Bible have is actually the revision of it made two hundred  years after it was originally published, by Bishop Richard Challoner.  He brought it closer to the KJV, and made it much more readable.  For examples of the difference, see here.  My view on this is that I’d rather read the KJV than what turned out to be an imitation of it; and I know enough about the faith that I won’t be unduly influenced by the Evil Protestantizing Agenda of the KJV!  [Update: (May 2018)  My wife of eighteen years entered the Catholic Church this year at the Easter Vigil.  Yay!  She decided to start reading the Bible; and, for reasons of her own, she decided to start reading the Douay-Rheims version.  I bought a hardcover book for her, and also got a digital version for her Kindle Fire.  Since we had the digital version, I put in on my Fire, too; and somewhat quixotically, I decided to start reading it, myself.  I’m into Exodus, now.  I’d still stand by what I said about the King James Version; but I’m finding the Douay-Rheims better than I’d expected (though the different transcription of names is a bit jarring at times).  When I finish, I may write a future post about it.]

The most widely influential successors to the KJV are the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and its late-80’s revision, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).  They are the culmination of a process of modernization that began in the 19th Century.  I won’t recap it here, but you can read about it elsewhere in detail.   The mandate of both versions was to stay as close as possible to the KJV (the prototype of which the RSV and NRSV are the “revisions”) while dropping obsolete, archaic, or confusing terms and striving for greater comprehensibility for educated modern English speakers (I’ll explain the qualification “educated” later).  Both broadly use the “formal equivalence” method of translation (stay as close to the original source-language as far as grammatical and syntactic differences between the languages and intelligibility in the target language permit) rather than “dynamic equivalence” (re-phrase the meaning in the source language in terms suitable for the target language), though the NRSV has moved a little in the second direction, compared to its predecessor.

In my view, the RSV is less “user-friendly” than it was originally billed.  It does hew very closely to the KJV–there are whole blocks of text that are identical or almost identical.  It also retains the use of the forms of “thou” and the matching verb forms in addressing God.  This is rather curious as it is actually a departure from formal equivalence translation.  Many modern languages have informal and formal words for “you”, e.g. tu and vous in French, and Usted in Spanish, ty and vy in Russian, and so on.  However, none of the relevant ancient languages of the Bible–Biblical Hebrew, Koine Greek, or the Latin into which it was early translated–make such a distinction.  There is a distinction between singular and plural, that is “you” and “y’all” (e.g. tu and vos in Latin), and the plural forms much later became modes of formal address to an individual.  However at the time of the composition of the Scriptures, there was no such distinction.  The Hebrew atah or Greek sy could be used to address a slave or a king.

Thus, the translation of these pronouns as the liturgical, “churchy” sounding “thou”, “thee”, “thy”, etc. was merely to make the translation sound more “Biblical”.  Perhaps this was necessary to help win over those suspicious of replacing the venerable KJV; but it did misrepresent the original.

In any case, my issue with the RSV is that it does little to untangle syntax, especially that of such famously tangled writers as Paul.  It’s not unusual to see paragraph-long sentences with multiple subordinate clauses, in which, by the time you get halfway through, you’ve lost the gist of what’s being said.  Admittedly, such syntax is the norm for Latin and Greek.  Hebrew has its own syntactical peculiarities, such as a relative lack of abstract nouns and verbs, resulting in what are, to us, unusual constructions.

Of course, part of the mandate of the RSV was to keep as close as possible to the KJV (which was very much formal equivalence) and to stay as close to the original languages as possible.  That is a valid goal.  For me, though, the result is something neither bird nor beast.  The modernizing of the language in many places falls flat in comparison to the magnificent and sonorous KJV; in other places, one needs to read slowly and carefully to pick out the meaning of what, exactly, is being said, because of the Hebraic or Hellenic syntax that has been preserved.  I said above that this is for “educated” speakers of English.  I think anyone who is literate to a high-school level, at least, could probably get the basic gist of what’s being said in most Bible translations.  I think, however, that to really get a good grasp of the material, reading the RSV, one would need to be college-educated, or a precocious high-schooler capable of reading on a college level.  For all its good intentions, the RSV is not Everyman’s Bible.

As I said, the NRSV has moved much more in the direction of dynamic equivalence.  I think it is much more balanced than its predecessor.  It has modernized the pronouns and untangled the syntax quite a bit.  It  has made some silly concessions to modern usage, e.g. replacing “ass” (the equine) with “donkey” (one imagines Beavis and Butt-head in church, sniggering, “Huh-huh, huh-huh–he said ‘ass’!  Huh-huh, huh-huh!”).  Still, I think it is probably the best balance between scholarly precision and general readability yet produced in the modern English language.

