Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Politics of Bible Translation

Scot McKnight, popular author and blogger, recently linked to an older blog post of his concerning Bible translation and politics.  He begins the post this way:

"The Bible you carry is a political act. By “Bible” I mean the Translation of the Bible you carry is a political act. Because the Bible you carry is a political act the rhetoric about other translations is more politics than it is reality. The reality is that the major Bible translations in use today are all good, and beyond good, translations. There is no longer a “best” translation but instead a basket full of exceptional translations."

He goes on to list the various Protestant translations and how they often say something about the individual's politics.  I'd encourage you to check out the entire post here.  Then, I'd be interested in hearing what you think of the author's main point, but with an eye to our Catholic bible translations today.  I think it exists within the Catholic Church here in America, but to a lesser extent than our Protestant brothers and sisters.  I can attest, from my own experience teaching adults Scripture for a biblical school over the course of five years, that it was not uncommon for students to question my "orthodoxy" because I preferred the NRSV over the RSV.

So, please give the article a read first before commenting.  Also, I know I am likely opening Pandora's box by posting this, but let's make sure that we comment with "gentleness and reverence" as the first Pope commanded.  One last thing, if you are going to comment anonymously, please include some kind of name at the end of your post.


Devin Rice said...

The NAB doesn't tell you much about the reader and is by far the most used translation. RSV-CE people tend to be a Scott Hahn/EWTN fan. Douay-Rheims raises a question if the user is a TLM goer. NRSV probably shows you are a bit more ecumenical minded. Anything else (JB, NJB, Knox, etc) is pretty esoteric and a good conversation starter.

It is really in terms of liturgical translations for the Missal/LOTH where the politics really gets heated up, much more so than Biblical translations.

Surly Hermit said...

I agree, to a point, and disagree, to a point, with the author's main point. Often we do choose a particular Bible translation in a more or less political manner, but in my experience that isn't the main reason why someone will choose a translation over another.

The NRSV is championed by those of supposed heterodox faith (connotation), and is a relatively modern, inclusive-language translation (reality). The first may be true to some extent, but that doesn't mean you can't be a good Catholic and also read the NRSV. Maybe you prefer an inclusive-language version, or the more up-to-date English of the NRSV.

The KJV is only read by fundamentalists and anti-Catholic bigots (connotation), and is a very old translation with a major impact on the English language (reality). The first may be true to some extent (KJV-onlyists are everywhere, though with the cornucopia of Protestant translations I think they're dying out or moving on), but that doesn't mean you can't be a good Catholic and also read the KJV. Maybe you prefer a beautiful, poetic version, or wish to preserve the tradition of sacral English that is so often neglected in modern translations.

But that might just be my love for literature and the English language showing. Do the majority of Catholics dwelling without my rock behave so politically when choosing a Bible? Most Catholics, I think, read the NAB. That progressives read the NRSV and traditionalists read the DRC is clichéd, mostly, but has a grain of truth.

I suppose I could have left all that out and posted this comment after writing the first sentence. Oh well.

Eric Barczak said...

So... what does it mean if I read from the following..,

Douay Rheims
Jerusalem Bible

(Other than having a spouse who says "no" to more Bibles coming into the house)

Anonymous said...

I respectfully disagree. He did not provide reasons for stating those political affiliations. Because the were translated by those groups? Because they were used by those groups? That is the genetic and ad hominem fallacy. It also assumes no one is capable of creating a translation without their own personal bias.

In order for me to accept his conclusion, he would need to point out a pattern of renderings of rendering within a translation and demonstrate how that supports doctrine specific to that group.

Also, he will need to demonstrate that those are not acceptable renderings, or, at the very least, they demonstrate a tendency towards a particular pattern of choosing particular renderings.

I will accept that translations have been undertaken for political reasons, but I evaluate translations on the text themselves--not who made them or who uses them.

If the situation is what he believes it to be, he shouldn't have a lot of problems coming up with evidence.

Timothy said...


Please make sure to put some kind of name at the end of your comments so an interaction/conversation can occur.

Francesco said...

I partially agree with the author, but I wonder if this tribalism isn't itself a symptom of (or at least aggravated by) how publishers publish Bibles. The manuscripts haven't changed in the last 50-75 years but new translations keep getting published. Instead we read about how inclusive language was globally edited into the NRSV before it was published or how the ESV (or RSV-2CE) is more accurate because it doesn't have any. That's in the information they use to sell those Bibles. If you have strong feelings about inclusive language you're going to notice that.

