Bible Translations: A Classicist Weighs In

Bible Translations: A Classicist Weighs In June 15, 2022

Every year, it seems, at least one new English Bible translation appears. Some make a big splash and start controversies (e.g., the TNIV and the ESV). Others arrive more quietly, but their sheer number still raises this question from church-goers and Bible readers: what is the best translation to use? And a related question: do we even need more English translations of the Bible? Prompting my reflections on these questions is this year’s new kid on the block, the FNV – Terry M. Wildman’s First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament (IVP, 2022).

First Nations Version covers
First Nation Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament

As an ancient historian, it is my responsibility to remind everyone that like any other seemingly recent controversy, translation debates are nothing new. The Septuagint, the translation of the Tanach (Hebrew Old Testament) into Greek, the language of the Diaspora Jews, was carried out by committees in Ptolemaic Alexandria over the course of the third and second centuries BCE. For debates surrounding this translation and its implications in shaping an entire culture, including ultimately the early Church, I highly recommend Timothy Michael Law’s When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible.

But in this post, I want to approach the topic of Bible translations from a different angle than my Christian historian or theologian colleagues have done. By bringing in the relevant debates about translation, and especially translations by women, from my home field of classics, I hope to provide a different — and, perhaps, less familiar — perspective for the Bible translation wars, and contextualize the need for such new translations as the FNV.

Since this is pertinent to this post, I should note my theological assumptions and academic qualifications. I am a member of an evangelical complementarian denomination that affirms biblical inerrancy. I have seen first-hand how in a healthy church, complementarian theology beautifully supports the flourishing of Christian women intellectuals, but that is a topic for a different conversation some other time. Also, I hold BA and PhD degrees in Classics, which means that my entire post-secondary education focused first and foremost on mastering the Ancient Greek and Latin languages and the canon of literature written in them as the foundational tools for research in ancient history. I still want to get back the three days of my life I spent cramming Theocritus’ Idylls for PhD comps – that experience was not idyllic.

But, to get back to the present question, why do we need so many Bible translations into English? And why are they so divisive? In a 2014 blog post, “Your Bible and Its Tribe,” Scot McNight rightly bemoaned the divisive nature of Bible translations. In a tongue-in-cheek list, he matched the tribes and their translations as follows:

“NRSV for liberals and Shane Claiborne lovers;
ESV for Reformed complementarian Baptists;
HCSB for LifeWay store buying Southern Baptists;
NIV for complementarian evangelicals;
TNIV for egalitarians;
NIV 2011 for peacemakers;
NASB for those who want straight Bible, forget the English;
NLT for generic brand evangelicals;
Amplified for folks who have no idea what translation is but know that if you try enough words one of them will hit pay dirt;
NKJV and KJV for Byzantine manuscript-tree huggers;
The Message for evangelicals looking for a breath of fresh air and seeker sensitive, never-read-a-commentary evangelists who find Peterson’s prose so catchy.
CEB for mainliners who read their Bibles.”

Ouch.

In another post, McNight himself noted that “The reality is that the major Bible translations in use today are all good, and beyond good, translations.” In a plot twist that he himself perhaps did not foresee when he first commented on the translation wars back in 2014, McNight is currently working on his own new translation of the New Testament for IVP.

In a post last year here at the Anxious Bench, Beth Barr agreed with McNight’s overall view of the high quality of current translations, while cautioning rightly that it matters who is translating and what cultural baggage they bring along to that work. In an earlier post, back in 2016, Barr wrote specifically on the controversy surrounding gender inclusive Bible translations, such as the TNIV. Philip Jenkins has also written here about another strange (and, in that case, funny) translation debate.

The translation wars are clearly not over, and may forever continue on this side of Heaven. Sometimes comments pop up on social media that show a remarkable degree of ignorance about the ancient linguistic and historical context of the Bible and the work of translators of any document written in an ancient language and in the context of the ancient world. So, how can the conversations about translation in the field of classics contribute to this debate? The most useful insights, I think, have arisen in response to new translations by women.

Woman with wax tablets and stylus (so-called Sappho Fresco)
Woman with wax tablets and stylus, Pompeii

In 2017, Emily Wilson ushered in what could be considered a new era of translation, when she published her translation of Homer’s Odyssey, the twenty-seventh translation of the epic into English since the year 2000! Repeatedly describing the work as “groundbreaking” and a “landmark,” reviewers and readers alike agreed that Wilson’s translation changed forever how they read the familiar epic.

What was so special about Wilson’s translation? In a nutshell: that she is a woman. “Armed with a sharp, scholarly rigour, she has produced a translation that exposes centuries of masculinist readings of the poem,” wrote one reviewer.

So where, in particular, did these differences come through? One review commends Wilson’s nuanced word choice for bringing compassion for characters whom previous translations demonized through language choice – e.g., Helen, Polyphemus the Cyclops, or the enslaved women in Odysseus’ household. And, all reviews agree, her translation is remarkably faithful to the Greek, a particularly impressive feat for a translation of Greek poetry into modern English verse.

Here is one particularly striking example. On several occasions in the Homeric epics, Helen is described (and even describes herself) as κυνῶπις – literally, “dog-eyed” or “dog-faced.” The meaning of the term, beyond the purely literal, is unclear, however. Most male translators, assuming any dog-related epithet applied to a woman (but not man!) to have the same connotations as the English “bitch” (technically, a generic term for female dog, but one laden with obvious insult value) have translated it to refer to Helen’s promiscuity and morally reprehensible behavior. After all, her adultery and elopement with Paris sparked the Trojan War. And so, translators have variously rendered the term as “bitch,” “shameless trollop,” and “shameless whore,” to name just a few. In his Homeric Dictionary for Schools and Colleges, Georg Autenrieth provides both the literal translation (“dog-faced”) and then suggests that this really means “impudent, shameless.” Unlike most modern translators, however, maybe the authors of the Odyssey did not think that Helen was such a bitch after all.

