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Using the Right Bible Translation? A professional translator’s perspective on translation choice, by Jonathan Downie

In order to make such conclusions truly useful for church leaders and preachers we need to suggest what effect this will have on the most likely uses for this version. In this case, the translators themselves have done much of the work for us, stating that:

The reader discovers that the sequence and selection of words, while much clearer, are so close to the traditional that there is remarkable ease in listening to the reading of either edition while following with the other. (NKJV 1982: xxxv)

One of the obvious settings in which the NKJV would prove useful is where those listening to it or reading it are familiar with or have great respect for the traditional KJV. It would therefore be helpful to use when preaching to those who appreciate the poetic language and style of the King James Version. Conversely, the NKJV is likely to prove less useful where the KJV is not held in such high esteem or where listeners or readers prize phrasing that more closely resembles everyday speech and writing patterns (as suggested by Hill 2006: 86 quoting Walls). Similarly, where the NKJV is helpful in that it preserves the traditional terms for Biblical concepts such as predestination or justification, this very fact could impede understanding where such terms are not familiar to the congregation concerned or may carry a different meaning to their original, Biblical sense (cf. Harries 2006: 57-58 for examples) or in ministry to new believers.

If further evidence were needed that the degree of similarity between the NKJV and King James Version cannot be explained within the traditional model of Bible translation, the English Standard Version (hereafter referred to as ESV) provides it. While the ESV translators did try to position themselves in the same translation tradition as the NKJV, the goal they set themselves was to “carry forward this legacy to a new century” (ESV 2001: xxxix) unlike the NKJV where the goal was to retain the essential style of the traditional KJV as far as possible (NKJV 1982: xxxiv). We should therefore expect that the ESV, while remaining “essentially literal” (ESV 2001: xxxix) and therefore still prone to the same problems as the NKJV as regards naturalness of expression and clarity in the new language, will not mirror the KJV phrasings as closely.

The ESV translators freely admit that any translation aiming towards literalism will necessarily involve a trade-off between the wish to capture as much of the original structure as possible and the need to write in clear and readable English (ESV 2001: xl). For them “effective translation, however, requires that these links in the original be reproduced so that the flow of argument will be transparent to the reader” (ibid). We should therefore expect to see this tension in effect in the ESV translation. We should also expect to see phrasing that is closer to modern patterns of writing but with words that help shape the argument translated using terms as close in meaning and function to the original as possible. The logic here being that if these terms and the relations they make are not retained in a literal manner, there is a danger that the flow of the original argument could be lost8.

In order to see if this hypothesis is correct, we will now examine the ESV translation of the same scriptures used in our analysis of the NKJV, Romans 8:28-30.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (ESV)

As far as comparison with the KJV is concerned, the ESV certainly is further away from the KJV phrasings than the NKJV. In the first sentence, for instance, “for those who love God” is placed much earlier in the ESV as it is in the KJV/NKJV. In the third sentence, the formal “moreover” we find in the KJV/NKJV is replaced with the more normal “and.” The introduction of “in order” also clears up any remaining confusion over the precise meaning of the word “that,” allowing the reader to follow the argument more easily. In reordering the phrasing of the first sentence, however, the ESV translation introduces a phrasing that is unusual in modern English. Most readers would expect the “for those” clause to come after “all things work together for good.” This reordering also forces a repetition of “for those” in the next clause.

However, apart from these changes, the ESV does preserve much of the same technical terminology and in the same places as in the KJV/NKJV. The words “called… foreknew… predestined … justified … glorified” continue to be used without question and in the same way as they were in the previous translation. The effects of this choice in the ESV are much the same as those in the NKJV and therefore need no further discussion.

In order to assess the assertion the ESV translators make that “the flow of argument will be transparent to the reader” (ESV 2001: xl) we will need to examine the argument of these verses in the original Greek9. Given the context of these verses (Romans 8: 18-27), in which Paul discusses the sufferings and groanings of this current life, an argument-based translation of the first word of this verse would tend towards “but,” indicating opposition or contrast (Kasali 2006: 1364), rather than “and,” indicating that this idea is a logical continuation of the previous one. Similarly, in the original Greek, we do not see the notion that “all things work together,” where the idea would seem to be one of fate or chance bringing these things together, but instead the Greek says “He works together” (Martindale 2008: 1), suggesting instead God’s direct role in carrying out His plan.

However, apart from these issues, the translation does follow the Greek argument pattern closely (Martindale 2008: 3-4). In fact, the reordering of the first sentence itself echoes the order of the original Greek. Similarly, the causal relationship between the first and second verse, as well as between the clauses of the second verse are retained fully. Lastly, while the word “and” at the beginning of verse three is not included in the original text, there is no problem with its inclusion here (ibid, p.2).

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Category: Biblical Studies, Pneuma Review, Summer 2009

About the Author: Jonathan Downie is a conference interpreter, preacher and church interpreting researcher living in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is married with two children and is committed to helping churches reach out to their surrounding multilingual communities using interpreting.

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