Perhaps publishers are better now because I've not read anything about the NCV, the NCB, or NTL-CE being better for "triggering" reasons.

Jerry Mc Kenna said...

I don't think Catholic Bibles indicate your political beliefs. The Bible by itself wasn't used by Catholics on a daily basis during my childhood. My parents owned a New Testament and a book of Pslams, from the Douay-Rheims Bible. I was introduced to the Jerusalem Bible in high school and I felt it was easier for me to understand. Now at age 65, I often enjoy the 17th and 18th century translations, but as a teenager, I was often stumped.

Simply because I can afford good used versions, I own a recent NABRE and an NSRV translation. If I could get the Knox for 20 dollars I would own one, but at over 50, it is far down on my list.

Steve Molitor said...

Interesting article. Calling your translation choice a "political act" is hyperbolic, but it can sometimes be an indictor of political beliefs. The article is not saying that's a good thing. In fact he's encouraging us to read different translations outside of our tribe. He's just pointing out that there can be an unconscious political element to one's translation choice.

Are NRSV devotees more likely to vote Democratic than DR readers? I can't prove it, but my guess is yes, on average. No, it's not fair to assume that in an individual. But in aggregate, it could be true, more often than not.

I do think bible publishers sometimes use politics in their marketing.

Theophrastus said...

At one point I might have agreed with McKnight's contention that choosing a translation is a political act, but now I find myself wondering if that is true. It seems to me that only a minority of readers actually choose a translation with deliberate thought -- the majority seem to pick a translation based on what's available, or what is used by their fellow worshipers, or other features in the Bible edition (such as colorful illustrations or helpful annotations or elegant typesetting), etc. To mention just a simple (Protestant translation) example -- I've noticed that many readers are not aware that the KJV and NKJV are quite different translations.

Out of the minority of readers who do care about translation, I think a much smaller minority has actually read more than one complete translation of the Bible -- many seem to base their decision on the translation of a small number of verses (e.g. Isaiah 7:14, Luke 1:28). And of those who have read more than one complete translation, only a small number have the skills in Hebrew or Greek to evaluate the quality of the translations.

After a fashion, I have to admire the genius of Mark Bertrand's Lectio: Bible Design Blog which makes deliberate decision to ignore issues of translation and focus instead on the physical design of Bibles. It seems to me that Mark may better understand than many of us what most Bible buyers care most about.

Steve Molitor said...

Theoprhastus I agree with you, but not thinking about one's translation choice, and one's translation choice being a political act are not mutually exclusive. Well, 'political indictor' might be more accurate. But, unconsciously one's translation choice can be influenced by one's politics, as many other things can be. Even if you just go into your favorite bookstore and pick the first bible whose presentation appeals to you, an evangelical walking into his local Christian bookstore is likely to come out with a more conservatively branded translation than the mainliner who walks into Barnes and Noble.

(I do agree that a US Catholic picking the NABRE doesn't mean much, as it's the default choice.)

Leighton said...

DO we tend to turn Bible translation into a political statement? I don't know, but I do believe that there's a certain dogmatism about which translation is acceptable to a "good" Catholic. While I agree that most Catholics don't spend a whole lot of time trying to find the perfect translation, I do see many of us falling into a sort of RSV-CE-only attitude worthy of the King-James-only-ism of some of our Protestant brethren. I think that conversation about translations sometimes degenerates into a sort of judgment of my neighbor's orthodoxy based on what translation he/she uses. It's superficial and beneath the beautiful and rich intellectual tradition that marks Catholicism. I've never met an approved translation that didn't fall short in some respect. They all seem to have their merits and weaknesses.

One of the refreshing qualities of this blog is its level of charitable openness to dialogue: Tim finds and acknowledges merit in various translations, and provides a forum in which Bible students/teachers can discuss and learn about different translations and find what suits them best. This openness to dialogue, which discourages political-style finger-pointing, is, to my mind, a quality that serious Bible students/teachers tend to demonstrate.

I believe a great model of a balanced biblical approach is Pope Emeritus Benedict. Bishop Barron, as well.

Steve Molitor said...

Leighton: Hear hear! I agree with everything you said 100%.

Matthew Doe said...

I think certain attitudes social / political attitudes overlap more easily with certain translation attitudes. It is unlikely that an anarchist revolutionary prefers a slavishly literal translation, even if it gets close to unreadable, just because this projects the original source as objectively as possible. It is unlikely that an authoritarian paeloconservative prefers a freely paraphrasing translation, even if it mixes the original text strongly with the author's opinions, just because it makes the text fresh and engaging again.

