Strauss, Mark L. 40 Questions about Bible Translations. 40 Questions and Answers Series. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2023. 352 pp. Pb; $24.99. Link to Kregel Academic
In 1998, Mark Strauss wrote Distorting Scripture? The Challenge of Bible Translation and Gender Accuracy (IVP; reprinted by Wipf & Stock 2010). Since then, he has co-edited The Challenge of Bible Translation (Zondervan 2003) and co-authored How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth (Zondervan 2007). In addition to numerous articles published in peer-reviewed journals and magazines on Bible translation, Strauss currently serves as the vice-chair of the Committee on Bible Translation, the group of scholars responsible for the New International Version. This new contribution to Kregel’s 40 Question series deals with the theory and practice of Bible translation and the history of the English Bible and contemporary Bible translations. The first section deals with the necessity for and the goals of Bible translation. Strauss contrasts the two dominant methods used today, formal equivalence with functional. He provides ample illustrations drawn from various Bible translations of both methods and questions 31 and 32 offer examples of modern English translations in each category. Formal equivalence tends to be more literal, and the method aims to reproduce the form of the original Hebrew or Greek text. Functional equivalence (also known as dynamic equivalence) seeks the sense of the text to reproduce the meaning of the original Hebrew or Greek. Strauss offers a summary of the strengths and weaknesses of both methods., Although functional is the dominant translation method today, both styles have their place.
The second section deals with preparing to translate. The two main questions are canon (what books to include in the translation) and which manuscripts to use. Both issues are worth exploring further (see, for example, Kregel’s 40 Questions about the Text and Canon of the New Testament).
The third unit is the longest and is divided into several subsections. He discusses how translators deal with words and combinations of words, figurative languages, and idioms. For example, should translators translate the idiomatic expression “opens the womb” (which is what the words are) or “firstborn” (which is what the phrase means)? Compare Exodus 13:2 in the NKJV and the NIV. Translators struggle to reflect the artistry of Hebrew poetry in English. How does a translator reflect irony in the original text? What about sarcasm?
Translators need to deal with cultural issues such as euphemisms. For example, in 1 Kings 18:46, Elijah “girded up his loins” (KJV). Should this be translated as “tucked his cloak into his belt” even though none of those words appear in the Hebrew Bible? Translators must also decide what to do with the weights and measures found in the Old and New Testaments (cubits or feet?) This is especially a problem with money. Should a translator translate a word talent “75 pounds” or even “a sum of money”? For the famous widow’s mite, the word in Mark 12:42 is literally lepton, a Roman coin with very little value. Should this be translated as “two small copper coins” (ESV, NIV, NRSV), which make a “penny” (ESV, NRSV) or “a few cents” (NIV)? Or should the word be translated as a mite (KJV) worth a farthing (KJV)? Maybe the translators should use lepton and explain the coin in a footnote.
One of the most controversial issues that translators must deal with concerns translating gender the Bible with gender-inclusive language. Strauss devotes an entire chapter to the history of NIV revisions. Why is this an issue? Hebrew and Greek nouns have gender, but this is not true in English. In addition, a word like “man” can refer to a male person (John 1:6), but it also can refer to a person (Mark 7:15, “nothing outside a man” means “nothing outside a person,” both male and female). Translators must decide whether to translate man as humanity, fathers as ancestors, brothers as brothers and sisters (when it clearly refers to the entire congregation), and sons as children (when it clearly refers to both genders). Most modern translations have some level of gender-inclusive language, and Question 20 treats over-inclusive translations.
The fourth section of the book deals with the history of the English Bible up to the King James version. Strauss asks if the King James Version is the most accurate Bible. He suggests it was when it was first translated. However, the presence of archaic language leads to many inaccuracies, and there are problems with the manuscript evidence available to the translators of the King James Version. He reviews the history of revisions of the King James version, which attempted to deal with these shortcomings. This unit also briefly summarizes various Roman Catholic translations and summaries of modern “natural language translations” such as Weymouth, Moffatt, and the popular The Message. Strauss gives examples of Bible translations using formal and functional equivalence. Question 36 discusses “radical recontextualizations.” Some of these are fun, like the Cotton Patch Version (a paraphrase using a Southern dialect). But others may, in fact, be dangerous. Strauss mentions the Passion Translation, which makes so many changes to the original text’s meaning that it was removed from biblegateway.com. This section could be improved with more critique of the Passion Translation and a note on Bibles like the New World translation, which was made by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to support their own doctrine.
Conclusion. 40 Questions about Bible Translations answers many common questions about how scholars translate ancient Hebrew and Greek texts into readable, contemporary language. He also provides ample illustrations drawn from various Bible translations. Strauss’s answers are not overly technical, so most readers will find this a helpful primer on Bible translation methods.
Strauss maintains a website, Engaging God’s Word.
Other books reviewed in this series:
- Marvin Pate, 40 Questions about the Historical Jesus
- Keathley and Rooker, 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution
- Jeremy M. Kimble, 40 Questions about Church Membership and Discipline
- Sue Edwards and Kelley Mathews, 40 Questions Women in Ministry
- Charles L. Quarles and L. Scott Kellum, 40 Questions about the Text and Canon of the New Testament
NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.