Actually, the first modern-English Bible I read was the New English Bible (NEB).    This was the first totally fresh translation of the Bible into English in centuries.  All previous versions (such as the RSV, or the Catholic Confraterny Bible, a revision of the DR) were revisions of earlier translations, or had mandates to keep close to such earlier versions.  The NEB started from scratch and was firmly committed to dynamic equivalence.  That is, the translation was not to reflect the structure of the original languages, but to be thought-for-thought.  This produced translations that were strikingly different (e.g. Genesis 1:1–“In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth….”) and strikingly vigorous and fresh (I have always liked the translation of Jesus’ “Amen, amen” in the Gospels as “In truth, in very truth.”).  Reading it about a year after I’d read the KJV, I felt that for the first time I was hearing the Bible speak to me.  I was able to understand the KJV quite well–I’ve read a lot of English prose and poetry from that era, and am comfortable with it–but this was something startlingly clear and relevant, it seemed.

Over the years since I was a teenager (I read the KJV and NEB between the ages of about 17 and 19) I’ve learned a smattering of the relevant languages and read large amounts of Biblical scholarship and theology.  Returning to the NEB, I still like it, but find it just a bit loosey-goosey for my taste now.  I’d still say that if one wanted to sit down and read the Bible without necessarily doing an in-depth study, this is one of the better translations.  It was produced in England, and I have always maintained that the Brits have a better way with prose than we colonials.  The NEB is, as I said, loosey-goosey, in the name of greater comprehensibility; but unlike American dynamic equivalence translations, it rarely sounds banal or silly.  One example–the earlier version of the Catholic New American Bible (NAB) renders Deuteronomy 6:6-7 as “Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.  Drill them into your children.”  The NEB has the much better “These commandments which I give you this day are to be kept in your heart; you shall repeat them to your sons.”

That does bring up a point–banim, literally “sons”, has the general meaning of “children”, too.  The first wave of modern translations, made between the 40’s and the early 70’s were not “gender inclusive“.  That’s a can of worms I don’t want to open.  Suffice it to say that one, I am more or less in the middle on the issue (don’t mangle the original, but if the phrase is clearly indicative of either gender, then make that clear); and two, almost all translations and revisions since the 90’s have moved in the direction of inclusiveness.  The 90’s revision of the NEB, the Revised English Bible (REB), for example, has the above as “…repeat them to your children.”  The NRSV has also gone in this direction compared with its predecessor the RSV.

As the NRSV moved away from the formal equivalence of its predecessor towards dynamic equivalence, the REB moved from the dynamic equivalence of its predecessor towards a more formal equivalence approach.  Thus, both the NRSV and the REB, in my view, are balanced at about the right point.  I would recommend either for anyone.  The only slight proviso is that, while both have Catholic editions with the Deuterocanonical books, the NRSV (as did its predecessor the RSV) has an edition with all the extra books present in appendices of Orthodox Bibles, including Psalm 151 and one or two other books not available, I think, in the NEB.  Thus the NRSV is the only translation with all books accepted by Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox (some of the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox, e.g. the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church, have a few other books not present in Orthodox editions; but these are relatively small communities in the West).  There has also been a slightly higher number of renowned scholars associated with the RSV and NRSV, though the scholarship of the NEB and REB is high, too.  Overall, I’d favor the NRSV by a hair, but I think one would not go wrong with the REB, either.

I’m not going to go into detail on other versions.  For those at a lower reading level, the Good News Bible, available in Protestant and Catholic editions, is useful, though its simple language makes it, in my view, unsuitable for in-depth study.  The once-common New International Version (NIV), in its various incarnations, was originally intended as a response to the RSV, which was seen as being too theologically “liberal” by conservative Protestant groups.  It has a theological agenda I’m not sympathetic with, and it has no Catholic version.  However, I own a copy just for reference, and its prose isn’t all that bad.  It reads about as well as the NRSV, though it has less scholarly depth.

There are other Protestant translations, but they are mostly niche markets, or the umpteenth revision of the KJV, or pushing agendas, or paraphrases, or some such.  There are other, newer translations–the English Standard, the Holman Christian Standard, and so on, but most are either re-revisions of other versions (as the ESB), or have nothing to recommend them that is not provided better by the older translations, in my view.  In my view, none of them rises to the level of the RSV/NRSV or NEB/REB.

I haven’t mentioned Catholic translations (that is, translations made specifically for Catholics under Catholic auspices, as opposed to Catholic versions of ecumenically translated versions) because, though I’m Catholic, I don’t think there is yet a Catholic translation in English that comes up to the standards of the best Protestant translations.  I’ve spoken my piece about the Douay-Rheims Bible.  The Confraternity Bible was an ill-done modernization of it, and was based solely on the Vulgate (the papal bull allowing direct translation from the original languages, formerly forbidden to Catholics, came out as the CB was in process).  Its successor, the aforementioned New American Bible, in its original form was even worse.  In my view, its dynamic equivalence was much too loose and slangy, and sounded terrible when proclaimed aloud.  It has been revised in a more formal equivalence (and less gender inclusive) direction, but it still doesn’t come up to the RSV/NRSV or NEB/REB, in my view.

