A Word About Translations


In this morning’s class I read from David Bentley Hart’s newly-published translation of the New Testament.  The passage I read, from the fourth chapter of the first letter of John, contained some words that we are not familiar with, used as we are to the several relatively standard translations readily available to us.  Throughout his ministry with First Baptist, Pastor Joel has stuck rather faithfully with the New International Version. (The NIV has itself been revised several times since it was first published in  1978.)  Many of us are old enough to remember the use of the King James Version in the churches we grew up in.  During my formative years Dr. Weaver often used the Revised Standard Version because, as he would say then, “the meaning is clearer there.”  In the past few years, many churches have begun to use the so-called English Standard Version, first published in 2001.  Moreover, many of us will remember using paraphrases like the “Good News Bible,” (1966) and “The Living Bible.” (1971).


There are many differences in the language employed by these several books, but what all of them have in common, and one thing that distinguishes them from David Bentley Hart’s new work, is that they are the work of more than one person.  Indeed, the standard, familiar translations are the product of very involved, long-term collaboration among established scholars who were chosen with the idea of gaining an broad and fair ecumenical perspective.

Given that, Don asked a very thoughtful and fair question in this morning’s class: “How can we look at any ‘translation’ done by any one person as anything more than a commentary?”  Some quick answers might leap to mind, such as “we know that this translator labored to be faithful to the text, even where that text might be somewhat inconsistent with the translator’s overall theology.”  But Don’s point is forcefully made and it stands.  This is the work of one man or woman and inevitably will be tinted by his or her personal biases.  Why then should we even bother with translations that are the work of an individual, where there have been no checks and balances and no compromise?

Mr. Hart takes this very question on in his introduction to his new translation.  He first admits that any attempt to translate the Scriptures is somewhat presumptuous and will inevitably be met with lots of criticism:

To write yet another translation of the New Testament is probably something of a foolish venture.  No matter what one produces – recklessly liberal, timidly conservative, or something poised equilibriously in between – it will provoke consternation (and probably indignation) in countless breasts

Should the translator’s concern be:

to produce good literature or to provide a stringently faithful gloss; whether one should strive for more explanatory clarity or for literal accuracy; whether one should substitute modern equivalents for the obsolete idioms of the ancient world or remain obedient to the unfamiliar diction of the original despite any awkwardness that might ensure; whether a paraphrase is a duty or a sin; and so on.  It is a game in which no player prospers.

Hart goes on to explain why one might find value in a translation made by a single individual:

The inevitable consequence of this [translation by committee] is that many of the most important decisions are negotiated accommodations, achieved by general agreement, and favoring only those solutions that prove the least offensive to everyone involved.  This becomes, in effect, a process of natural selection, in which novel approaches to the text are generally the first to perish, and only the tried and trusted survive.  And this can result in the exclusion not only of extravagantly conjectural readings, but often the most straightforwardly literal as well . . . .

[] I think I have come to be opposed to translation by mass collaboration on principle, even when (as in the King James) the final product is literarily admirable.  All such renderings, it seems to me, become ineluctably mired in the anodyne blandness and imprecision of a “diplomatic” accord.

But even if we credit what Hart says here, how can we know what value to attach to any translation made by one individual?  I can only answer that one must rely on all of the learning and common sense one has accumulated to date; all of the experience of God’s Spirit as we may know it in prayer and in the fellowship of the saints.  Given all of that, does what this author proposes seem right?  Does it make sense?   Can it be defended?

Of course – and as is inherent in Don’s pointed question – in every case there will be instances in which we will disagree with the individual translator.  But the more important question – given how we have been surrounded by the standard, committee versions all of our lives – is maybe this one:  Does this writer open passages for us that remained opaque as we read the old versions?  Does he or she provide a greater depth and dimension to passages that were familiar but perhaps not fully understood?

Although I have already found much to disagree with in Hart’s work, I have already been enriched in my understanding of the New Testament just by reading his outstanding Introduction where he writes at length about the experience of translating the Scriptures and what he learned in the process.  He says that while the Old Testament represents:

the concentrated literary genius of an ancient and amazingly rich culture – mythic, epic, lyric, historical, and visionary, in texts assembled over many centuries and then judiciously synthesized, redacted and polished. . .

In contrast:

the Christian New Testament is a somewhat unsystematically compiled and pragmatically edited compendium of “important documentation” : writings from the first generations of witnesses to the faith . . .

He says that in his translation he made every effort to preserve the distinctiveness of the many voices that are heard in the New Testament.  He claims that the committee translations have, on the contrary, attempted to “flatten out the various voices of the writers into a clean, commodious style . . . And yet in the Greek their voices differ radically.”

The New Testament writings are:

The devout and urgent attempts of often rather ordinary persons to communicate something “seen” and “heard” that transcends any language, but that nonetheless demands to be spoken, now, here, in whatever words one can muster

What Hart hears emerging from this strange harmony of different voices is this:

 . . . the vibrant certainty that history has been invaded by God in Christ in such a way that nothing can stay as it was, and that all terms of human community and conduct have been altered at the deepest of levels

Amen, and Hallelujah.


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