The Politics of Bible Translations

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 12.21.55 PMThe Bible you carry is a political act. By “Bible” I mean the Translation of the Bible you carry is a political act. Because the Bible you carry is a political act the rhetoric about other translations is more politics than it is reality. The reality is that the major Bible translations in use today are all good, and beyond good, translations. There is no longer a “best” translation but instead a basket full of exceptional translations.

The world in which we live, however, has turned the Bible you carry into politics. So here goes for my politics of translation at the general, stereotypical level, and it goes without having to say it that there are exceptions for each, [added: and I have “de-raced” my descriptions to avoid that conversation]:

The NIV 2011 is the Bible of conservative evangelicals.
The NLT is the Bible of conservative evangelicals.
The TNIV is the Bible of egalitarian evangelicals.
The ESV is the Bible of complementarian conservative evangelicals.
The NASB is the Bible of conservative evangelical serious Bible students.
The NRSV is the Bible of Protestant mainliners.
The RSV is the Bible of aged Protestant mainliners.
The CEB is the Bible of Protestant mainliners.
The KJV … fill in the blank yourself.
The Message is the Bible of those who are tired of the politics (and like something fresh).

[As some have pointed out, I have not included the Bibles of other major branches of the church — Roman Catholics tend to have their own translations as do the Orthodox and others. Thanks for these.]

Now the big one: each of these translations is a very good translation. The rhetoric that “our Bible” is better than your Bible — masked as “word for word” or “accurate” — is political rhetoric and not translation theory.

The politics of Bible translation is a sad case of colonizing the Bible for one’s agenda. There is lots of stone throwing about translations as if one is wildly superior to the others, but often that is about tribes and not the translation.

Each group has its Bible, has its translation, and you declare your allegiance to your tribe by carrying and citing the Bible of your tribe. Show your cards by exposing the Bible you use and you will be telling us which tribe is yours.

Anyone with knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek knows that these Bibles are solid, both in theory and execution, translations.

When I visit a new church I can walk into the sanctuary (or auditorium) and know which tribe the church belongs to by the pew Bible: the translation tells the story because Bible translations have become ecclesial politics.

Why say this? To say this: Each of these Bibles is a good translation. We need to teach our church people that and knock off the politics of translation. Maybe you should vary from week to week which translation you use, announce your translation, and then affirm the value of that translation.

A year of confusing the politics out Bible translations might bring the most clarity!

Another point being made in the recent dustup about the TNIV and the NIV 2011 (and the NIVI) has to do with “translation theory.” I hear it like this all the time: I prefer “dynamic equivalence” (functional equivalence) or I prefer “formal equivalence.” Sometimes it gets expressed by such words as “paraphrase” or “literal” and sometimes by “bad” and “good.” Or “loose” and “tight.”

I’d like to contend today that most words are translated in all Bible translations with formal equivalence and that some words are translated more or less in a dynamic, or functional way. In other words, there isn’t really a radical commitment to dynamic equivalence — as if one can find some better way in English to the original languages “and” or “but” or “the” or “God.” Or a radical commitment to “formal equivalence,” as if the Greek word order can be maintained in English and make sense, though at times the NASB gave that a try (much to the consternation of English readers). No one translates “God’s nostrils got bigger” (formal equivalence) but we translate “God became angry.” There are some expressions that can’t be translated woodenly unless one prefers not to be understood. (See Dan Wallace.)

The result of this is that all translations are on a spectrum of more or less formal and more or less dynamic. Now one more complication: each translation will vary for individual words or phrases or clauses.

Each of these Bibles is good. Let’s use them all, and rejoice that we have such wonderful access to the Bible.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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