Which Bible translation do you use?
In the early years of the Twentieth Century, the answer to that question was simple and obvious: the King James Version. In the middle of the Twentieth Century, however, readers had two major choices: the KJV and the Revised Standard Version. By the early 1970s; they had four: KJV, RSV, the New American Standard Bible, and the New International Version--not to mention Kenneth Taylor's Living Bible paraphrase. Now we have such a proliferation of Bible translations that choosing just one is a real chore.
In How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth, Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss give us "a guide to understanding and using Bible versions," as the subtitle puts it. Fee is a world-renowned New Testament scholar and Assemblies of God minister. With Douglas Stuart he authored How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (now in its third edition) and How to Read the Bible Book by Book. Strauss is professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary in San Diego, California. Both are members of the Committee for Bible Translation that produced Today's New International Version.
Let me explain why I am personally interested in this issue. For some time, I have struggled with which translation to use. I grew up with the NIV, but it has a number of features that bug me. One is its persistent translation of Paul's concrete language with abstractions. "Flesh" becomes "sinful nature" in Galatians. "Walk" becomes "live" in Ephesians. The meaning of "flesh" in Galatians is "sinful nature," just as the meaning of "walk" is "live" in Ephesians, but I prefer the concrete metaphor over the abstraction.
Recently, the English Standard Version (basically, a conservative update of the RSV) has been gaining ground among evangelicals. (The preaching team of James River Assembly of God uses it, for example, as does John Piper.) Leland Ryken, my college English professor, has written an extended explanation and defense of the translation theory underlying the ESV in his book, The Word of God in English. For a time, I found his reasoning persuasive. But the ESV doesn't live up to the hype, in my opinion. It retains the concrete images in Galatians and Ephesians, but sometimes it uses clunky syntax and archaic vocabulary. (Instead of "rainbow" in Genesis 9, for example, it uses "bow.")
The TNIV and NRSV follow the translation philosophies of the NIV and ESV, respectively, but with one crucial difference. They are "gender inclusive," "gender neutral," or "gender accurate." So, instead of translating Psalm 1 as "Blessed is the man...," for example, they translate it, "Blessed are they..." Similarly, the New Testament vocative, "brothers" becomes "brothers and sisters." And "man" becomes "human beings" or "mortals." This is either political correctness run amok or accurate translation, depending on your translation philosophy.
The difference between the NIV/TNIV and ESV/NRSV is the difference between "formal equivalence" and "functional equivalence." Formal equivalence translations seek to reproduce the form of the translation at the level of vocabulary and syntax. Functional equivalence translations seek to reproduce the meaning. So, while the ESV/NRSV both translate sarx as "flesh" in Galatians," which is the formally equivalent term, the NIV/TNIV both translate it as "sinful nature," which is its approximate meaning.
Fee and Strauss offer a brief articulation and defense of the functional equivalence theory of translation. They argue: "The goal of translation is to reproduce the meaning of the text, not the form." Furthermore: "the best translation is one that remains faithful to the original meaning of the text, but uses language that sounds as clear and natural to the modern reader as the Hebrew or Greek did to the original readers."
In the course of articulating and defending this theory, Fee and Strauss walk the reader through the thicket of issues translators must face: picking the right words, translating figurative language, dealing with the idiosyncrasies of Greek grammar, bridging cultural gaps between then and now, accurately translating gender, making correct text-critical decisions, and translating for audiences with varying reading levels and vocabularies. I put down this book with a lot more appreciation of what translators do, even if I don't always agree with their specific translations of this or that verse.
While I basically agree with Fee and Strauss regarding the correctness of their translation philosophy (i.e., meaning over form), I do wonder whether some of the translation choices functional equivalence translations make are really necessary. Fee and Stuart regularly write that modern readers just wouldn't understand this or that idiom if it were translated in a formally equivalent way. They have a right to their opinion, but I wonder if fair-minded readers of Galatians are really so confused by "flesh" in Galatians and "walk" in Ephesians. Even if functional equivalence is the right philosophy, in other words, it doesn't always make the right translation. Sometimes, it overinterprets the text for the reader and in doing so misses out on something else the text is trying to communicate. By translating sarx as "sinful nature," for example, the NIV/TNIV misses Paul's word play about the circumcision party. They cut the "flesh" (i.e., the foreskin) in pursuit of a form of justification that is based on the "flesh" (i.e., sinful nature). This wordplay was present to the original Greek readers but is totally absent to English readers today, unless they're reading the ESV or NRSV.
Of course, some figurative language must be explained. Even the ESV flattens out metaphors now and then. And it does not attempt to translate Paul's one-sentence doxology in Ephesians 1:3-14 as one sentence in English. In other words, translations make choices, and unless you expect every parishioner in your church to know Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, you'll just have to live with these choices.
The important thing is for all of us to realize that such choices need to be made--trading off literalness here for intelligibility there--and to be gracious when translations make choices different than our own. In pursuit of such grace, Fee and Strauss's book is an excellent resource.