I recently read The Jungle Book to my kids over quite a few nights. It may have been months. We endured each session until the end. It was written so long ago that even I had a hard time working out what some sentences meant. It was just hard work or maybe my English isn’t so good.
A similar thing happens with Bible translations. Even the best translations, over time start sounding funny to present-day readers. And usually those who grew up with a certain translation feel attached to it and don’t realise that it sounds funny.
So that is why we need different Bible versions. Because some sound funny.
Having different Bible versions means you read translations that were produced at different times and with different purposes. I personally like the Holman Christian Standard Bible because it reads like English while retaining the meaning of the original languages quite well (as far as I can tell). Of course it’s not suited to everyone but I like it. One issue I have with the Holman’s is that all the measurements are in American terms without footnotes to say what it is in other parts of the world. What on earth is 4 quarts equivalent to in litres? Or is it kilos? Or metres?
Anyhow, I grew up using the New International Version and I still like it but it’s starting to get old and even if I don’t notice it, it will soon have rather dated language. I know there was a recent update but I didn’t get that one so there you go. Maybe I should?
At our church in a village in Taiwan, when it’s time for the Bible reading they put up page references for four different versions: the Taiwanese romanisation (mostly old people), Taiwanese using Chinese characters, Chinese Union Version (most commonly used but very old already), Today’s Chinese Version (newer and easier to read). This is not the norm for churches in Taiwan but I like this approach because it allows people to feel like they can use any of those Bibles. And probably others still.
I think this approach shows that the greatest concern is that people understand the Bible. For some churches doing something like this would be a difficult change but wait longer still and the change will be harder and soon no one will ever be able to change the Bible translation even though it is way out of date.
Have a look at the following four translations of a paragraph from Deuteronomy 6. If you feel like it note down which words people don’t really use and which ones have phrases that sound a bit funny, almost like a non-native speaker wrote it.
Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you. Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe to do it; that it may be well with thee, and that ye may increase mightily, as the Lord God of thy fathers hath promised thee, in the land that floweth with milk and honey. Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
Listen, Israel, and be careful to follow them, so that you may prosper and multiply greatly, because Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has promised you a land flowing with milk and honey. “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
I know some phrases are pretty impossible to translate into something that sounds English, like “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” But there are others. For me things that seem odd might be:
“O Israel” – no one says “O Australia”, nor does the prime minister stand up and say “O people of Australia”… the “O” is a bit funny sounding these days.
“Shall” – tell me the truth… who uses “shall”?
“Shalt”, “Hath”, “Floweth, “Thee” – three of these come up highlighted on my spell check,
This is not to pick at these translations but it does highlight how some of the Bible translations we use sound a little funny. But if you’ve been churched for some time you probably don’t notice. And then you start talking like that and singing songs at church like that as if it was a normal way of saying things… and maybe, perhaps, possibly you create language barriers for those who are not church goers to understand what God wants them to hear.
Hey and if you’re up for it, go and experiment. Go to your friends who are not familiar with the Bible, give a paragraph from three or four different versions of the Bible and ask them to arrange it in order from “most normal language” to “least normal language” and/or “easiest to understand” to “hardest to understand”. Let me know what you find.
And in case you are curious, the versions are: A – New International Version, B – King James’ Version, C – Holman Christian Standard Bible, D – English Standard Version.