2013 11 06

My Experience of Finding The Best English Translation of the Bible

I have recently been doing a lot of comparing of translations of the Bible. What I am looking for in a translotion is one that I can use for serious study, general reading and public reading. The list of candidates is really short now but I am torn between the top three translations. Those translations are New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), Common English Bible (CEB) and New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABre). Below is a table showing some sample passages and marks (X) indicating the translations I believe translated the passages correctly. To the side are sometimes listed additional translations that I believe render the given passage correctly. My choice of verses is related to my study of them and notice of the variance between translations. The abreviations used are as follows: KJV=King James Version. REB=Revised English Bible. NCV=New Century Version. NET=New English Translation. I'll discuss these versions below.

Verse NRSV CEB NABre Notes
1 Kings 14:10   X   KJV, Holman (footnote)
1 Samuel 14:41 X X X REB, NET, ESV
Ephesians 2:5, 8   X   REB, Holman, NCV, NET
Jude 5       ESV, NET
John 14:23     X ESV, KJV, REB, NET, Holman
Matthew 16:19 ? ? ? Young's Literal Translation
Hosea 1:2-4 ? ? ?  

Discussion

1 Kings 14:10 If you are studying and not just reading, it is important to notice that the term usually translated "man" here is unusual for Hebrew. The best translation is KJV, "Therefore, behold, I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel, and will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as a man taketh away dung, till it be all gone." Part of the point here is that Jeroboam's house is to be treated like the stuff the body eliminates ("taketh away dung"), so rather than just call a man a man, the prophet uses the description of a man in order to include another worthless bodily fluid. CEB renders the passage, "Therefore, I'm going to bring disaster on Jeroboam's house! Because of Jeroboam, I will eliminate everyone who urinates on a wall, whether slave or free. Then I will set fire to the house of Jeroboam, as one burns dung until it is gone." Not bad.

1 Samuel 14:41 is a very interesting passage and there is some interesting variance of it in the translations. KJV has "Therefore Saul said unto the LORD God of Israel, Give a perfect lot. ..." Literally, according to the Masoretic Text (MT), Saul said "Give Tummim" but since that makes no sense, the translations resort to a guess based, possibly, on the Latin Vulgate. Because it makes no sense, it is a good idea to consult other translations. In this case, looking at LXX (Septuagint) is helpful. There is more to the verse in LXX. Is it original? It's hard to say, however, the Dead Sea Scrolls have produced a number of scrolls of the book of Samuel. In one, where this section of the book is legible, there is a space here - about the right size for the Hebrew version of the LXX rendering to fit. The footnote in NRSV indicates that the reading is also indicated by the Latin Vulgate. This data supplies strong evidence that the longer version is more original than what is found in the MT. All of my favorte translations render this verse correctly. The corrected rendering gives us a glimpse into how the priests might have used the Urim and Thummim.

Ephesians 2:5, 8 is a nice passage for looking into the way a translation handles perfect tensed variables - and maybe into the theology of the translators. Ephesians 2:8 is rendered correctly by Youngs Literal Translation as "for by grace ye are having been saved, through faith,..." If a translation throws the tense of the passage into the past then it leaves the impression that it was a one-time event that happenned in the past. A cumbersom yet accurate way to translate it would be something like, "By grace you have been, are and continue to be saved...." The closest English equivalence to perfect tense is present tense, not past tense (NRSV)! The KJV translators got it right by translating, "For by grace are ye saved through faith...." They translated it this way not because they knew so much about Greek but because they knew so much about English. Notice that CEB is the only recent translation that passes.

Below, I have some things to say about the perfect tense of Matthew 16:19.

Jude 5 is interesting. None of my favorites get this one right. Recent research shows that the most original render of the verse should follow ESV, "Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe."

John 14:23 Many of the recent translations try so hard to scrub the Bible of gender-specific pronouns (when both genders is implied by the verse) that they ruin the verse. This verse is a good example. Clearly, both genders is implied; but personal intimacy between the Father, Jesus and the believer is also at the forefront. If a translations moves to plural pronouns in this verse, the intimacy disappears.

KJV: Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.

NABre: Jesus answered and said to him, "Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him."

CEB: Jesus answered, "Whoever loves me will keep my word. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them."

NRSV: Jesus answered him, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them."

Of the above, KJV seems to do the best job. NABre is right behind it, with a moderate gender-inclusive rendering but not ridiculous like NRSV.

I want to talk now about Matthew 16:19. I'm most interested in the verbs in the statement, "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven" (NRSV). In English, this statement seems to indicate that Peter's binding happens before heaven's binding; but the verb "will be bound" is perfect tense in Greek. That is, Peter's binding happens after heaven's binding because heaven's binding always has been, is and always will be bound. Putting that "be" verb into the future tense (will be) suggest enormous authority to Peter; but actually, Peter only responds to things that started in heaven.

Remember, in English, the closest approximation of perfect tense is present tense. For CEB to be consistent, it should render Matthew 16:19, "Anything you fasten on earth is fastened in heaven."

New American Standard Bible and several other translations solve the problem by rendering the verbs as past tense. "Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven" (NASB). That's a little clearer; but rendering Greek perfect into English past is confusing in other places (like Ephesians 2:5, 8).

