One Bible, Many Versions: Are all
translations created equal?
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THE title and subtitle of David Brunn's book will mislead many
potential readers into thinking that this is a comprehensive guide
to selecting a good Bible translation. In fact, it is a treatment
(expert and sensitive) of the preference among some Evangelicals
for "literal" translations. Apart from the KJV, he discusses only
Evangelical versions, and there are no references to
non-Evangelical scholarship, nor indeed to the existence of
non-Evangelical Christians as Bible-readers.
The discussion thus takes place within a closely defined world
of discourse, and those who do not belong to that world may well
wonder why they should take any interest in the book at all.
That would be a pity, however, as Brunn has much to teach about
biblical translation. He writes out of his training as a linguist,
and his experience as a practical translator of the Bible
(primarily the New Testament) into Lamogai, one of the many
languages spoken in Papua New Guinea.
He challenges the assumption among many of his fellow
Evangelicals that English is somehow the normative target language
for translations of scripture, pointing out that the gap between
New Testament Greek and English is very small compared with that
between either of them and a non-Indo-European language such as
Lamogai. (He recognises, but somewhat downplays, the fact that
Hebrew is also non-Indo-European.)
Word-for-word translation, impossible even between Greek and
English, is a ludicrous concept when the translator is faced with
an agglutinating language, in which what we think of as whole
sentences may need to be expressed by a single word. Although Brunn
is the most eirenic of writers, he surely has in his sights "King
James Version fundamentalists" who believe that this one
translation is itself divinely inspired. Surely, he argues, God
does not privilege English above all the other languages of the
The main argument of the book is a brilliant double-pronged
attack on those who think that the more "literal" translations are,
the better they are. First, an analysis of a dozen or so modern
(Evangelical) translations such as NASB, ESV, NIV, and so on,
reveals that none is really literal. Sometimes those that claim
literality are in places actually less literal than others that are
avowedly freer, and more committed to "dynamic equivalence" (idea
for idea, rather than word for word).
But, second, he shows that literality is a will o' the wisp
anyway. Once we leave aside the interlinear crib, which presumably
no Bible-reader wants, all translations work by analysing the
meaning of a passage and trying to express it in the target
language. Some reflect features of the original more closely than
others, but none is truly "literal".
This discussion should be pondered by all concerned with
biblical translation. I wish Brunn would write another book for a
less specifically conservative Evangelical readership, commenting
on such versions as NRSV, NJB, and REB. Much discussion of
preferences in biblical translations is woefully uninformed about
basic linguistics, and Brunn has the enviable ability to explain
the necessary concepts clearly and simply, as well as having
practical experience that cannot but command respect.
Dr Barton is Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation
of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford.