Growing up in the 1980s, it seemed there were a few basic Bible translations different Christians in my circles used. My Evangelical friends had the New International Version (NIV), we Lutherans had the Revised Standard Version (RSV), and my fundamentalist friends had the King James (KJV). My Catholic friends had their own various translations, either the official New American Bible (NAB), the Jerusalem Bible, or the Douay-Rheims. Many people also had the paraphrase The Living Bible on hand.
Looking back now, that’s a lot of Bibles compared to what prior generations had. But it’s nothing compared to the profusion of Bible translations we have today. Mainliners revised the RSV into the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), conservative Evangelicals bought the rights to the RSV and revised it into the English Standard Version (ESV), and evangelical Catholics have issued a Rome-compliant version of the RSV in the Ignatius Bible—Second Catholic Edition. The NIV was issued in a couple “inclusive language” editions (the TNIV and NIVI) and now finally the revised NIV of 2011. The NAB has been undergoing needed revisions. And we now have the ecumenical Common English Bible (CEB), the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), and the New Living Translation (NLT). The word of God as alphabet soup.
And it’s not just translations. We are also confronted with a multitude of editions. Oxford and HarperCollins publish NRSV study Bibles, while Evangelical houses publish study editions of the ESV and NIV. Then there are niche Bibles, such as The Green Bible for the ecologically sensitive, “BibleZines” (the Bible in magazine format: Becoming for young women, Revolve for girls, Refuel for guys), and (I kid thee not) Zondervan’s Holy Bible: Stock Car Racing Edition, for which the customer reviews on Amazon are priceless.
Bibles still sell, even though few really read them, and so publishers have incentives to market new translations and niche editions to a public possessed of a consumerist mentality. New translations also arise from the evangelical impulse to reach people in language accessible to them in editions interesting to them. And as every translation is an interpretation, theological and ideological convictions generate translations as various Christian bodies and committees produce Bibles in accord with their convictions, whether Calvinist or androgynist.
The variety of Bibles available to American Christians, then, reflects the radical diversity and individuality of American society. And that’s a problem on at least two levels. First, thanks to the economic and evangelical impulses, many current Bibles have arrived at a sort of lowest common linguistic denominator, employing vulgar and even barbaric English and thus in essence accommodating the language of the Scripture to the barbarism of contemporary culture. Second, as both a religious text and still-significant cultural touchstone, the Bible could serve both religious and Anglophone cultural unity, even amid all our diversity.
Having one truly common English Bible might not be desirable, even were it possible (think of how this totalizing impulse led to bloodshed in the English Reformation). But I do think that English Bible translations should never start from scratch but rather should engage in what Alan Jacobs calls “deference to existing excellence” and thus stand in the great stream of English Bibles going back to Tyndale, so that the tradition of our noble and lively tongue might steer a middle course between wooden literalism and sloppy paraphrase, between elite prescriptivism and populist descriptivism.
Doing so might also reintroduce poets to the task of translation, a necessity if we are to produce better Bibles. As Jacobs observes, the great English Bibles were made in an age before “the divorce between literature and theology,” the age of the seventeenth century in which one finds “figures in whom literary excellence and theological acuity would be comfortably blended,” an age in which “the men of letters and the men of God were the same men.”
Jacobs thinks we’re stuck with mediocre Bible translations because the divorce between belletrist and philologist will remain, given our ever-increasing specialization, even within the humanities. A major part of the problem is the way students are taught biblical languages. Prior to the Second World War, scholars would have learned their Greek by mastering Homer, Hesiod, Aeschelus, and Sophocles before moving to the New Testament. Now they are taught to master the grammar and vocabulary of the New Testament.
This leads to a raw substitutionary plug-and-play of “dynamic equivalence” as we encourage them to try and stick abstract content into English words. In short, we’re still structuralists (perhaps unwittingly) who forget we’re living in a post-structuralist age, and for good reason. Structuralists reduce human phenomena—language, art, literature, music, indeed all of culture—to the presumed structural relations of a few basic non-linguistic building blocks behind the phenomena, running roughshod over the dynamics of the biblical texts as we try to extract a few basic ideas we can stick into simple English. No wonder our Bible translations are often brutal and banal.
I’m more sanguine than Jacobs, however, for a few reasons. I see younger scholars and theologians reacting against the centrifugal forces of specialization and compartmentalization and engaging in interdisciplinary endeavors in English and literature. I see a renewed concern for beauty in all things, including language. I see an increasing rejection of the now-naive linguistic theories of the sixties. I see a large Christian body, the Anglophone wing of the Catholic Church, revising its liturgical texts and Bibles in the converging directions of fidelity and beauty.
Should our generation fail to produce worthy translations of the Bible, however, we should be thankful that we already have some, as venerable versions produced by prior generations remain with us, faithful in translation and noble in tongue.
Leroy Huizenga is Chair of the Department of Theology and Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. His personal website is LeroyHuizenga.com. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Leroy Huizenga, “The Collins Bank Bible”
Michael Brendan Dougherty, “Why Can’t Catholics Speak English?”
Alan Jacobs, “Why Mediocre Bible Translations Are Here to Stay”
Alan Jacobs, “Blessed Are the Green of Heart”
Alan Jacobs, “A Bible for Everyone”
Richard John Neuhaus, “More on Bible Babel”
Anthony Esolen, “A Bumping Boxcar Language”
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