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On Translating "The Second Testament"
One of the most common questions I have received about The Second Testament, following the question “Why?,” is this question: Why would you as an individual translate the whole New Testament? Some have insinuated it is wrong for a single person to translate the New Testament. It would be easy to say “How odd a question?,” but the question is legit and has reason behind it.
I did not propose to the publisher, IVP Academic, to translate the NT. In fact, I had never had more than a passing thought about it. A kind of What would it be like? Or How would I do it? It was not on my mind.
But, I was asked about translating the NT in a conversation with an editor. The conversation went like this, but first the backstory. I had read NT Wright’s Kingdom New Testament often and was familiar with the cadences of Tom in his translation. I like it. Very much, in fact. Tom’s KNT came out of his The Bible for Everyone. He translated a passage, gave a reflection, and then did the same over and over until he finished the entire NT. Well done. Then I heard John Goldingay was doing the same for the OT in the Bible for Everyone series (BfE). Their series now adds up to 35 volumes. Goldingay did the same: he translated the entire OT and then offered a reflection.
Now John Goldingay happens to be, along with Brueggemann, my favorite writer about the, ahem, First Testament. Goldingay is known for letting NT professors know that if they knew the OT/FT they would be wondering if we even “need” the NT! Look up John’s titles. He’s got some really provocative and good stuff about the relationship of OT/FT to NT.
With that setting in the BfE, that is, with both John and Tom translating the whole Bible, a UK publisher glued them together into, you guessed it, The Bible for Everyone. A full Bible, bound together, clothbound. So I bought a copy. Then IVP Academic published the Goldingay OT/FT itself in a beautifully produced volume. My copy of The Bible for Everyone quickly had a cracked binding. I had read some of Goldingay in the full Bible. But when IVP published Goldingay I began reading it, and read it straight through, about four chapters per day. I loved it and felt like a brand new Bible experience. I’ve read it three times. I love it. Everytime I read his FT I will stop over a verse and ask myself, “Have I ever read this verse before?”
When I was at an academic conference I bumped into the above-mentioned IVP editor. We chatted a bit and it turned to Goldingay’s The First Testament. I said, “Yes, but Goldingay and Wright don’t belong together.” He said, “Why do you say that?” I said, “Because they operate with two different purposes and theories.” We discussed this. The editor is himself an omnicompetent scholar who knows his Hebrew well. Then he said, “What do you think should be done about this?” I didn’t at the time think it was a leading question, and still don’t. But this is what I said, “We need someone to do a NT translation with a similar theory Goldingay used.” Transliteration of names, clunkier English, making it feel Hebrew. But only this time for Greek. The editor asked, not in an official offer type thing but close enough, “Would you do it?” I said, almost immediately, “Yes, of course.”
That’s how I got involved.
He asked for some samples. I sent in a few samples. They said, “Yes,” and I was off translating. For two years that was my writing project. I dropped everything I could and devoted my writing time to translating.
Now, why would I, a single individual, do this? Plain and simple: because I was asked, because I believe a NT translation like Goldingay’s can be helpful to Bible readers, and because, well, what better task for a NT professor than translating the NT?!
Know this, there are lots and lots of individuals who have translated the Bible. I would guess that more translations are by individuals than groups or committees. But I get it. Since it’s the Bible shouldn’t a translation transcend one person? Yes, I would say, for the most part.
Think about the individuals who have translated the Bible: Jerome translated the whole Bible. Luther translated the whole Bible. Tyndale translated most of the Bible. They are not the exceptions that prove the rule of committee translations. They are not that exceptional. I just grabbed this from Wikipedia:
While most Bible translations are made by committees of scholars in order to avoid bias or idiosyncrasy, translations are sometimes made by individuals. The following, selected translations are largely the work of individual translators:
· Noah Webster's Bible Translation (1833),
· Young's Literal Translation (1862),
· Emphatic Diaglott by Benjamin Wilson (1864),
· Julia E. Smith Parker Translation (1876), "Translated Literally",
· J.N. Darby's Darby Bible (1890),
· Five Pauline Epistles, New Translation (1900) by William Gunion Rutherford,
· Bryant Rotherham's Emphasized Bible (1902),
· Modern Reader's Bible (1914) by Richard Green Moulton (1918)
· Helen Barrett Montgomery's The Centenary Translation (1924)
· S. H. Hooke's The Bible in Basic English (1949),
· R.A. Knox (1950),
· J.B. Phillips (1958),
· Verkuyl's Berkeley Version (1959),
· Holy Name Bible containing the Holy Name Version of the Old and New Testaments (1963) by Angelo Traina,
· The Living Bible (1971) by Kenneth N. Taylor,
· The Bible in Living English (1972) by Stephen T. Byington,
· Jay P. Green's Literal Translation (1985),
· Heinz Cassirer's translation (1989),
· American King James Version (1999) by Michael Engelbrite,
· The Original Aramaic Bible in Plain English (2010) by David Bauscher,
· Father Nicholas King's translation of the Greek Bible into English.
· The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, by Robert Alter (2019)
Others, such as N. T. Wright, have translated portions of the Bible.
Now I’m not so sure the word “most” is accurate above, but that list ought at least to give us pause about questioning one person translating the Bible. Plus, that list is not all that accurate. I’d give William Tyndale and Coverdale and Charles Williams, which a friend of mine in college used often. Matthew’s Bible was basically one-man efforts: Tyndale and Coverdale completing what was unfinished by Tyndale.
Commentaries, pastors, professors, and Greek teachers all over the world singularly translate the NT constantly in classes. All the time.
So, there’s plenty of individual translators of the Bible.
I believe in committee work translations. When I speak or teach in churches I use the Bible that church uses. It’s always a committee-based translation, and almost always the NIV. Occasionally the NLT or the CEB or the NRSV, and now will become the NRSVue. By the way, my favored translation is the NRSV(ue). These standard translations are committee-based. They are backed by big dollars. They solicit scholars to do the work. The scholars for each of these translations are selected on the basis of affinities, leading each translation to have a tribal feel. (I’ve posted about this numerous times.) They can avoid oddities and individual bias, and they can get conservative if not bland, too. It’s hard to convince a room full of (historically) white men to translate with some lilt or tilt. We need both at times. The majority voting on a given translation will lean conservative, if we mean by conservative a group’s bias.
These translations slide between the dynamic and the formal equivalence theories or approaches. That is, thought for thought or word for word. Goldingay’s was closer to the formal than dynamic. Not always but mostly. I followed his lead but I translated Greek and he translated Hebrew. That makes a huge difference for anything approaching the formal side of approaches.
Plus, our translations are not attempts to displace or even rival the NIV or the NRSV or the ESV. They are instead designed for those already familiar with the Bible, a translation. We offer a supplemental translation. We provide a service to the serious Bible reader. We give them an opportunity to compare theirs with ours. I like to describe The Second Testament as an “untranslation” since I was not trying to do the dynamic or the formal approach. Instead I was trying to give a feel for what the Greek text looks like behind the more English-y, ahem American-y, translations.
So, if you hesitate over something in The Second Testament I’m giving you an opportunity to compare yours to mine, with the hope that it helps you understand your preferred translation better.
The Second Testament is not “better” or “correcting” the standard translations. It’s different, but not in a wrong vs. right way. It’s like seeing the bones in an x-ray.
Yes, an individual will have some bias. I like “siblings” over “brothers” (NIV 1984) and “brothers and sisters” (NIV 2011). I know what I do with 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 are not the norm. Yes, I know they reflect my bias. All translations are biased, committee or individual.
As it is written in Italian, traduttore, traditore.