My favorite all-around book on Bible translation is a general introduction to the issue.
This more focused book is now my second favorite:
Dave Brunn. One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? Downers Grove: IVP, 2013. 205 pp.
Here’s what D. A. Carson says about it:
This interesting and important book, written by someone who has devoted many years of his life to Bible translation, is particularly fascinating because it avoids jumping from disputed theory to hard examples. Rather, it jumps from thousands of examples to genuine wisdom on translation issues—along with at least some of the bearing of these examples on theory. This book will diffuse some of the polarizations that characterize many of the disputes. It will also encourage us to recognize we are not as far apart as some of us have supposed, and remind us of how difficult good Bible translation is and how grateful we should be for the wonderful and even complementary choices we have in English Bibles.
Brunn is warm and irenic, not polemical. He argues that we English-readers should appreciate and benefit immensely from our wealth of good Bible translations, which “are often mutually complementary—even mutually dependent” (p. 17).
Brunn demonstrates with hundreds of clear examples that sometimes the translations that have a reputation for being more “literal” (like the NASB or ESV) are often not “literal” at all. And sometimes mediating translations (like the NIV) are more “literal.”
The author, Dave Brunn, spent over twenty years in Papua New Guinea serving the Lamogai people through church planting, literacy training, and Bible translation and consultation. He translated the entire New Testament into the Lamogai language. And the most distinctive contribution his book makes to the English Bible controversy is what he emphasizes in chapter 7: “The Babel Factor: God Speaks in Languages Other Than English” (pp. 133–46):
Chapter seven demonstrates that the challenge of trying to achieve word-for-word translation escalates sharply when we move from English to languages outside of the Indo-European family. One reason we are able to achieve the level of literalness that exists in some English versions (especially of the New Testament) is that English and Greek are both Indo-European languages. (p. 16)
There is a problem with limiting our discussion to English translations: some of the standards that have been suggested for English Bible versions do not apply to many other languages. (p. 133)
English is related to New Testament Greek. How many times have you heard a preacher or Bible teacher mention a particular word in Greek and say, “This is the Greek word from which we get our English word _____”? I have often made that kind of statement myself—when I was teaching the Bible in English. Can you guess how many times I said that sort of thing when I was teaching in the Lamogai language? If you guessed zero, you nailed it! (p. 134)
If the only faithful translation is one that is primarily word-focused like the NASB, ESV or KJV, then most of the world’s languages cannot have a truly faithful translation. (p. 135)
I have my own theory on why there is often disagreement among English-speaking Christians about Bible translations. I believe it is in part due to the fact that most of us live in monolingual societies. The majority of native English speakers have never learned a second living language to full fluency. And of those who have, most learned another Indo-European language—which of course, would be related in some ways to English. Many English speakers base their view of New Testament translation entirely on translating from Greek into its Indo-European relative, English. I believe this narrow perspective is a major reason for many of the disagreements that exist regarding English translations. (pp. 145–46)
We English-speakers often emphasize how different English translations are. Brunn acknowledges a spectrum of differences, but throughout the book he focuses on how similar English translations are (pp. 189–90, numbering added):
- Every version translates thought for thought rather than word for word in many contexts (chap. 1).
- Every version gives priority to meaning over form (chap. 2).
- Every version gives priority to the meaning of idioms and figures of speech over the actual words (chap. 2).
- Every version gives priority to the dynamics of meaning in many contexts (chap. 2).
- Every version uses many renderings that are outside of its ideal range (chap. 3).
- Every version allows the context to dictate many of its renderings (chap. 4).
- Every version steps away from the original form in order to be grammatically correct in English (chap. 5).
- Every version steps away from the form to avoid wrong meaning or zero meaning (chap. 5).
- Every version steps away from the form to add further clarity to the meaning (chap. 5).
- Every version steps away from the form to enhance naturalness in English (chap. 5).
- Every version translates some Hebrew or Greek words many different ways (chap. 6).
- Every version changes some of the original words to nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs or multiple-word phrases (chap. 6).
- Every version sometimes translates an assortment of different Hebrew or Greek words all the same way in English (chap. 6).
- Every version leaves some Hebrew and Greek words untranslated (chap. 6).
- Every version adds English words that do not represent any particular word in the Hebrew or Greek text (chap. 6).
- Every version changes single words into phrases, even when it is not required (chap. 6).
- Every version translates concepts in place of words in many contexts (chap. 6).
- Every version sometimes gives priority to naturalness and appropriateness over the ideal of seeking to be transparent to the original text (chap. 6).
- Every version sometimes chooses not to use a literal, transparent rendering even though one is available (chap. 6).
- Every version substitutes present-day terms in place of some biblical terms (chap. 6).
- Every version paraphrases in some contexts (chap. 6).
- Every version uses interpretation when translating ambiguities (chap. 7).
- Every version makes thousands of changes that amount to much more than dropping a “jot” or a “tittle” (chap. 8).
- Every version adds interpretation, even when it is not absolutely necessary (chap. 9).
- Every version replaces some masculine forms with gender-neutral forms (chap. 9).
- Every version often sets aside the goal of reflecting each inspired word in order to better reflect the inspired naturalness and readability of the original (chap. 9).
The Lamogai translation of the Scriptures is not perfect. But no English translation is perfect either. The difference is that in English-speaking countries, we have the huge advantage of being able to compare dozens of Bible versions side by side. In this sense, we are incredibly rich beyond the wildest dreams of most of the rest of the world. Yet sometimes, I think we squander this great wealth. Not only do we fail to take full advantage of it; we also allow it to become a source of disagreement among us. (p. 193)
- Rod Decker recommends Brunn’s book.
- Thank God for Good Bible Translators and Translations
- Which Bible Translation Should I Use? A Comparison of 4 Major Recent Versions: ESV, NIV, HCSB, NLT
- The History of the NIV Translation Controversy
- How Not to Argue about Which Bible Translation Is Best
Update on 3/31/2017: In my latest attempt to explain how to interpret and apply the Bible, I include a chapter on Bible translation (pp. 50–81).