Monday, September 14, 2009

Bible Translation Wars

Brent Kercheville at the Christian Monthly Standard has posted a "rant" on the "Politics of Bible Translation." While I don't track any where near 100 blogs as Brent does, I have to say I see much of what he is complaining about. Here's part of what he wrote:

"I track about 100 Bible blogs and I am observing a disturbing trend. It is acceptable, in fact even trendy, to crack on, complain about, or trash the ESV. But if someone suggests their distain (sic) for the TNIV, then that person is part of the ESV propaganda machine. What? Why is it acceptable to blast the ESV, but no one can show problems with the TNIV and not be discounted as an out of the loop, ultra traditional fanatic?"

The heat generated in the Bible translation wars comes from all sides. But the tension between the TNIV fans and the ESV fans is particularly strong.

Scot McKnight seeks to shut the mouths of many when he writes, "[U]nless you can read the original languages, you should avoid making public pronouncements about which translation is best. Instead, here's my suggestion: if you don't know the languages and can't read them well enough to translate accurately on your own but you want to tell your congregation or your listeners which translate is best, you need to admit it by saying something like this: "On the basis of people I trust to make this decision, the ESV or the TNIV or the NRSV or the NLT is a reliable translation." (emphasis his)

He continues, "I'm not trying to be a hard-guy or an elitist, but let's be honest: only those who know Latin should be talking about which is the "best" translation of Virgil or only those who know Middle High German should be weighing in on the "best" translation of The Nibelungenlied. This isn't elitist; it's common sense."

While I understand McKnight's sentiment he may be going a bit too far. Can I (with just over two years of Greek but no Hebrew) not make any reasonable judgment between, say, the NLT and the ESV? Or, how about between The Message and the TNIV? I have read countless books on the pros and cons of translations and I have examined the evidence in so far as it was available to me. I have read books on translation theory and a couple on linguistic theory. I have also studied five years of German. Not to mention my 20+ years as a Christian reading and comparing numerous translations and countless commentaries. Does none of this count for anything? I'll grant that my opinion is not as informed and studied as that of Craig Blomberg, D. A. Carson or Scot McKnight but is theirs (and those like them that "know and can read Greek") the only opinion that really counts when it comes to translations? McKnight answers, "If you don't know the Greek, avoid standing in judgment." How much Greek should we have? Is two years enough? How about five? My opinion on the TNIV was greatly helped by an article done by Blomberg. But am I thereby confined to merely saying "because I trust Blomberg I think the TNIV is a good translation"? Can I not (as I did) examine the evidence he set forth and judge for myself the merits of his argument? Blomberg could have written, "I know Greek. The TNIV is good. If you can't read Greek don't bother reading any further because I'm just presenting the evidence for my case and you won't understand it or have the necessary skills with which to critique it. If you trust me then you like the TNIV. If you don't then I can't help you. Go and read something by Wayne Grudem." No, Blomberg made his case citing evidence and arguing for the TNIV as a good translation. I was not persuaded by all of his points but was nonetheless impressed with much of it.

I understand McKnight's primary point and agree with it in principle. Those who have studied a subject are those who know it best. But sometimes a student makes a teacher rethink his expert opinions. Sometimes a novice with skills from another field finds a fly in the ointment. On the other hand in our instant information age we downplay the importance of scholarly research and patient study. Wikipedia becomes the great oracle of truth. There is a balance to be found. But this I've found for sure--most bloggers provide more heat than light in an already white-hot debate on Bible translation. I don't ask for them to necessarily stop but to lower the heat and think twice, or three or four times, before adding another post or comment.

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