Recently a reader of The Standard Bearer sent me a copy of the Gospel According to John, A Contemporary Translation, produced by the Committee on Bible Translation, associated with the New York Bible Society. Some of our readers may already know that Dr. Edwin Palmer, formerly pastor of Grandville Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, is now associated with this project. This little booklet of the Gospel According to John is the first published portion of The Holy Bible: A Contemporary Translation (ACT). The above-mentioned reader asked for my comments on this sample of the projected translation; and because this subject of Bible translations and versions is one of rather general interest, these comments are being offered in The Standard Bearer rather than by private correspondence.
The booklet containing the Gospel according to John has a preface which explains this translation project. Though this preface is somewhat long, I will quote it in full before offering any comments either on it or on the sample translation, in order that the reader may have some idea of the aims and claims of this new translation:
The Gospel of John here offered to the public is the first portion of The Holy Bible: A Contemporary Translation (ACT).
ACT presents the Bible in today’s idiom. Traditional language may be beautiful, and its familiarity may be comfortable to many, but the Word of God should not remain shrouded in archaisms—however beautiful—which shut it off from living communication with those who know only the English of current conversation and literature.
ACT is not a revision of any previous translation. Readers will now and then detect similarity of expression between this and other versions they have known. Such agreements in phraseology have neither been sought, nor studiously avoided. The translators have made it a matter of policy not to strive for the new and unusual for its own sake. Their primary concern has been to produce a translation that is as faithful as possible and that, at the same time, speaks the language of our day so naturally as to make the Word of God once more familiar.
The work of preparing ACT is a cooperative effort involving hundreds throughout the English-speaking world. Scores of Biblical scholars are serving as translators, consultants and critics. The broad spectrum of Christianity which they represent serves as an effective safeguard against sectarian bias. One conviction, however, they have in common: they hold their task to be a sacred trust to honor the Bible as the inspired Word of God. English stylists are adding their counsel to the project and often help to shape the idiom to give it clarity, vitality and beauty. An advisory board of Christian leaders gives constructive criticism. And men, women and children of every station of life are testing the translation for readability and interest.
A few matters of special interest ought to be brought to the reader’s attention. Every translator of the Bible must concern himself about the text that he will use as the basis for his translation. Recent papyri discoveries and intensive textual study during the present century have shed new light on the text of the Greek New Testament. ACT translators utilize this data in determining at each point the most accurate Greek text from which to work.
Once the text has been decided, the translator faces the demanding task of rendering the ideas expressed by an ancient language into a clear and accurate modern idiom. To attempt a word-by-word rendition at every point is increasingly recognized to be an inadequate method of translation and based on a mistaken concept of human language. In order to be accurate, without being stilted, translation must be free sometimes to go sentence by sentence, or clause by clause, not merely word by word. ACT benefits from the freedom afforded by the translation of larger sense units and so is able to translate the Word of God more accurately.
The reader will miss the archaic Elizabethan pronouns used in address to God. This will, no doubt, evoke a varied reaction. Yet the decision to dispense with them in this version could hardly have been otherwise. In the original languages of the Bible no distinction is made between pronouns used in address to God and those used in address to mortals. Moreover, the language of the Bible was for the most part the language of the common man. It really does the Bible less than justice not to render it in the language of the people. But “thee” and “thou,” with their strange-sounding verbs such as “hadst” and “lovedst,” are wholly foreign to the present generation. Those who all their lifetime have read the Bible in a time-honored translation may experience some difficulty adjusting to a thoroughly contemporary version. However, those who are familiar with the Bible will recognize their responsibility to present it in a form that is readily understandable to all.
The translators have attempted to employ language that has a relatively enduring quality. Mere colloquialisms and provincialisms have been rejected. Clarity and propriety have been the watchwords. The goal has been a version equally suitable for public worship and private reading, for evangelism, and for study.
Here and there uncertainty remains as to the correct wording of the original text, or the precise meaning that is to be expressed in English. In such places, footnotes call the reader’s attention to the difficulties.
Section headings have been inserted. They are not a part of the official text of ACT, however, but have been added by the publisher for the purposes of this printing.
The Committee on Bible Translation, which is solely responsible for this translation, is grateful for the active assistance of the New York Bible Society in producing the new translation.
The Gospel of John, to which the preface is attached, is a tentative translation embodying the principles and policies of ACT. Constructive criticism is welcomed and should be directed to the Committee on Bible Translation in care of the New York Bible Society, 5 East 48th Street, New York, New York, 10017.
Upon request the Committee will forward a list of those persons who are presently associated with the translation project.
Committee on Bible Translation
It is evident from this preface that the Committee on Bible Translation has set itself no little task. And in certain respects, in the opinion of this writer, the Committee has set itself an impossible task. But let me make a few specific comments on various matters mentioned in this preface.
