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The Word: On the translation of the Bible by John Barton

11 November 2022

Cally Hammond enjoys a consideration of the art of Bible translation

“EXHILARATING”, says the cover blurb — and, amazingly, it is: scholarly intelligence, a readable style, and insights at every turn, with no language but English needed. This book is not a comparison of different Bible translations, but a study of how translators work, and the choices that they make. It is decades of expertise in the fine wood-grain of biblical texts and languages, applied to the clump of trees in a landscape that is scripture as we mostly encounter it.

As a published translator, I wrestle with problems that John Barton identifies as fundamental to the “translator/traitor” paradox. But nobody makes life-changing decisions on the back of my word-choices for Caesar’s Gallic War or Augustine’s Confessions. Barton shares with James Barr (whom he mentions appreciatively) a Newtonian clarity in identifying conceptual difficulties, and investigating them in ways that enlighten readers instead of mystifying them.

Unlike some scholars, he gives fair weight to translations that “take the text to the reader” by finding ways to express in a target language what might otherwise remain meaningless, or even misleading (like the words “alien” and “talent” in the New Revised Standard Version). He introduces readers to theories of formal-equivalence translation (like the Authorised Version) which track the expressions and structures of the source-languages; and functional-equivalence translation (as in the Good News Bible, GNB), which groups and transmits information in units for target languages.

I dislike functional-equivalence translations, but then specialised language study has infected me with the privilege of choice. Greek and Latin literature can reach sublime sophistication; and yet much ancient literary theory has a functional-equivalence, GNB attitude to content (what “facts” you convey) and form (how you “clothe” facts with words). We might conclude that “content” deals with important things and acts (nouns and verbs), but “form” with less important impressions and feelings (adjectives and adverbs).

That is not adequate for understanding Classical texts, or Bible texts. Take the Book of Psalms: Barton refers warmly to the Prayer Book Psalter of Miles Coverdale (who had no Hebrew, and apparently no sense that such a deficit might disqualify him as a psalm-translator). As my first Bible was a GNB, I was mystified when people said that they loved the psalms. I thought that they were all the same: “God, you are great: I am miserable/happy/angry.” Conveying the ancient otherness of the Bible, and its complexity, need not always be off-putting. Biblical ideas are embedded in their context, and things can change or break when we force them into our thought world.

Scripture is a mirror in which we look for ourselves. It is also a rock that we cast ourselves against to discover our strengths and weaknesses. However learned we may be, we stand on giants’ shoulders, and trust others’ judgements, to catch glimpses, or wangle views, of the Truth. By the end of this book, most readers will be convinced that no translation is perfect, while different translations fit different missional or ecclesiastical contexts. Studying The Word to understand the Word will not imperil, but enhance, the value that we seek and find within the holy writings.


The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is the Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.


The Word: On the translation of the Bible
John Barton
Allen Lane £25
Church Times Bookshop £20

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