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Revision and Translation

In my book What’s in a Version? and in my Bible Translation Selection Tool I do not deal much with the question of whether a translation is a revision or not, except when the translation is not taken from the original languages. In this entry, I’m going to look at a couple of revision histories, and discuss what terms like “revision” and “derivative” mean in the context of translation.

Let me deal with “derivative” first. As a literary term, it is of very limited usefulness, simply because a translation is derivative to some extent by nature. The translator is not attempting a composition. Originality is not all that desireable for the most part; occasionally one may need serious originality to come up with a way to accurately convey what is said in the source language. Thus all translations are derivative to some extent. To apply this to a translation revision is a bit misleading, unless that translation is rewritten without reference to the source languages. It might, for example, be accurate of the Living Bible, though not of its successor the New Living Translation.

Before I look at the process of revising a translation let’s look at the historical connections between some modern versions. The KJV has been the root for many English translations, as the following chart will show:

Some genetic links between Bible translations

Note: I make no attempt in this chart to show precise chronology. Note also that any translation owes something to those that have gone before. The NIV, for example, was a new, original translation, but nonetheless it does owe something the the KJV and RSV before it.

Now let’s look at the whole process of revision.

In some ways this issue is similar to the one commonly found in apologetics books. How can one trust the Bible when it has been translated so many times? In response, one might ask what damage is done to the source text when it is translated. The difficulty here is that each new translation can, and most commonly does, go back to the source texts, and thus there is no deterioration due to successive revision; rather, there is likely to be improvement.

What process does a person undertake to produce a new translation? One goes deals with issues of target audience, source texts, translation philosophy, target language style and so forth, and one translates. How does this differ from a revision? In a revision one deals with all of the same questions. There are two differences. The translation philosophy and method is to one extent or another derived from the earlier translation, and second, phrases in the older translation that do not need to be changed are not changed. Variations in how much a revision will change a translation depend on what the translators find as they translate.

In the chart above, for example, when the ASV was produced from the RV, it was largely a matter of employing the American editors preferences in wording and style. This was not a new translation at all; simply the selection of one set of editing results over another. Because of the time gap, there were a few additional points, but these were largely minor. In the case of the Living Bible, the ASV was paraphrased from the English of the ASV to a more modern, colloquial English, and this was done without reference to the original languages. This is the closest thing I see in Bible translation to the normal understanding of a derivative work in terms of literature. The New American Standard Bible, on the other hand, while flowing from the tradition of the ASV, was a new translation starting from the original languages. The only importance that the fact that the NASB is a revision has for the user is that a certain style is maintained. Every word of the text has been reworked using original language texts by the new translators.

The NIV and the NEB each introduced some new elements into Bible translation philosophy at the time. The NIV manages a sort of balance in terms of functional and formal equivalence. If you check my data page on that translation (link above), you will see that it rates quite high in both my formal and functional tests. The NEB leans much more to the functional side of the scale. These are not directly revised from any other version.

Nonetheless translators will consult other versions. I normally make a working translation of my own when I prepare to preach or teach, even if I use one of the major versions when I’m actually in front of people. I will first create a translation of my own, then I revise it, and then I will compare it to several major versions. I recheck differences between these versions and my own work to make sure that I understand why they translated as they did. Sometimes the result is that I again modify my own work. This is also normally a part of the process of translation for anyone who wants to be accurate.

I think that the ESV is particularly clear on this issue in their preface. They have separate headings, “Translation Legacy” and “Translations Philosophy.” Under the first heading, they note that ” . . . each word and phrase in the ESV has been carefully weighted against the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek . . .” A little later they note: “The words and phrases themselves grow out of the Tyndale-King James legacy, and most recently out of the RSV . . .”

In effect, the revisers thoroughly check everything against the original languages, and are willing to change what needs to be changed for accuracy and for current language, in effect giving you the same quality of translation as you get from a brand-new translation. There is no ongoing loss of meaning that results from this process. There would be no necessary improvement were the translation not a revision at all.

Now if a new translation introduces a new translation philosophy or some new efforts in terms of style, then there is a reason to look at a translation that is not a revision. But those are the precise things we look for in a translation in any case. So supposing you are looking for a literal, or formal-equivalent translation. The fact that the NASB and the NRSV are both revsions tracing their history back to the KJV really has no bearing on which you should choose. You would have to look at their philosophy of translation, their style, their translation committee and from there make your decision. And in this case, I chose the NRSV because, though a revision, it has introduced a substantial new twist in translation style–gender neutral (or gender accurate, depending on your viewpoint) language, and it made this innovation while revising another version. Which just goes to show how little the term “revision” will tell you about a particular translation.

One last point I like to emphasize is this: The proper way to test a translation is to check it against the documents from which it was translated. I have seen huge numbers of arguments discussing what might have happened, or what certain terms mean, when simply looking at the translation itself would answer the questions.

(Note: I will get back to talking about inspiration, though I suspect some were hoping I’d find another subject!)

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