Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Infallible Bible Translations

Over on my YouTube Page, where I have posted a short infomercial for the Librosario Bibles, I received this question from XIPEO2:
Greetings, doctor Stan:
I liked your infomercial, but I rather prefer the DOUAY-RHEIMS Bible, taken from the vulgate. It seems more accurate to me. I´d appreciate your input. Pax et Bonum.

For some reason I can't post comments on my own YouTube page, so here's my answer to XIPEO2.

Dear XIPEO2: Is that your real name? Just wondering. I can't for the life of me figure out why everyone on the web is afraid to use their own name, or at least a pronounceable alias. Alas. Hmmm, about how one translation "seems more accurate to me."

I'm not the one to ask about what translation is more accurate. I know the rules many Bible scholars use to determine such things... remember I was raised as a Bible thumping, Sola Scriptura, Evangelical. But for all that I was taught about how translators did their work, the Evangelical theologians, who supposedly used such translator's efforts as a basis, sure did get some fundamental things wrong, and continue to this day to disagree with EACH OTHER.

Nonetheless, being in love with my own pontifications, here's what I do know (or think I do). First, none of the translations of the Bible any of us use, or any theologians have access to, in any language is infallible, and therefore, as some level inaccurate.

Now before you pull the HERESY ALARM recognize that the term infallibility applies to the original manuscripts, not to translations. A good (accurate) translation will reflect as accurately as possible the original, and there are many techniques available to scholars to determine VERY closely what the original read like. Bible scholars suggest that we truly do know, with 99+% accuracy what those originals said in the original language. But that knowledge is not perfect, and there is still a fair amount of debate on how many passages should be translated. The reasons are many, and some I discuss below.

Second, is this lovely tidbit. Translations are DIFFERENT from the originals by "virtue" of different culture, different time, different language, different translation method, different literary style decisions, and the different life experiences and knowledge of the translator and editors. WHOA! That is a lot of stuff.

As a result of this very significant "problem" with translations and their "accuracy" to the original, you have a host of different Bibles to choose from... even versions approved by the Church with an Imprimatur. And remember we're not just talking about a few different approved translations into English, or Latin. You also have to count the translations into hundreds of different languages for cultures all over the world -- and then there are Bibles for teens.

But just in English you have translations that are based on a different set of older translations. Some like the King James Version (KJV) were based on the Vulgate and not the more recent discoveries of older manuscripts. Also the KJV was translated so that it would sound good and lyrical when read aloud. Remember back in the 1600's most people could not read, and even if they could their income did not allow the ownership of Bibles which were expensive to produce, so "hearing" the word on Sunday was all they had. John Wesley and his Bible studies hadn't been invented yet. Then there are those translations that are based on the literal translations of words, or others on the phrases, or even longer language structures like sentences. Each striving for accuracy, but each different form the original in myriad of ways. Then you have versions that were "translated" as "paraphrases" so that they are EASY to understand (like Kenneth Taylor's
The Living Bible, the Good News for Modern Man, Peterson's The Message, or Walter Wangerin, Jr.'s attempt to make a novel out of the Bible with The Book of God.)

My preference for the Bible as literature is
The Jerusalem Bible. My choice for a Bible to hold in my hand and use daily for devotions is the Librosario Bibles from Fireside (New American Bible translation), not just because of the binding, but because it's the English translation approved for Mass by the bishops...I guess they should have a say in all this. Although, it should be noted, that the Catechism uses the RSV and the NEW RSV. (I guess there's a difference.) Many of my apologist friends use the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSVCE) as opposed to the RSV. (This is getting confusing.)

And finally, or THIRD I should say, there are copyright issues. Ah, yes, money rears its ugly head. Did you ever notice what translation the Gideon Bibles in most hotel rooms are? My guess is you've never heard of it. It's the
Berkley translation. The reason I was told by my long time Gideon father, was that the copyright was cheap. You see, in addition to printing costs, the Gideon organization has to pay the copyright owners their mechanical license for every copy printed. This isn't a matter of greed, it's a matter of paying the bills. Translators, editors, publishers, truck drivers, and bookstore owners have to eat, too.

But, to be fair, the Gideons were not just concerned with the cost of the Bibles they distributed. Doctrine was also an issue, at least doctrine as the various Board of Directors understood it. Consequently, as the board changed, so did the translations of the Bibles which the Gideon's purchased and distributed. They switched often. Originally there was the KJV, then the Berkley, then the NEW Berkley, then the NEW KJV, then the New International Version (NIV -- owned by Zondervan Publishing), each being accepted and then rejected for a variety of emphasis of doctrine issues. Whew! (I even read where if you were Catholic or Morman you can't be a Gideon.)

In the end of all this, when someone claims one version seems to be more accurate than the next, all I can assume is that God, in his soverginity uses all of these different Bibles to speak his Word to the particular person in their time, place, and culture. If having an infallible translation was important, God would have provided for it. Obviously, it wasn't. What was important to God seems to be an infallible Church. Because with all these Bibles, who knows what to believe.

Thank God.

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