Some Homeric commentators have challenged the assumed negative meaning of the term, noting that it does not make sense for Helen to describe herself that way. Besides, we just do not have enough information to formulate a precise meaning for this adjective. In line with these dissenters, Wilson uses a different connotation, when she translates Helen’s description of her face as one that has “hounded” others.

Wilson’s translation effectively challenged the field by drawing attention to what was largely missing before: the difference that a woman’s voice can make in translating classical texts, a world dominated by men. Were the previous (mostly male) translators accurate to the Greek language? Undoubtedly. But were they also introducing a nuance of their own making into the original Greek? Absolutely.

Coming later this year, I expect Stephanie McCarter’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses will do the same for Ovid as Wilson’s translation did for Homer. McCarter’s public talks, in particular, on translating Ovidian rape narratives have drawn attention to the challenges of translating trauma and violence against women from a culture that was deeply misogynistic to one that is arguably less so. In a recent interview, McCarter talked about the challenges of translating such a charged Latin term as “vis” (force).

Both scholars’ ground-breaking translations remind that we must take into account the translator’s identity and its impact on translation. Language and culture alike play a role here. An important new book further confronting these interconnected challenges is Jhumpa Laghiri’s Translating Myself and Others. A Pulitzer Prize winning author, Laghiri has written in both Italian and English, and in this book, she considers the challenge that she initially thought was insurmountable: translating her own work from Italian into English.

It is striking indeed to think that this talented writer once thought, despite her obvious fluency in both languages, that she simply could not be happy with any translation that she ever did of her Italian-language works into English. In other words, even translating one’s own writings, much less those by a different author from a different time and a different culture, is an angst-laden experience. The results never feel fully comfortable.

Taken as a body, these works show both the difficulties involved in translation, and the importance of including a variety of voices – and, in particular, women’s voices – in translating even very familiar texts. Furthermore, they show that along with having a mastery of at least two languages, a good translator must have a mastery of two cultures: the culture from which one is translating, and the culture into which one is translating.

As Catherine Aldred’s review of the FNV for Christian Century noted, this is exactly what the FNV aims to achieve through such culture-specific nuancing as the translation of Jesus’ name as “Creator sets free.” Aldred wrote: “Never before have I encountered a translation which points so directly to the connection between First Nations traditional belief and the gospel story.”

Furthermore, Aldred noted the restorative power of this translation to confront long-standing cultural trauma and historical injustice: “While I continue to advocate for the ongoing work of First Nations language revitalization through Bible translation, I was surprised and pleased at this translation’s ability to open the door to decolonizing the gospel while still operating in the sphere of English, a language centered around literacy.”

Did the FNV set out to correct previous errors in Bible translations? No. But did it add something new and spiritually important to one group of readers? Absolutely. In a thoughtful podcast episode last summer, The London Lyceum emphasized the importance of Bible translations into other languages for evangelism. But, it seems, we sometimes forget that Bible translations into English still matter for evangelism in the English-speaking world, in our own churches, as well. And so, I would like to conclude with three important takeaways.

First, reading the Bible in translation is just as reliable, generally speaking, as reading it in its original languages. In fact, even readers who read the Bible today in the original languages have to remember our fallibility as people and, especially, as people who are not living in the cultural world of the original audiences, many of whom, by the way, couldn’t read, but engaged with the text through hearing it. I am not a native speaker of koine Greek, and I am not living under the oppressive thumb of the Roman Empire, fearing for my life because of my religious beliefs.

Second, the work of Jhumpa Laghiri, in particular, reminds us that the act of reading is always deeply personal and transformative. And when we read the Bible, that act of reading should also be relational – meaning, reading it should bring us into a deeper relationship with God and with other people. And this is where the need for all these multitudes of translations is so clear.

Third, the identity of the translator matters, as Barr and others have been saying all along. The work of translators of other classical texts, such as Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, only highlights this further. For complementarians, in particular, the value of including women’s voices on translation teams should be obvious. For anyone who affirms that God made men and women with certain differences that complement and complete His vision of human creation, it is theologically problematic NOT to include qualified women on Bible translation teams (here’s looking at you, ESV!).

I am an adult convert to Christianity from secular Judaism. Part of the reason that I am a Christian today (in addition to, of course, God’s mercy and transforming work) is that Judaism could not offer me, a woman, a direct relationship with God of the sort that Christianity promised and delivered. Reading the Gospels in the original Greek was for me an incredibly powerful and highly emotional part of drawing near God as I was exploring Christianity. Translations by teams including women, or even solely authored by women, may do the same for other women who are wondering about their place in God’s kingdom, and would appreciate a Bible translated by someone whose voice reflects their own.

God is unchanging, and so is His Word. But human language, like human society, is complex and nuanced, its words shifting in meaning over time. The many different translations rightly aim to reflect this reality while staying true to God’s Word. So, to conclude with an answer to that common question that Christians worry about: which translation of the Bible is the best? The answer: the one that draws your soul closer to God and helps you love others better. As the voice of God once said to Augustine, tolle lege. Pick up and read.

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