That purveyors of biblical translations riff on such attitude differences to sell more copies does not mean that they generate them. To the extent that such attitudes are also pandered to by various socio-political "tribes", it is only natural to see a correlation between membership in such "tribes" and ownership of certain translations.

(Quasi-)official translations like the NAB(RE) do not really change that. They just mean that fewer people make a meaningful choice in this matter. This means the correlation is on average lower, but it also means that deviations are more interesting. If everybody reads the NAB(RE), but you (pointedly...) read something else, chances are that this has some signal value.

Steve Molitor said...

Expanding on Matthew's comment, I do think there is often an interesting correlation between a translation and political, social or religious attitudes.

One is the relationship between being literal and being traditional. A conservative probably values both, but sometimes you have to choose: for example Isaiah 7:14.

When the RSV first came out it was considered a 'liberal' translation. Now it is favored by 'conservatives', or 'orthodox'. Partially that is because the translation landscape changed. The RSV is more literal than many later translations, and does not use inclusive language like the NRSV does. Still, conservative publishers like Crossways and Ignatius felt the need to nudge the RSV in a more traditional direction, changing 'young woman' to 'virgin' in Isaiah 7:14 for example. That's more traditional, but arguably less literal.

When I first got serious about reading the bible, I was influenced a lot, perhaps unduly so, by various commentators on Catholic Answers bashing the NAB (and the NRSV occasionally), and praising the RSV. So I drifted from the NAB to the RSV. I certainly didn't think of this as a 'political' decision on my part, but I will admit that my choice did reflect at least partially my religious attitudes at the time, and the 'experts' I was reading. My attitudes have changed in some ways, but I still love the RSV (and read other translations too). So no, there is no exact correspondence between translation choice and political attitudes. But I'm sure there are lots of interesting correlations.

One could test this fairly easily. Just survey what people's favorite translation is, and a set of questions indicating political attitude. Then see what the correspondences are. Figuring out the cause of any correlations found would be more difficult. But I bet you'd find lots of tantalizing correlations!

Leighton said...

Indeed an interesting point you make, Steve: Once the RSV was blasted for being "liberal" and now it is the darling of "conservative" Catholics (in terms of biblical scholarship- not a fan of the labels but they help clarify, I guess). I personally like the RSV-CE very much, because it is clear and dignified to the ear, but admit I prefer the NRSV because it flows smoother and is easier to understand, especially for my children. I am aware enough of the places where inclusive language may obscure references that could be applied to Christ (ex: Psalm 1, Dn 7:13), so am able to compensate where needed. (I shamelessly substitute "Happy is the man" for the NRSV's "Happy are those," for instance, when praying Psalm 1 with my son.) My choice of translation is not a giveaway to my political leanings.

I'm not a big fan of the NABRE New Testament, though I don't think the translation is nearly as bad as many make it out to be, and in some places I rather like it (for instance, in some passages of the letters of St Paul). Many reputable scholars say that the NABRE OT is an excellent translation, but it too fails to flow as well as the NRSV (for me, anyway). The NABRE New Testament notes: Hit or miss for me.

I also find it helpful to utilize multiple study bibles, from the Didache to NJB to the New Interpreters Study Bible to the NOAB 4th edition. I try to remember that the commentaries are NOT the Word of God, but only... commentary. Some are better than others, no doubt, but most have something helpful in terms of discovering the meaning of the text and the history behind it.

Ultimately, I will always defer to the Church's magisterium when it comes to interpretation. Of course, the Church allows for a wide range of interpretation on many things in the Bible. We are not fundamentalist in our approach.

The NRSV, RSV, NJB, and NABRE (and, may I add, REB) are superb translations, each with its own strengths AND weaknesses, and they all have a place with serious Bible students.

Biblical Catholic said...

I don't think it is true that one's choice of Bible is a political choice, simply because most people probably just pick whatever Bible is used by their particular church, or base it solely on how well they can read or understand it.

However, it is absolutely true that, with the massive number of translations currently in print, whenever a new translation is commissioned, it is usually because one group or another has political or theological ax to grind.

Speaking frankly, if you read the prefaces of modern translations, they are almost never honest about the real reasons why the translation exits.

