We Really Do Need Another Bible Translation
Translations are both a gift and a problem for the body of Christ.
As members of that body, we are called to think and live biblically. Especially since the Reformation called the church to biblical renewal, we have been afforded many Bible translations that have shaped the language, thought, and life of the West.
More recently, a wealth of new translations has enabled millions to read the Bible in language that is not forbiddingly difficult or foreign to them. All this was and remains a great gift to the church. I myself am honored to have made a small contribution to the New Living Translation (NLT).
But translation is also a problem. Every translation imperfectly represents the original, because languages and cultures differ in ways that translation by itself cannot overcome. Translations interpose a fallible human interpretation between us and the infallible Word. These basic problems affect all translations. But the increase in Bible translations during the last 60 years has created new problems for the church.
Newer translationsâ"the NLT, New International Version (NIV), New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), Revised English Bible (REB; a revision of the New English Bible), and Today's English Version (TEV, also called The Good News Bible), among othersâ"are all influenced by a theory called dynamic or "functional equivalence" (FE) translation. Such translations serve their intended purposes and audiences well. More important, they have led many to Christ. But I and a growing number of linguist-translators believe FE theory is inadequate as the only model for translation. (Translations themselves are often better and sometimes worse than their theories.) Linguists argue that the church needs not one but several types of translation, each with its own use. That's why I'm advocating another modern translation, one that works from a different theory than FE.
How did we get to this point?
FE theory is closely identified with an evangelical who, over the last half century, has done more to foster Bible translation around the world than anyone else. His name is Eugene Nida, and every translator today has been affected by his work. Even secular translators pay homage to Nida. His theory and practice of translation was first called "dynamic equivalence" translation and, later, "functional equivalence" translation. If you read a Bible translated in the last half-century, you probably read a Bible influenced by Nida.
In the 1940s, Nida and others of the American Bible Society developed practical guidelines for missionary translators working among peoples who often did not have a written language, let alone a Bible, to read. Bible translators learned that they had to make translations understandable to people with little access to preachers and teachers, and whose culture was different from the world of King David or of Jesus and the apostles. They made translations that often supplied the information needed by isolated tribal peoples. In doing so, they often changed what the original said, somewhat like an explanatory paraphrase.
It is this type of translation (focusing on ease of understanding for the intended reader) that has become dominant, not only in the Two-Thirds World but also in the modern West, with its long history of Bible teaching and preaching, and its seminaries and colleges to train leaders in Scripture and biblical languages.
Parallel events took place in the English-speaking world. In the 20th century, older English translations seemed increasingly out of date and difficult to read, especially for new Christians. Many became discouraged and gave up reading the Bible for themselves. Practically speaking, many Christians lost the Bible with its "power to save" and to give wisdom for right living here and now (see Rom. 1:16 and 2 Tim. 3:15-17). They also were in danger of losing touch with Christ himself: without the Bible, we do not have Christ in his fullness, for it alone shows us who Jesus is infallibly.