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The best translation?

August 26, 2013

A few weeks ago my church switched from using the NIV to the ESV as the “pew Bible.”  We don’t actually have pews but that is neither here nor there; what I mean is that we now read from the ESV in our public worship.

While we gave considerable thought to the switch I must confess that the driving motivation behind this move was the decreasing availability of the 1984 NIV.  At no time in the consideration did we arrive at some sort of neo-KJV-only sort of position where we felt that the ESV, and the ESV alone, was the “right” translation.  Frankly, if there is a distinguishing characteristic of our Bible studies it is the way people use their I-pads and other tablets to contribute alternate translations to our discussions.

This seems not to be the case elsewhere.  Online explanations as to why the ESV is best are popping up and many, like the one cited, seem smugly sure that other translations are inferior, if not seriously flawed.  This, of course, produces detailed rebuttals from other sources.  It is dismaying that so often we Christians who take the Bible seriously manage to stumble into widespread and often acrimonious public discussions on issues that make little sense to nonbelievers.  I mean, when we can’t even agree on what is a “good” translation what hope do we have of convincing others they need to trust the Bible?

Here are some things that guide me on what translations I read –

–          Say what we will, the driving force behind the plethora of modern translations is profit.  New translations appear because publishers think they can make money on them.

–          Having said that, there is no reason to assume that the scholars behind any of the modern translations have anything less than good intentions and excellent translation skills.  In each case I am sure their hearts yearn for people to read and love the Word of God.

–          Having said that, to believe that any of the scholars checked their pre-conceived notions at the door as they did the translations is absurd.  Translation is a difficult and complex task and it should not surprise us that translation choices skew to the theology that they already hold.

–          The actual meaning of words across time and cultures change, as does the meaning in different contexts.  Anyone who has studied any language knows that exact word-for-word translations are often hard, if not impossible.  Many words also have multiple, and changing, meanings.  Take the word “trunk.”  Am I talking about a tree trunk?  A car trunk?  An elephant’s trunk?  Or “junk in your trunk?”

–          I appreciate scholars that make translations and the pastors that take transmitting the Word seriously.  I am thankful for them.  But for some reason God keeps raising up wonderful believers who can barely read and who would find the complex translation arguments we engage in beyond bewildering.  Whole ministries who love God and His Word seem to minister to these people quite well without getting their knickers in a twist about some of the translation issues we stumble over.

What translation(s) do you use?  If you are not a Greek or Hebrew scholar and you use only one, my advice is to use a few more.  In any event, once you decide which one you like best, go ahead and use it as a base.  But it is probably good not to smugly enter a “best translation” argument that all but a few of us (certainly including me) have no business being in at all.


From → Christianity

  1. I pretty much use the ESV exclusively, now. No smugness intended, though. “To each his own,” I say, as long as the translation is reliable. I have no issues with NIV, NASB, or RSV. I agree with you, though, that the driving force behind most new translations is profit. And I can’t help but wonder how God feels about copies of his word costing $100+. Seriously? I started using the ESV because my favorite pastor/authors were using it, and it was the first one to come out (I think) in the Reformation Study Bible, which is the one I use.

  2. Re. Profit motive — I always make a distinction between those translations that originated with a Bible Society versus those that originated with a publishing company. Yes, the various licensed editions are often released with capturing market share in mind, but if the translations themselves originated with a non-profit, then it might be judgmental to ascribe questionable motives to people at all levels of the process who worked with pure intentions.

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