What makes a better Bible better?
It seems like you might prefer an idiomatic translation with notes signalling literal translation. I might prefer the opposite. Why is one better than the other?Excellent question, Peter. In my opinion, there is no single answer. There is more than one answer possible, depending on how we answer another question:
Better for what?I'm sure I'm simply reviewing what Peter and many of you blog readers already know, but there are at least two critical factors that determine how we might answer this last question:
- Use: What do you want to use this Bible version for?
- Audience: What audience are you translating for?
The ESV has also been produced for different audiences. Reference editions have been produced for audiences of Bible readers who seriously study the text. And separate editions have been produced for children and evangelism.
When we examine literary and linguistic features of a translation, we can, however, often categorize different English versions as being more suitable for certain usages than others and certain audiences than others.
The TEV (Good News Translation) was originally produced for ESL (English as a Second Language) speakers. The TEV has less complex English syntax and vocabulary than a number of versions which are used by native speakers of English, more highly educated speakers, and those who are more biblically literate. The American Bible Society, which produced the TEV, soon discovered that there was an audience of native speakers (not ESL) of English which craved the kind of English used in the TEV. I was one of those, when the TEV was first published. The TEV spoke my language. It was the first "common language" translation of the Bible, as that term is defined by William Wonderly in his book Bible Translations for Popular Use. I could read the TEV without stumbling over technical religious terms. The syntax in it was the syntax which I normally use when writing and speaking. Its vocabulary contained the words that I understood well. Therefore, the TEV spoke to my heart. It didn't require extra cognitive processing time that versions with less natural English did for me. The less cognitive processing time required meant that the text could get more quickly to those parts of my brain where I am emotively and spiritually impacted by what I read.
So, Peter, and anyone else reading this, there are different possible audiences for our translations. You, Peter, are highly biblically literate. You know the biblical languages; your speciality is a focus on the variations within extant manuscripts of those texts to try to help determine what is most likely the original wordings. You like to know, directly in a translation itself, what the biblical language idioms are (wonderful idioms, I might add). I assume that your exposure to Bible teaching as well as your own formal education has taught you the meaning of those idioms.
Other audiences, however, do not have your background. They do not understand many biblical idioms, if their individual words are translated literally. For them it is necessary to follow the recommendation of those who teach at translation training schools, that idioms be translated as a unit. I plan to blog on the different ways that idioms can be translated, so I will keep that topic for another post. My calling in life, as a Bible translator, is to try to meet the needs of those who do not understand the Bible due to language barriers. A barrier can be because the Bible is not translated yet in their language or because they have not yet accessed Bible versions which speak their dialect. Millions of English speakers today do not understand the dialect of "Bible English" which is used extensively in many English versions.
Now, we can, of course, try to squeeze all audiences into the same mold. When audiences which are not very biblically literate encounter literally translated idioms and do not understand them, we can teach them the meaning of those idioms. Much expository teaching time in churches which use more literal translations is devoted to explaining the meanings of words and figures of speech which are not familiar to many people. (That reminds me of the story, told to me by one of my pastors as being true. Some pastors were asked why they continued preaching from the KJV when their congregations did not understand it well. They answered, "Well, if I didn't use that translation, then what would be left for me to preach about?)
If we desire a translation that leaves all possible word connections clear in the text so they can be followed through careful thematic and similar Bible study, then we might prefer a translation which translates biblical idioms literally. Peter's comments have made it clear that he would like to be able to find all references in the Bible which refer to literal faces as well as references to figurative faces in idioms and other figures of speech. And there are other Bible students like Peter who want such intertextuality within the translation text itself. We just need to remember that if we leave biblical figures of speech literal, we are creating an increased processing burden for audiences who are not so biblically literate.
So, I think we can answer Peter's most appropriate question with the English idiom "Different strokes for different folks." Different audiences for the Bible and different usages of the Bible call for different kinds of translations. One size doesn't fit all. Your mileage may vary.