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

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

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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."

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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

The Bible has always been translated and copied, from the days of the Old Testament. Authors wrote their stories through the lenses of their culture and passed the transcripts on until there were no originals, only copies of copies of the transcripts.

The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, but Christians in the time of the New Testament read and spoke Greek, so by then, the Old Testament was translated into Greek. Christians in Rome read Latin, so the Old Testament was translated from Greek into Latin, losing some of the nuances of the original Hebrew language, says Choon-Leong Seow, Henry Snyder Gehman professor of Old Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey.

"That's partly why Christians and Jews departed," Seow says. "Even though they studied the Old Testament, Christians read Greek and Jews reclaimed the Hebrew," and the meaning of the two was different.

From the beginning, the variety of transcripts and nature of the language in which they were written have posed a challenge for those — even with the best intentions — wanting to put the ancient words of the Bible into the hands of the people.

"If you read Hebrew, it's like playing a video game," Seow says. "You can see all of those meanings all at once, but you can't capture it. Once you put that in translation, you only have one meaning, so you lose something. You always do."

The art of translation

To scholars of the Bible, even simple conjunctions like "and" or "but" have different meanings, and conveying that meaning correctly is their challenge.

"There's an old Italian proverb that says a translation is an act of treason," says Harold Attridge, dean of Yale Divinity School and professor of the New Testament.

"Everybody is confronted with this challenge in trying to do a translation, in that languages don't map neatly onto each other. There are always choices the translators are making."

Attridge sees how different translations can influence thinking on whether Jesus' mother, Mary, was a virgin, the role of faith in Jesus Christ or if evolution is possible. Depending how the Bible is interpreted, those issues spill over into public debates, shape public school curriculum and surface in platforms for presidential candidacy.

Even if interpretation was a clear-cut process, there would still be differences of opinion on how to read certain texts, Attridge says. That's something that weighed on Joel Green's mind as he worked on translating the Common English Bible.

"If a phrase can be taken two different ways, which way do you go? Because the way you do it has theological implications," says Green, professor of New Testament interpretation at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

"I thought a lot about the degree to which I was in the service of God as a part of a translation team, and it was part of the challenge and part of the weight that we bore, to mediate and represent God's word in a way that would be understandable to a new generation of people."

Trusting in the word

As Hayter reads her Bible, sometimes alongside the King James and New King James versions for added context, she says it's important for her to read a translation that was created by "Christian leaders of all denominations (that) share a common view that the Bible is the infallible and unerring word of God."

For Hayter, and many like her, the Bible is essential to communicating with God; it is the way she hears God's word. Through it, Hayter says she is inspired and motivated. It has revolutionized her life, she says.

"I feel more confident and fulfilled knowing I am someone special God designed for a purpose greater than I can ever know," Hayter says. "Paul ends chapter two (of Ephesians) explaining that 'We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.' Bring it on."


Bible best sellers

Current top 10 best-selling Bibles in the United States, based on unit sales, according to Association for Christian Retail:

1. New International Version

2. King James Version

3. New King James Version

4. New Living Translation

5. English Standard Version

6. Holman Christian Standard Bible

7. New International Readers Version

8. New American Standard Bible update

9. The Message

10. Common English Bible


20th century B.C. Abraham's story and those of the other founders of Israel were preserved by word of mouth before they were incorporated into the first five books of the Old Testament.

13th century B.C. God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses at Mount Sinai.

10th-2nd century B.C. The Old Testament was compiled from a variety of sources, including written and spoken narratives, court archives, personal memoirs, eye-witness accounts, genealogies, laws and poetry.

3rd and 2nd century B.C. The first translation of the Old Testament into Greek, known as the Septuagint, was made by Jewish scholars at Alexandria in Egypt.

1st century A.D. The Apostle Paul wrote letters of instruction that scholars generally agree were the first New Testament books written. The letters were kept by the churches that received them, but other churches wanted copies, so they were collected, copied and circulated.

Mid– to late-1st century A.D. As the eye-witnesses who could recount the stories of Jesus grew old, written accounts to preserve his teaching and life were created.

2nd century A.D. Thousands of copies of New Testament manuscripts were made, first in Greek and then in other languages as the church spread beyond Greek-speaking peoples.

Mid-4th century A.D. Pope Damascus commissioned an official Latin version to be used by the church throughout the Latin-speaking empire. Jerome, his secretary, revised the existing texts of the Gospels by comparing them with the Greek. In 386 A.D. he translated the Old Testament directly from Hebrew, and the version is called the "Vulgate."

14th century A.D. John Wycliffe and his followers translate the complete Bible from Latin into English, so that ordinary people can read and understand it. This is the first complete Bible in English and it was copied by hand.

1516 A.D. The first Greek New Testament manuscript was compiled and printed.

1532 A.D. Martin Luther publishes the standard German Protestant Bible

1526 A.D. William Tyndale's English translation of the Bible was smuggled into England. Tyndale started translating the Old Testament but did not finish before he was betrayed, arrested and finally burned for it in 1536.

1611 A.D. The King James Version, translated by 50 translators, is published

1978 A.D. The New International Version, best-selling Bible in America, translated from Hebrew and Greek texts, is published

Information from Bible Society, U.K.

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