The big business of Bible translation today

Book publishers know a new translation on the market means an increase in sales. Does that justify a multiplication of new Bibles?

FLOWER MOUND, TX, September 7, 2011—The growing numbers of new translations flooding the market are giving multiple and diverse choices to the Bible customer. But with the choices comes confusion. The blessing of having so many versions may also become a source of fear. Can we really know which version is the right one? The responsibility rests on individuals to research and compare the purposes of the each translation to see if it meets their expectations.

Bible publishers today know a new translation of the Bible will bring financial benefits. If a publisher owns the rights to a new translation, they can insist other books they publish on biblical topics use their translation. Customers will then benefit from having the new version when reading the other biblical help books.

It has been said that over 350 new translations of the Scriptures have been published since 1900. The question of which Bible is the best is not easily answered.

It is a mistake to think that the plethora of translations means none of them are right. This raises skepticism and doubts about the reliability of translations. While no translation is perfect, they all have a very high degree of accuracy and are therefore trustworthy. A colleague once said that if you compare six modern translations, you will have essentially the closest possible equivalent to the original meaning.  

The constant change in language over the centuries, new discoveries of manuscripts, and developing knowledge of the original languages have all made new translations inevitable. The question is not whether the many new translations are necessary, but could the church continue to flourish without so many?

Translations from William Tyndale NT (1526) to the English Revised Version (1885) were primarily concerned with the accuracy of the text from Greek and Hebrew to English. Beginning with the turn of the 20th century many, translators became more concerned with the readability and understandability to the common reader. The text played the role normally occupied by notes and explanations from commentaries.

The answers to the following questions will assist the reader in choosing a translation:

1) Is it comprehensive enough to avoid expanding the text with redundant explanations? Some modern paraphrases retell the story in such a way that one can get caught up in the redundant language and lose the real meaning.

2) Does it comprehend the original intent of the author? The goal of a translation is to arrive at the same impact on modern readers as was intended to the original readers. Is the same impact achieved in emotions, content, and motivation?

3) Is the reader response equivalent to the original hearer response? This calls for modern readers to have the understanding of ancient and modern culture, history, languages, and world view.

4) Does it provide readers with a good style for public reading? Bibles are meant to be read in public services and must be in a language that communicates well when read orally.

5) Does it allow for interpretive ambiguities? Some doctrinal issues and language ambiguities are inherent within the Scriptures. A translation must leave some room for differences in understanding of the written word.

Why are so many translations needed? It may even seem as if book publishers are proliferating versions in order to generate profits. While it is a lucrative business, there is a better reason. Modern translations have made the choosing of a Bible very personal.

The New Living Translation Bible.

The New Living Translation Bible.

The pastor, theological student and scholar often want a word-for-word translation and depend on commentaries and study aids for fuller explanation. The layman may want a version that expands the translation to include brief explanations. Seniors, teenagers, athletes, golfers, women, and social groups may want Bibles that reflect their interests. Hence, the more than 350 versions published since 1900.

The modern translator must have a multitude of skills: a thorough knowledge of the original languages, a competent biblical interpreter, and an ability to express thoughts and concepts in writing. The requirements are so demanding that perhaps no individual possesses the skills to meet all the qualifications to the degree needed.

This possibly accounts for the modern practice of soliciting many qualified scholars from various backgrounds, with necessary talents, and from many denominations. While individual, sectarian, and denominational versions may be popular with a limited audience, they do not normally have staying power.   

Recently, a bookstore manager in Oregon told me there has been a spike in Bible sales over the past couple of years. The new English Standard Version and the New Living Translation are primarily responsible for the increase in Bible sales while the New International Version has lost some ground.

Choosing the right translation is an important step in the Christian’s journey to a life of faith and practice. It is perhaps the best advice to select a couple of translations and, as you read, compare them for a fuller and better understanding.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Donald L. Brake, Sr.

Donald L. Brake, Ph.D., is Dean Emeritus of Multnomah Biblical Seminary, past president of Jerusalem University College, Israel; author of A Visual History of the English Bible: The Tumultuous Tale of The World’s Bestselling Book; Baker Books, 2008 (a 2009 ECPA Christian Book Award finalist), A Visual History of the King James Bible: The Dramatic Tale of the World’s Best-Known Translation, Baker Books, 2011, A Royal Monument of English Literature: The King James Bible 1611, Credo House Publishers, 2011; and antiquarian collector with his extensive collection of rare and significant Bibles and artifacts currently at the Dunham Bible Museum, Houston Baptist University, Houston, Texas.

Contact Donald L. Brake, Sr.


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