Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Multiple Bible Translations -- part 2: The difficulty of defaulting to a single modern translation

Addressing problem 1: The impossibility for many churches to “default” to a single modern translation.

In my first post, I provided a list of potential problems associated with multiple translations. In this post, I will expand on the first of these “problems.” The listing of this first issue as a problem is perhaps misleading. First, it is not “impossible” to default to a single translation. Many churches have indeed done so, and without fanfare. For many churches, however, defaulting to a single translation is difficult because it demands us to make certain choices are do a lot of extra work. So, having only one translation is not impossible, but for many congregations, such a move can only be done with great difficulty, by significantly narrowing the choice of programs and materials, or by opting for a translation that is not the one preferred. Here are some of the options for those churches who desire to be a single-translation church:

Choose denominational curriculum and materials. Usually, denominational materials are available in a consistent translation. The problem here is that the translation is either outdated (e.g. NKJV or NIV) or is not the one you want (e.g. while the HCSB is a fine translation, some churches might not prefer it over, say, the NLT or ESV). Also, one is limited to those programs and materials provided by their denomination.

Provide the single, preferred, translation along side the one in the curriculum via handouts, powerpoint, etc. While such provision is certainly an option, it is also time-consuming and may be costly. I am not aware of any churches that do this, though I provide it as a possibility – at least hypothetically.

Write your own curriculum and materials. Many churches have opted to develop their own resources for Sunday school, discipleship, evangelism, and other materials. While there are advantages and disadvantages beyond the Bible translation issue, such an approach does allow a church to achieve consistency in Bible translation if that is their desire.

So, to say that it is impossible to be a single modern translation church is not really accurate. Defaulting to a single translation is indeed an option for many churches and can be done with varying degrees of difficulty and accommodation depending on the values and resources of the church.

Another reason this first issue may not be a “problem” is that even if it is possible for a church to default to a single translation, such a practice may not be the best practice anyway. The single-translation problem is only a problem if having a single translation is a desired value of the church.

In many languages, only one translation is available. English speakers, however, have benefited from the availability of numerous Bible translations. Admittedly, the number of translations strikes me a bit as over-kill and is, in part, economically motivated. Granted, also, not all translations are created equal and there is some discernment required in selecting which Bible translations to use. Still, there are more than a few Bible translations that are conservative and trustworthy renderings of the biblical text into our language.

The question concerning limiting Bible use to a single translation is whether or not any one translation can fulfill all the functions of an adequate translation. Ultimately, the question becomes one of readability versus word for word correspondence or, to use translation parlance, between literal and dynamic equivalent translations.

If the Bible, as God’s word is to be useful for “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, [and] for instruction in righteousness,” is there any single translation that accomplishes all of those purposes? Because there are many available translations that are trustworthy, perhaps it is better to enjoy the benefits of multiple translations and work around the problems. Most church members are not proficient in the biblical languages. Church members come in a variety of reading levels, and functional vocabularies. Given these realities, many churches will see the value in the prudent use of multiple translations, accompanied by education concerning how and why they are different. The use of multiple translations, both literal and dynamically equivalent, may in fact ultimately yield a better understanding and obedience to God’s word among God’s people – and isn’t that a primary goal of translation?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Multiple Bible Translations – part 1: A Blessing and a Curse

In today’s Christian market, at least in the English world, we have the benefit of a number of solidly conservative translations available. Modern translations with which I am personally comfortable and recommend include the NASB, ESV, NIV, NLT, HCSB, NKJV and yes, even the TNIV. These translations fall on varying degrees of the dynamic equivalence / literal scale, but all are trustworthy and accurate renderings of the biblical text. The variety and number of translations holds many benefits for the modern English reader:

• The Bible is accessible to many reading levels and to readers who have little or no Bible background.
• Students of the Bible can compare texts to aid in comprehension
• Students can identify difficult passages without a knowledge of the original language
• Fewer instances of false doctrines and/or misunderstandings occur that are based on a the use of a particular English word
• Believers can find a Bible they can read, understand, and put into practice.
• Different translations are available for different purposes
• The availability of “competing” translations ensures that each of the Bible publishers and translation committees put out the highest quality product.

