Question: When and why do we update Bible translations?
It all depends on which translation we’re talking about. The most common reason is because what was once understandable language no longer is as easy to understand. That led to the American Standard Version updating some of the Elizabethan English of the King James Version, and to the New American Standard updating the American Standard.
The Revised Standard Version was updated by the New Revised Standard Version for the same reason, and especially to do with the more archaic language deliberately preserved by the RSV in more poetic sections. The NRSV also wanted to introduce some inclusive language for humanity. The English Standard Version also updated the RSV but in different ways, wanting not as much inclusive language and wanting to preserve what it believed was some of the elegance in the older poetry of the RSV, and avoiding what it believed were more “liberal” renderings of the NRSV.
Sometimes a translation is updated to move it in more formally equivalent directions. The New Jerusalem Bible doesn’t take quite so many eccentric liberties with the text as the original Jerusalem Bible did, nor does the Revised English Bible take quite as many as the New English Bible did. The New Living Translation took what was a paraphrase (the original Living Bible) of the old ASV, preserved paraphraser Ken Taylor’s wording wherever it could, but also translated directly from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek in order to make it a bona fide dynamic equivalence translation.
The updated NIV, while preserving more than 95 percent of the wording of the 1984 NIV, recognized that with the severe criticism in some quarters of the TNIV, it had to find more acceptable forms of inclusive language for humanity. Already even the ESV and the Holman Christian Standard, originating out of circles with highly publicized objections to the TNIV, had significantly more inclusive language in them than did the 1984 NIV. The older NIV also had other linguistic anomalies not shared my most more recent translations. Who would have guessed in the 1960s and 1970s when it was being produced that today “thong” as something a person wore would not immediately conjure up a sandal or the strap of a sandal to everyone but a form of women’s underwear? It is good that Jesus in the updated NIV no longer has any thongs! Sometimes scholarship begins to achieve a consensus that is important to incorporate into translations, such as the “guest room” rather than “inn” as the translation for kataluma in which there was no room for Mary and Joseph in Luke 2:7. And even in the years since the last NIV, words became more and more archaic. How many people today use the word “overweening” in any context other than the stock expression “overweening pride” taken straight from two biblical uses and scarcely used by anyone not influenced by that language?
Sometimes an update deliberately uses only certain advances in scholarship. The New King James Version wanted to make some of the most archaic or obsolete language of the KJV more current but deliberately did not want to change the textual basis of the KJV. So instead of following the oldest and most reliable manuscripts, almost all of which have been recovered since 1611 and the completion of the KJV, it retained the readings less likely to be original of the so-called Majority Text tradition, following an approach to textual criticism adopted by less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all the textual critics in the world! This certainly limits the value of the NKJV even if it is more understandable than the KJV.
Craig Blomberg is distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary in Littleton, Colorado. He has been a member of the Committee on Bible Translation since 2008.
This entry was posted by Craig Blomberg and is filed under Translation Philosophy.