What Kind of English? On Bible Translation (Blomberg)

Can We Still Believe the Bible?: An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions Blomberg, Craig L. cover image I’ve been interested in Bible translations ever since I learned the biblical languages in college and seminary some years ago.  I learned right away that translating the Bible is not so simple nor is it a straightforward black-and-white process.  A very literal translation of the Bible would not be understandable.  And just because a translation is “less literal” doesn’t mean it’s less accurate.  I’ve also learned that the smear campaign against the newer NIV was not always based on accurate information.  I’ve come to realize that some of the KJV-only arguments are neither defensible nor wise.  I also found out that the grand claims that the ESV is the best translation for accuracy and readability are a bit overstated and somewhat subjective.

Speaking of English translations, here’s a helpful excerpt from Craig Blomberg’s book, Can We Still Believe the Bible?  It has to do with a false dichotomy of English Bible translation:

Imagining that ‘we had both a time machine and a language translation machine,’ Wayne Grudem asks about Psalm 23:

‘Should our goal as translators be to use the time machine to bring David to New York City in 2011, give him the language translation machine so that he could understand and speak English, and then ask him to rewrite Psalm 23, but speaking as people would speak in New York City in 2011?  Should we tell him, ‘David, just rewrite your psalm and use twentieth-first [sic] century expressions’?  No, as a translator of Psalm 23, I would want to use the time machine to travel back to ancient Israel around 1000BC when David was writing Psalm 23.  I would want to use my language translation machine to translate David’s words into English and put them in ordinary English word order.’

Grudem then quotes the ESV for Psalm 23:1-3 as what the results would sound like.  Verse 1 reads, ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.’

But the choice can in reality never be an ‘either-or’; it can only be a ‘both-and.’  On Grudem’s model, into what kind of English should time travelers render the Greek or Hebrew they learn in the ancient world?  Elizabethan English?  Victorian English?  Pre-World War II American English? Modern Australian English? Colloquial English from the American South?  Urbanese?  Or the English that is most commonly used by the broadest cross-section of speakers internationally in the second decade of the twenty-first century?

Until this decision is made, time travelers can produce no English translations at all.  They must return to the world from which they have come.  And if the answer that is chosen to our question is that they should utilize the most common English used by the broadest cross-section of English speakers today, then something more like the NIV, NET, NAB, HCSB, or CEB than like the ESV, NKJV, or KJV is what results.

Today we do not normally say “I shall not want” when we mean “I will not lack anything.”  People unfamiliar with the history of translating Psalm 23:1 often have never even heard “want” used in order to mean “lack,” and they are far more likely to say “will” than “shall,” at least in the United States.  What is more, part of the argument for the ESV is that it preserves the more elegant style of more formal, old-fashioned English, especially in poetry (such as Ps. 23), and therefore should not always be written in ordinary English.  So Grudem’s imaginary time traveler isn’t really coming back to ordinary twenty-first-century America at all.

Craig Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible? p. 116-117.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

2 thoughts on “What Kind of English? On Bible Translation (Blomberg)”

  1. The problem for me is that I believe God’s word to be inerrant and infallible in the original autographs, but we don’t have those. I also believe that God wants us to have His revelation of Himself and He is perfectly capable of preserving and transmitting it to His people. After having journeyed from KJV to NKJV to NASB to ESV at this point, I’m convinced they are all reliable representations of God’s Word within the linguistic context and tradition they were written. While I love the KJV, I must confess that I have come to a better understanding of God’s word from the NASB and ESV. My key discernment issue now is those versions that strive for gender neutrality, without any basis for that in the Hebrew or Greek. I have only superficially studied Greek thus far, and right now, I see that as a major gap in my ability to discern. I’m reliant on lexicons, word studies and so forth, and I’d prefer to be able to draw my own hermeneutical conclusions.

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    1. Hey Joel! Good comments – thanks! And yes, I agree with your opening line and also that all the various translations you mentioned are reliable.

      Also, concerning gender neutrality, there is sometimes a basis in the original languages for it. For just one example, sometimes a substantive participle (e.g. “he who runs”) can also very accurately be translated with neutral language (e.g. “the one who runs”). There are other things to think about, for sure, but a translator’s impulse to change “he who…” to “the one who…” doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a liberal bias or bent. Hope that makes sense!

      Blessings in Christ,
      Shane

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