There are many benefits and I have not addressed them all here. For the most part, I am pleased to live in an era where the Bible is so readily available and accessible to all.

Along with these benefits, however, come a number of problems for the pastor and church planter in terms of practical ministry. This is especially true today, because no translation has emerged as the dominant translation for evangelical believers. Thirty years ago, we basically used either the King James or NIV. Even ten years ago, I defaulted to the NIV because “that’s the version un-churched people can buy at Wal-mart.” Today, however, the multiplicity of translations – even those available outside Christian bookstores – is remarkable … and problematic.

Here are a few issues that result:

1. The impossibility for many churches to “default” to a single modern translation.

In my church, for example, we do AWANA. The curriculum is available in NKJV or NIV. The kids memorize scripture in one of these two translations. Our Sunday School literature, however, is only available in HCSB. I preach from the ESV. I prefer the NLT or TNIV for new believers or those who are new to the Bible. Plus, my preferred outreach testament (Here’s hope) is only available in NKJV, NIV, or HCSB. Preferred gospel tracts are also available in only certain translations. All this makes it impossible to choose one single translation as the main translation used in our church.

2. The difficulty of choosing a translation for evangelism. What Bible do we recommend and/or give to a new believer? What Bible do we use for outreach? In my case, I prefer Bibles on the dynamic equivalent end of the spectrum for use with evangelism or new believers. Choosing such a translation would be no problem, except that the translations that are most accessible to the beginning Bible reader are NOT the translations that are available in the curriculums and resources that we use. We end up again with no consistent translation or new believers must read a more difficult translation.

3. The problem of consistency in Bible memorization.
Since there is no “standard”, what translation do we use for Bible translation – especially with our kids? Because there is no standard, people may differ with each other or, worse, may themselves memorize from multiple translations. For those who cherish consistency, that is a problem. The problem is more prominent when you consider that in many churches the children’s curriculums, most of which have Bible memory components, don’t match in terms of translation (e.g. AWANA vs. Lifeway).

4. An inability to “follow along” in the preaching. This problem is particularly applicable to me as a preacher because I am often asked, “what Bible do you preach from?” Translation: “I want to buy an expensive leather Bible and I want it to be what you use in the sermons so I can follow along in my Bible – oh and don’t go changing your mind after I shell out all that money.” Ok, so that’s a little exaggerated, but you get the point. Many Christians in evangelical churches have been trained to bring their Bible to church and to open it during the sermon. Translations are different enough in word choice and order of phrases that following along is near impossible unless you have the same translation as the preacher.

5. Confusion when choosing a translation.
Most church members have little or no conception of translation theory and the reason why certain translations do what they do. As a result, they don’t know how to choose a translation. Often, believers want to know what I think is the best translation. Some assume that the translation I use in the pulpit is what I think they should buy, but are confused when that is not the one we use elsewhere.

6. A lack of trust in the words of Scripture.
Some Christians find the multiplicity of Bible translations (much like the multiplicity of Christian denominations) disconcerting. Because so many translations are available, some Christians lack guidance and confidence that the Bible in their hands is trustworthy. The problem is compounded by those that are privy to the in house and online controversies surrounding some translations – not to mention the KJV only crowd.

All of these and more are common problems associated with the availability and use of multiple Bible translations. You have probably experienced many or all of them. All in all, however, I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Churches should embrace the blessings of modern evangelical scholarship in English translations despite the issues that arise because of the multiplicity of such translations. Someday, one modern version may emerge as the dominant one for use by evangelical Christians and churches as the NIV did in the previous generation. In the mean time, pastors and churches will have to be creative and purposeful in addressing the problems that come with the variety. I have some ideas for that, but you’ll have to wait for the next post. :)