In English, "will be bound" is a single, multi-word verb. I think the translators of most versions intend the verbs to be separate. ESV may actually mean, "whatever you bind on earth shall (i.e., when you do it) be (something that already is and will continue to be) bound in heaven" (parenthetical remarks mine).

Young's Literal translation has it best with "whatever thou mayest bind upon the earth shall be having been bound in the heavens."

I mentioned in the chart above a passage in Hosea. This is one of those judgment calls. Which translation best captures not only the precision but the impact of the original language. Hosea 1:2 reads, in part, "Go, marry a prostitute and have children of prostitution" (CEB). NRSV has "Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom." NABre agrees with CEB. It seems to me NRSV has the most appropriate impact; but the others are not bad translations.

Hosea 1:4 says, Then the LORD said to him: Give him the name "Jezreel" (NABre). Jezreel means "God sows." The other two children have overtly symbolic names and the suspicion with the name Jezreel is that it, too, is symbolic. I don't think the meaning of the name Jezreel is significant in this case; but rather the history of the town of Jezreel is in view. Nevertheless, the translation ought to provide a footnote to alert the reader to the meaning of the name Jezreel. NRSV and NABre each has a footnote. CEB does not. The lack of a footnote at this point surprises me; but CEB doesn't have a preponderance of footnotes. I see the dearth of footnotes to be a weakness of the CEB.

And so here is a good place to segue into my personal thoughts about the popular translations.

Of my top three, CEB reads quite well and is excellent for public reading. For study, I wish it had some more footnotes.

NRSV is very accurate, especially in the Old Testament -- except for the Psalms. Both NRSV and CEB suffer in the accuracy department when they try with all their might to avoid gender specific pronouns. NRSV's vocabulary is starting to feel a bit dated. It's alright with me but I'm sure it's about to be eclipsed by CEB for people who have been using NRSV. I have been wanting to see a revision of NRSV; but the copyright owners have not had much interest -- probably because NRSV is making enough money as it is. That's probably about to change. Maybe they'll do a revision, move in the direction of ESV and be less stuck on the gender issues but not waffle on the renderings of a few Old Testament passages, like ESV did.

NABre is the best of the lot, BUT! It is a Catholic Bible, which means there are books of Apocrypha scattered throughout the Old Testament. That's a bit of an annoyance. If a Bible comes with Apocrypha, it makes sense to group those books together in a separate section of the Bible. Also, for some reason, it seems to not be possible to obtain a premium quality NABre. Noboby binds them in real leather. If that's what you want, you should buy a nice smyth sewn hard-back of it and have it rebound in a nicer material. If any publishers moved all the Apocrypha to a separate section I would be totally sold.

The Holman Christian Standard Bible does a real good job; but it has a few features that annoy me. For one, it is not consistent on how it translates "YHWH" in the old testament. The rendering is usually "LORD" except when the reading says something like "My name is YHWH." Then Holman will translate the name as "Yahweh." Also, the translation is strictly out of the Hebrew (MT) and Greek. That means, especially in the Old Testament, they didn't textually analyze what they were translating -- especially by comparing it to the LXX.

ESV is a revision of the RSV. It is a pretty good translation; but the translators waffled on some Old Testamest verses, notably Isaiah 7:14. "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." The word "virgin" here is just wrong. The best translation is "young woman." That verse was the biggest bone of contention people had with the RSV, which says "young woman" in the verse. So the translators gave this rendering not because of how it reads in Hebrew but rather how it reads in the New Testament! The only reason I can see that the ESV team translated the Hebrew word to "virgin" is to boost sales. On the other hand, ESV has an almost open copyright.

NET Bible is quite accurate and I consult it a lot; but it is not a joy to read -- personally or in public. I'm not sure why. It might be because it is such a technical translation. I hightly recommend having one (with full notes) in your personal library.

Revised English Bible is really nice. It is a delight to read and it features excellent contemporary English. It is nice to have around; but for serious study, it needs more footnotes.

The more I look at New International Version (NIV) the less seriously I can take it. It softens so many passages that are difficult in the original languages. Many times it softens the difficulty in favor of a standard Evangelical bent. The best example I can offer is Deuteronomy 1:1. Compare the two translations of this verse (italics mine):

These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Dizahab (ESV).

These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the desert east of the Jordan--that is, in the Arabah--opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Dizahab (NIV).

On the surface, the difference may seem inconsequential; but it is not. You see, in the original Hebrew, the writer of Deuteronomy is west of the Jordan. Since Moses was never west of the Jordan, the writer of Deuteronomy could not have been Moses. We can either wrestle with the assumption of Moseic authorship or we can read the NIV and be happy; because in the NIV it is not clear on what side of the Jordan the writer is!

There are enough of these questionable renderings to make this translation an ideal Evangelical Bible. Is that what I want? a translation that dodges the difficult original language in favor of my personal theology? Do I want to learn the truth or have my comfort zone padded? It seems to me that the NIV is to Evangelicals what the New World Translation is to Jehovah Witnesses. That's not what I want in a translation.