The Bible Explained: Versions vs. Translations

 

Often a question arises concerning “versions” of the Bible and why there are so many.

This question is quite common and deserves a clear answer. I’ll do my very best to explain it as clear as possible. To start, it’s important to properly define a few key words; version and translation. The terms are often used interchangeably but within the world of literacy, they are distinct from one another. Plainly speaking,  there are no “versions” of the Bible, just translations. Let me explain..

As a movie lover I prefer certain versions of movies that have been remade over the years. King Kong for example is a movie that has been recycled more than a few times. The original was produced in 1933 in black and white. Later in 1976 the story was told with more of a modern slant that had the giant ape climbing the World Trade Center instead of the Empire State Building. More recently in 2005 actor Jack Black led another remake more similar to the portrayal of the original 1933 version. I love the King Kong story but personally I prefer the 1976 version. All three “versions” tell the same story but not in the same way.

Similarly, the bible has many “translations” but all translations derive from the same source. Here’s an example to help you understand how translation works:

If I wrote a fiction book about a family living in the Ohio suburbs and during one scene a young girl explains, “On Sundays my sisters and I would go to the grocery store. We would buy milk, eggs and bread”.

Five hundred years from now in some underground cave, my book is discovered but it it is difficult to read as it contains words that are no longer used in society. For instance, if bread is no longer called bread and grocery stores are no longer called grocery stores, readers will have difficulty in understanding the concepts I write about . My book must be “translated” for the people to understand what I meant. Instead of the word grocery store, the future society uses the term “Nutrition Depot” and for bread they use the word “Wheatem”. Translators would have to write the following to communicate the proper meaning of my original statement:

“On Sundays my sisters and I would go to the Nutrition Depot. We would buy milk, eggs and Wheatem”.

The substitution of the words do not effect the actions but they help future readers understand the idea or concept through something they can relate to. In order to be successful, translators of my work must find the right words to correctly establish my thought.

No matter what bible translation one chooses, the root of all modern Bible translation begins with manuscripts written in Greek (mainly by scribes for the author) over 2,000 years ago. The writings or books we have today were composed  and then copied for other Christian churches to read. The copy they received would be copied again,  repeating the same process over and over, thus generating thousands and thousands of copies of the book that would be spread throughout all early Christian churches. But what about churches that do not speak Greek? How would leaders get the bible into their own native language? Translation !

Here’s the catch though, Greek does not translate into every language easily.  For example, as an English word has definition (s), the definition of a word in the Greek language depends not only on the word itself but it’s prefix, suffix and how it is being used in a sentence. Confused yet? Simply put, translators of the language must know their own language in addition to the Greek language in order to preserve the meaning or idea of text from one language to another. The challenge is to find the right word to properly represent what the original author wrote in Greek. Sound easy? It’s not and this is why bibles do not have just one person performing the translation. Often a team of scholars and translators work together to create a new translation for any language.

So what about English? How did Greek manuscripts get translated into our language?  Thank a man named John Wycliffe for translating the Bible into the English language between the years 1382-1395. Wycliffe’s team handwrote their translation in pieces which took close to one year for one single copy.  The work became easier when Gutenberg’s Printing Press produced The Bible with moveable-type a few hundred years later.

So, understanding all of this, what is the best translation to read? There is no answer to this question unless to say that as the reader, you determine what you are comfortable with. Scholars will argue some translations are more accurate than others but truthfully you decide what best fits your reading preference. Word-for-word translations such as the New American Standard Bible (NASB) favors closest to the original Greek but is not always the easiest to read. Looser translations such as the New Living Translation (NLT) draw from the idea of the Greek text but with easier comprehension. The New International Version (NIV) is very popular but rides the middle of the scale between accuracy and paraphrasing.  Most recently the English Standard Version (ESV) has grown in reputation for being both accurate and reader-friendly. Choosing a translation takes a bit of research but necessary if you are serious about your daily reading and study.

So in recap, different “versions” of the Bible do not exist. The Bible’s roots reside in translations of Greek manuscripts that were written many, many years ago and copied continuously through the evolution of language.

One last question, if manuscripts were copied over and over again, how do we know mistakes were not made and our modern translations are not flawed? That is a great question dealing with a topic called “textual criticism” and we’ll leave that for the next episode.