There a teacher’s saying that there are no bad questions, except the ones you don’t ask. There’s another saying that says that once you know the right question, the right answer will follow. As with many one liners, these two seem to clash.
On the front of my book What’s in a Version?, I have printed the line, “The best Bible version is one you read.” That saying suffers from the same problems as any one liner. It may quite easily be construed in ways that would make it quite false.
On the other hand, such sayings do have the value of making us think a little bit about our assumptions, and even a question you might evaluate as “bad” may well help you understand an issue as you analyze the question.
Every time I have been at a show or a teaching event at which I have used or displayed my book, I’ve heard the question “What is the best Bible version?” That’s even after they look at the cover of my book. If I point to the line on the cover they’ll laugh and say, “Yes, but what is really the best version?” That question is, in a sense, a bad question. It doesn’t really have a very good answer, and that’s because of things that are lacking in the question. But it can lead us to think profitably about the question.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I can’t say what the “best” version is without asking just what the version is to be used for. For example, if you want to read extensively for pleasure and to get an overview, then I might recommend an easy reading version, such as the CEV, because it is easy to read rapidly. Yet if I were personally going to read for an extended period of time, I wouldn’t prefer the CEV. I’d more likely use the REB, or as an intermediate point, the NLT.
For rapid reading, I would regard all three translations as adequately accurate in the way they convey the general story, but they differ in style and vocabulary. Some people find the CEV very attractive. Attention has been paid to style and to how it will sound when read orally. But other people find its shorter sentences and simpler vocabulary tedious. The REB is music to my ears and to my mind, yet I find that most people to whom I read passages don’t hear the same thing I do in it.
So which of these translations is best? I go back to the line on the front cover of my book: The best Bible version is one you read–especially in this case.
No translation conveys all meaning from the source to the target language. To simplify that, when you read the Bible in English, no matter what English version you use, something will be missing over what might be received by a person reading in the source languages. (Another point that should be mentioned here is that different amounts are conveyed to the reader in the source languages depending on language and other skills.)
Here are some things that a translator might try to convey:
- Style of the original writers
Hebrews is written in a substantially different style of Greek than Mark, 1 John, Revelation, or Galatians, and each of those four examples differs from one another. Translations tend to obscure these stylistic differences. The CEV, for example, is aiming at an easy reading level, and will break up long, complex sentences in the Greek of Hebrews in order to make them easier to read, thus losing much of the sense of literary style in the book. At the same time, the intended audience of the CEV will probably get more of the sense of the book than they would if it was translated into a style of English that matched the elevated style of the Greek. A translator has to choose. What to you convey? What do you leave behind?
- Literary devices
If you want to get an argument going about translation mention literary devices. In this case I use the term broadly. In translating Hebrew poetry do I want to convey the style of Hebrew poetry, i.e. make an English representation of the structure of the Hebrew, or do I want to provide English poetry with a similar impact to that of the source? Personally, I’m happy to have translations that try for either option or a variety of compromise approaches, but the translation will be quite different depending on how one answers this question.
- Form and vocabulary
This issue was discussed extensively by the KJV translators. Do you want to have a single English word always represent a particular Greek or Hebrew word? How about a limited subset? This question lies somewhere near the foundation of the dynamic equivalence/formal equivalence debate.
That is just a very basic start at looking at the various questions. Every translation I have read or studied includes passages I wish were translated differently, or makes choices I wish had been made differently. Yet nearly every one has some quality I can appreciate as well.
To answer the question in the title, requires that one consider these questions, and consider the audience as well, without knowing who will read, for what purpose they will read, and under what circumstances they will read, I can’t even take a stab at saying what Bible version will be best.
The final step in choosing a good Bible version should always be to read from it under the circumstances for which you are choosing it. The best test of a tool is whether it performs the intended task.
I have complaints about