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The Matrix Bible?

"The Matrix?"

I recently expressed my consternation at the New King James Version’s rendering of  part of Isaiah 49:1 which a colleague had quoted in an email.

The LORD has called Me from the womb; From the matrix of My mother He has made mention of My name.

Having looked into it I found that matrix is the Latin word for the womb, but I don’t know what the NKJV team were thinking when they used it as a revision for the KJV’s use of ‘bowels’ !  I suppose it was probably before the science fiction film came out, but at that time the word matrix for most people conjured up images of difficult maths lessons rather than anything to do with the womb.

Here’s my response to the question which followed  – “Which translation do you believe is the best?”:

It is a good question and one that I am asked fairly often when I express my opinions about Bible translation. It is actually hard to give a simple answer since different translations have advantages and disadvantages. I believe that good translation involves paying attention to three criteria – accuracy, clarity and naturalness. These three are not easy to balance correctly, but I would say that some of our English translations do a much better job than others.

Hopefully, clarity and naturalness speak largely for themselves but accuracy isn’t so obvious. Just because the form of a translation is more like the original language (Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic) does not mean that the translation is more accurate. For example it is well known that Paul used some very long sentences in his writing with lots of connecting words holding the phrases logically together (there was no punctuation used at the time). Some have therefore translated using similarly long sentences, but by doing so have made something which is very difficult to read and so obscured the meaning. The problem is that English speakers don’t usually speak in this way, so we find such sentences hard to read aloud or listen to with understanding. To translate what Paul says accurately we need to do our best to decide what he meant his readers to understand and attempt to get our English readers to grasp the same meaning as far as possible. Since English generally conveys meaning using shorter sentences and phrases to indicate the logical relation between them, we will do better to follow the usual English style rather than the Greek style. That being said, someone studying the Bible using a meaning based translation may miss certain aspects of the original languages which are still apparent in a translation which stays closer to the Greek form.

Personally I think we can benefit greatly by looking at multiple translations using different translation philosophies if we are doing in depth study, but for day-to-day reading and public reading in church I think we are better served by the best meaning-based translations. In the our office we are currently reading through the whole Bible in the New Living Translation. In most places the translators have done a good job of making the Bible easy to read and comprehensible, which is more than can be said of many translations.

I personally don’t accept the arguments of those who insist on the King James Version as the only legitimate translation in English. Even in its somewhat modernised forms such as the NKJV, I have less confidence in what I am reading as being close to what God gave through inspiration because of the limited number and quality of biblical manuscripts used to produce Erasmus’s ‘Received Text’ on which they are based. That said, I don’t think there are any areas where significant doctrine is greatly affected.

I do find modern form-based translations such as the ESV, NASB etc. helpful when used alongside of other translations as an aid to understanding the form of the original languages, but I don’t think they should become the standard adopted by evangelicals. I wrote about this a few months ago.

I spent quite a few years using the New Living Translation as my main Bible after having been brought up largely on the NIV and still frequently use both, but I mostly use the NET Bible (Bible.org) as my main Bible text. I find that switching to a new version from time to time helps me keep thinking about what I’m reading especially in familiar passages. I particularly appreciate the NET’s extensive notes on translation issues – though it does make it very fat and heavy to carry. These days I mostly read the Bible online or on my phone which lets me compare several translations.

The question of which translation one uses has become something of a shibboleth for some evangelicals which is a shame. In the end, the best Bible is the one you can read, understand and apply.

Of course much ink both physical and virtual has already been spilled on this subject and not all of it usefully, but if you want a starting place to find more articles and books on the subject you could try this page on the useful biblicalstudies .org website.

I also hope that many of the people who like me express strong views about English Bible translation will apply some of their passion and concern to meeting the needs of the millions of people in the world who don’t have any of God’s word in a language they can understand. This is from Wycliffe UK‘s site:

How many languages have Scripture?

2,479. Of these, 451 have a complete Bible, another 1,185 have the New Testament. 843 others have at least one book of the Bible.

How many languages still need translation?

In addition to more than 1,300 active projects, work needs to begin in over 2,200 languages.

How many people have no Scripture?

200 million speak these languages where translation still needs to begin.

In how many languages have Wycliffe been involved in the completion of a New Testament or Bible?

759. Over 107 million people speak these languages.

How many countries are affected by the work of Wycliffe?

Almost 100. This includes work among people who live outside their traditional homelands.

These figures are up to the end of September 2009 and come from Wycliffe International.