Amy Choate-Nielsen: Words of God: The challenges of translation

Published: Friday, Dec. 16 2011 11:00 a.m. MST


The Bible on Catherine Hayter's bookshelf isn't very old, but to her, it's priceless.

It was a gift from her elder sister when Hayter was just a teenager, and it has been a balm for her sorrows, a validation of her self-worth and a link to God. She doesn't let it out of her sight.

"That is where he speaks to us and guides us," she says of her prized volume as she sits at a desk in her Alabama home. "My Bible means more to me than just theology, though. It's visceral — the weight of it, the smell of it — and my notes in it … chart my relationship with God. I know where my Bible is on my shelf or desk, and it is always some place that I can see, so that I am reminded where to go when I don't know where to go."

Hayter's favorite go-to Bible is the New International Version, the current No.1 best-selling Bible in America based on unit sales and dollar sales, according to the Association for Christian Retail. Hayter isn't alone in her interest in the book. Most Americans — 93 percent, according to a Gallup poll in 2000 — own a Bible, and 34 percent believe the Bible is the literal word of God, according to the same survey.

There are many varieties of Bibles with different translations in America, including the brand-new Common English Bible, a four-year translating project that started publishing its results in June. But as Bible scholars and publishers continue to translate the words of the Bible, new translations give a different meaning and insight into its words, fueling debate and shaping political attitudes. As understanding and a proliferation of the Bible grow, some scholars say they hope readers of the Bible can find a common ground — instead of fuel for a fight.

The Bible business

In January 2007, Paul Franklyn, associate publisher for the Common English Bible, gathered with a host of Bible scholars, editors and publishers in Nashville, Tenn., and launched a massive project aimed at re-translating the Bible into English from the ground up — Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic.

There are many translations of the Bible already, but members of the project felt it was time the Bible be updated to include America's more modern speech, like this example from Luke 2:7 speaking of Mary: "She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom."

Similar efforts to the Common English Bible normally take more than a decade, but the Common English Bible was completed in lightning speed in just four years, and it has already seen success in the Bible publishing industry. This month the Common English Bible is ranked No. 10 for units sold on the Association for Christian Retail best-sellers list for Bibles with more than 500,000 copies sold since August.

The effort was sponsored by publishing houses from five denominations, translated by 120 biblical scholars from 24 denominations and field-tested by 500 people, all with the goal of creating a translation that would reach across denominational divides.

"Sometimes people use the Bible as a weapon to score points against each other," Franklyn said from his office in Tennessee.

"They might cite a passage in the Bible and say, 'If you read it the way I read it, you have to behave this way. They will try to prove their point of view with the Bible, when the Bible is not intended for that kind of fractious debate. We believe the Bible can become an instrument of grace and peace."

There are hundreds of different Bibles available, including study Bibles like the "Green Bible," which highlights environmentalism, and "The Freedom Bible," which was created in honor of 9/11. Every generation deserves its own translation, Franklyn says, but without enough awareness, many Bibles fail. After spending millions to complete its translation, the Common English Bible project has every incentive to succeed.

In the beginning was the Word

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