Prefaces almost always make some variation of the following claims (not one of which is believable or credible)

1. There has been a rapid increase in Biblical scholarship in recent years (truth to be told, there hasn't been that much in the way of advances in at least the last 50 years, any genuine advances that might have been made are not the sort of things that could possibly be reflected in a Bible translation)

2. There have been rapid changes in the English language (ummm...sorry, no, there haven't, people still read Tolkein and Lewis and Dickens and Shakespeare, are we seriously supposed to believe that there have been no meaningful changes in the last 300 years, but massive changes in the last 25?)

Never do prefaces ever admit that the real reasons why Bible translations are made are due to things like trying to make a political point about feminism and inclusive language (such as the ESV) or due to copyright and licensing issues (The Christian Standard Version), or because other versions are believed to be 'too liberal' (NIV, NASB) or 'too conservative' (NRSV).

Most Bible translation prefaces are not particularly honest about why the translation was commissioned.

Biblical Catholic said...

By the way, I think he is wrong when he says that NIV 2011 is the Bible of conservative evangelicals. In fact, the 2011 NIV is the Bible of liberal evangelicals. Conservative evangelicals use the ESV or CSB, both translations which were authorized largely due to dissatisfaction with the liberalizing direction that the International Bible Society has been taking the NIV for the last 20-25 years.

Christopher Buckley said...

Arguably, "politics" isn't really what we mean, in the sense of party of one's voting affiliation.

More like "alliance." Does our chosen Biblical text reveal something about what alliances we choose within the larger Church?

In that sense it might, but I'd look at it another way.

We may attribute many unconscious factors upon the Bible itself, and its various translations. Possibly one of the most common and significant "authority." A Bible translation may strike us as more or less "Biblical" depending on how it strikes the specific notes that evoke scriptural authority in us. Those specific notes are different for everyone.

As a former Protestant, raised on the RSV, I still get a little thrill when I see "Being the version set forth A.D. 1611" and all the revision dates that followed on the title page. As a committed Protestant that meant something. In that mindset, the King James Bible the moment where Christians took back the Bible from the Church, letting the authority of God speak clearly for itself and no longer hidden from the faithful behind the veil of Latin, a mouthpiece for clerical corruption and overreaching Church power. Seeing the continuity of the RSV and its predecessors up through the KJV gave it a sense of being the same book, keeping up with the language of free Christians everywhere over the last 350 years.

So for me now, the Catholic RSV speaks "authoritatively" more than any other translation, many of which I love too.

Especially the -2CE (or more accurately per the copyright page: The Revised Standard Version, Ignatius Edition). As a Catholic, the "A.D. 1611" pedigree on the title page still elicits a kind of allegiance, but in a different way. Where the KJV and its predecessors may have "taken the Bible away from Rome," The RSV-CE is where the Church first recognized the beauty and accuracy of what was created and "took it back" for the faithful. There's even a little bit of a nose-thumbing toward the NRSV built in there: yes there's a Catholic NRSV prepared by the revisers, but the RSV Ignatius Edition is, in a sense, the Church taking exception with some of its choices and bringing forth its own preferred alternative with liturgy in mind.

So for me, of all sitable translations, the RSV-Catholic Edition (1966) and the RSV-Ignatius Edition (2006) strike the chords of "authority" both in the composition of the prose, and their pedigree. Because of their ongoing association for me with my Protestant scriptural life, when I read them I feel aligned both with Catholics concerned about Biblical studies as well as Protestants who still live in the KJV-ASV-RSV-NRSV sphere. Especially with the ESV essentially now its counterpart in evangelical circles, and the NRSV still the go-to for many mainline Protestant denominations, the Catholic RSV is what makes me feel most connected to (aligned with) the greatest number of Christians. I can read it as a Catholic, and still feel the connection to many others in and out of the Church who still speak the same language or some close variant.

Michael Demers said...

I think highly of the NABRE but it's outgunned by all the bibles in the KJV-ASV-RSV-NRSV tradition.

Christopher Buckley said...

Agreed, and given the real possibility of an ESV-CE in the latest post, that family may be getting bigger.

Michael Demers said...

If Crossway does come out with the ESV-CE, it'd be very hard to tell it apart from the RSV-CE. For instance, out of approximately 822 words in Genesis 1, I only found about four words that were different.

Christopher Buckley said...

Precisely why, in my perfect universe, a project to create an ESV-CE would involve sitting Crossways and Ignatius down together to merge their two translations with the Joint Statement on Justification in one hand and Liturgiam authenticam in the other.

Release the resulting text as the successor to both the ESV and the 2CE, and use it for any and all Reformation-anniversary materials.

Of course, getting permission for the Ordinariates to update their lectionary with it would be another matter.