1) One may agree, in theory, with the statement that “the Word of God should not remain shrouded in archaisms—however beautiful—which shut it off from living communication with those who know only the English of current conversation and literature.” It is an altogether different question, however, whether in our King James Version the Word of God is—to any critical extent—shrouded in such archaisms. Personally, I do not believe that this is a serious problem in the KJV. I do not believe that the real problem is one of language-communication, either within or outside of the sphere of the covenant. Anyone who is seriously interested in finding out the Word of God can do so quite adequately through our King James Version. There is much ado today about “communicating” in a “relevant” way to the present generation. But it is frequently forgotten that this so-called problem of communicating is not basically a natural one, i.e., not one of mere language-and intellectual understanding of language, but a spiritual one, i.e., one of a lack of spiritual apprehension and receptivity. No amount of “modernizing” of a translation of the Bible will solve that spiritual problem. There is but one power which can and will do this: the power of sovereign grace. “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned,” I Cor. 2:14. Besides, what is meant—supposing that a new translation is necessary for a moment—by “those who know only the English of current conversation and literature?” Who are such people? Whose “English of current conversation,” for example, is the standard? Is the English of the university student revolutionaries the standard? Is the English of the underground newspapers the standard? Is the English of the “effete intellectual snobs” the standard? If the Committee’s criterion is applied—either as far as current conversation or current literature is concerned—must English which abounds in filth and profanity, in slang and four-letter words, be employed? And if this kind of language is not employed, will not the Word of God be shut off from living communication with those who know only such English? You see, it is not even an easy task to determine what is the English of “current conversation and literature.” Besides that, how long—in our fast changing world—does such “current conversation and literature” remain current, and how fast does the English language change, and how frequently, therefore, must translations of the Bible be replaced? The same questions arise when the Committee speaks in this preface of a translation which “speaks the language of our day so naturally as to make the Word of God once more familiar.” Is it indeed a question of language which is involved in the Bible being familiar? Is this the basic problem? And, what kind of language will that be? And: how long will such language remain familiar?
2) Then there are questions as to the translators engaged in this work. The preface is very vague and general on this point; but this is a crucial point. It certainly makes a great difference who is doing the translating. And yet this preface speaks vaguely of a “broad spectrum of Christianity.” What is this? What is meant by Christianity, as well as by a broad spectrum thereof? Is such a “broad spectrum” equivalent to some kind of ecclesiastical and theological jumble? Besides, what is meant by a “sectarian bias?” Does the Committee indeed aim at an unbiased translation? But this is impossible, and everyone knows it is impossible. And what does the Committee understand by “sectarian?” Besides, what is meant by honoring the Bible “as the inspired Word of God?” I call your attention to the fact that there are many today who speak of the Bible as the inspired Word of God, but who nevertheless deny its infallibility. Do the translators all hold to infallibility? And if so, do they all understand the same thing by infallibility? Do they all hold to verbal inspiration? Do some allow for the possibility of error in Scripture, perhaps in so-called peripheral matters? And do the views of these translators on inspiration and infallibility govern their attitude toward the translation of Scripture? Thus, for example, what is the view of the translators on such a thing as conjectural emendation, something which we explained in our earlier editorial on the New English Bible? All of these matters are crucial.
3) Further, there is, to my mind, a very dangerous trend toward extremely free translation expressed in this preface. Anyone who is acquainted with the original languages in which Scripture was written will recognize, of course, that the business of accurately transferring what is written in Hebrew or Greek to the English language is fraught with great difficulty, and that it is not at all easy to draw a line between a stilted, but accurate and a free, but loose translation. There are many nuances of one language which are extremely difficult to express in another language. But when the Committee states that translation “must be free sometimes to go sentence by sentence, or clause by clause, not merely word by word,” and when it goes on to state that “ACT benefits from the freedom afforded by the translation of larger sense units and so is able to translate the Word of God more accurately,” this writer begins to fear and tremble; and he would certainly want a long, long time to go through such a translation with a fine-toothed comb before he would accept it as a substitute for the well-tested KJV, to say the very least.
There are other matters which need our attention in this connection. There is the entire matter—basic to all translation work—of textual criticism, its principles, methods, and value. Then there is the question whether the sample already produced (the Gospel according to John) has actually measured up to the Committee’s goal as far as language is concerned. And, above all, there is the question whether this translation is faithful to the original. To these questions we shall give our attention next time.
Meanwhile, another correspondent has sent me a little tract which defends the King James Version on the basis that the Textus Receptus is the only valid version of the original. I understand that this tract has been rather widely distributed and has in some circles—mistakenly, I think—met with a good reception. I can appreciate a defense of the King James Version and its continued use; but I cannot go along with what I understand to be the position of this tract. And I will try to explain my reasons in a later editorial.