The only Catholic translation in English that matches the scholarship of the RSV/NRSV is the Jerusalem Bible and its successor the New Jerusalem Bible.  These were based on the Bible de Jérusalem, a French translation done by the École Biblique, one of the world’s most eminent and scholarly organizations for study of the Bible.  Alas, it was charged–not without some justice–that the Jerusalem Bible was largely translated from the French, with use of the originals, rather than directly.  In any case, it’s not a bad translation, though the decision to translate the Divine Name by “Yahweh” rather than the tradtional “LORD” in all caps is somewhat jarring.  Its successor, the New Jerusalem Bible, as was the case with the NEB, moved in a more formal equivalence direction, and was translated directly from the originals.  Both translations, in my view, are better than any iteration of the NAB; but neither quite comes up to the RSV/NRSV, though the original JB is considered by many to be an excellent translation (however it was done).*

As to Orthodox Bibles, there’s even less to say.  In the past, English-speaking Orthodox have used modifications of existing translations–e.g. the Orthodox Study Bible, based on the New King James Bible, or the New English Septuagint, a translation of the Greek Old Testament (preferred over the Hebrew by the Orthodox), based on the NRSV.  As far as I know, the only complete and original translation of the entire Bible under Orthodox auspices is the still in progress Eastern Orthodox Bible.  I have not read the parts of this which are available, and thus cannot comment on it.

So, my recommendations?  First, everyone should read the Bible, regardless of his/her personal faith or lack thereof, because of its importance, for better or worse, to our civilization, culture, and history.  Second, everyone should read the King James Bible (which actually has a translation with the Deuterocanonicals, though most people don’t know this) at least once, for its significance to our language.

For one who wants to be able to read the Bible in a smooth modern translation that is also scholarly and accurate, my first preference would be the New Revised Standard Version.  My second choice would be the Revised English Bible.  If one insisted on a Catholic-produced Bible, I’d say the New Jerusalem Bible is best, and say stay away from the New American Bible for personal use (alas, it is the only approved translation for lectionaries in the US; which is odd, since the Vatican used the NRSV in citing Scripture in the English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church!  England, ever more sensible, uses the NJB).  For Protestants, the New International Version or the English Standard Version would be distant seconds to the RSV/NRSV or NEB/REB.

All right, there it is:  now, take up and read!

*Update:  A couple of things about the Jerusalem Bible of which I wasn’t aware at the time I wrote this post originally:  The Catholic Truth Society Bible (CTS New Catholic Bible), available from Amazon UK, is the entire text of the original Jerusalem Bible, with the Psalms of the JB replaced with the original Grail translation of the Psalms–the same as that used in English-language breviaries.  In my view, the Grail Psalms are the best English version, anyway, so this is a plus.  In the Old Testament, in line with directives from Rome, “LORD” is once more used instead of “Yahweh”.  The size of this Bible is unfortunately small, with tiny text, and this may be a problem for those of us, myself included, in the bifocal set.  Still, I think this is an improvement on the original.

A further successor from the École Biblique (which would therefore be the successor to the New Jerusalem Bible) is in progress under the title, The Bible in Its Traditions.  Like the CTS Bible, this edition will use “LORD” for the Divine Name.  Beyond that, I don’t know much about it or when it’s scheduled to come out; but excepts from it can be read online at its website, and a little bit about it from Wikipedia is here.  I’ve read a bit of the so-called Demonstration Volume and it seems pretty good; but I’ll withhold more detailed comments and opinions until it comes out officially (which doesn’t appear to be anytime soon).

Update May 2018:  The New Testament of the Revised New Jerusalem Bible–the latest revision of the Jerusalem Bible–is now available.  When I get around to getting this and reading it, I may post a review.  Also, when I hear word about the Old Testament, I’ll update.

Update 2The Eastern Orthodox Bible New Testament was completed in 2013 (a year after I originally wrote this post) and is now available for purchase.  At the present time (2018) I still have not read it, so I am still unable to comment on it.  If I do read it at some future point, I will update this post again to reflect that.  Still no word on the Old Testament, as far as I know, though there are various separate translations of the Septuagint available.

Posted on 05/08/2012, in Bible, Christianity, religion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Hi Turmarion,

    Great post, as usual!

    I’d just make a couple qualifications.

  2. 1) The King James differs from, say, the NRSV in terms of the source manuscripts as well as the actual translation, and a number of passages in the KJV either don’t appear, or appear in footnote or bracketed form in modern versions.

    2) There are variations on the KJV, e.g. the 21st Century KJV which maintains the KJV selection of texts for translation and archaic syntax, verb forms, pronouns etc. but modernizes some of the obsolete vocabulary.

    • Very true–the post was getting long and I didn’t want it to get totally away from me, so I didn’t get into the manuscript traditions. That’s why this post was so link-heavy–I was giving people places to go for more information.

      That was actually the rationale behind some modern translations, such as the New King James or several of the Orthodox versions. For various reasons, they’re committed to the texts used in the older translations. In the case of the former, it’s Protestants who think the newer textual traditions are an evil plot by liberals to undermine Christian doctrine; in the case of the latter, it’s because the Orthodox believe that the Septuagint was translated under Divine inspiration, and that thus the places in which it differs from the Hebrew are part of Revelation.

      In any case, thanks for the comment, and I’m glad you liked the post! Btw, what’s your favorite translation, if you don’t mind the question? Just curious.

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