Category: Bible translation

On study Bibles

By , 9 January 2009 8:02 pm

Frankly I really feel that I ought to write on Gaza and the mess there. However I find it difficult to say anything that will not antagonise some people for whom I have a very great sympathy and affection.

So, instead let me scuttle in a cowardly fashion to the safer ground of study Bibles. I have before me – occupying a sizeable proportion of my desk – two study Bibles published last year: the New Living Study Bible (Tyndale) and the ESV Study Bible (Crossway). We are clearly living in an age of ‘Bible Wars’ where the battle is on to try and find the successor to the New International Version as the standard Bible for the evangelical world. I wish I could say that I felt it was theological truth driving this struggle, but of course it isn’t. If there is going to be a winner who takes all then the profits will be enormous.

Anyway one result of Bible Wars is that these books include everything except the kitchen-sink. They all have indexes, articles, special topic studies, cross references, systematic theology sections, access to online versions, maps and even, in one case, four or five pages of Hebrew and Greek words that you really should know. Both are between 2,500 and 2,800 pages which must be close to the maximum for a printed volume. Frankly, both are excellent resources and represent real bargains. In the old days you used to get a Bible and a separate one-volume Bible commentary. These books largely do away with the latter.

I don’t want to talk particularly about the differences in translation as that merits another blog. Suffice it to say, as far as I can judge, I find the ESV a translation that is accurate to the text. Unfortunately, it suffers from the major defect that the result is not English as it is spoken by anyone today. The sentences are far too long and words such as ‘behold’, ‘distaff’, ‘debased’, ‘lyre’, etc. abound. It is also extraordinarily archaic in the style of writing, as for instance Acts 19:23: ‘About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way.’ No way! Some people may find this more troubling than others but as a writer and communicator let me tell you that it bugs me. The NLT is freer and much easier to read but I always have a slight unease that more may be being read into the text than is actually there.

The ethos of the two Study Bibles is also very different and is those of you who are interested in the future of evangelicalism would probably find it interesting to compare the two. As far as I can make out both seem to take very considerable pains to be doctrinally orthodox and both merit the title ‘conservative evangelical’. The NLT is, I think it’s safe to say, more forward-looking and seems at least on the surface to dialogue much more with modern conservative evangelical scholarship. So although the ‘New Perspective on Paul’ is not mentioned by name, there is a balanced (if short) discussion of what is a major debating point in New Testament scholarship. There is also a short list of recommended further books at the end of each chapter which includes some stimulating volumes. Theologically, the NLT seems much more open-ended and seems to try to balance both Calvinist and Arminian positions.

On the other hand, the ESV Study Bible seems somewhat more backward looking and the level of English much more demanding. It is also much more concerned to promote a particular doctrinal basis, that of the Reformed Faith, and the long series of articles at the end on biblical doctrine are very Calvinistic. I have no problems with that but I’m slightly uneasy about it being pushed in a study bible.

Frankly, I find myself using both. What I am also using is the excellent ESV Study Bible on the iPhone produced by Olive Tree. Here all 2,700 pages can be somehow packed inside my phone and can be accessed instantly. Amazing! The really helpful thing is that in this digital version the notes section is separate from the text so, if you want, you can only see the Bible text. What is also good is that the ESV notes can be used with any other Bible; the result is that I am often using the NIV with the ESV notes. All I really need now is for Apple to implement a proper cut and paste tool. Anyway, if you haven’t seen them I urge you to take a look.

So have a good week. Read the Bible and don’t forget to pray for Gaza.

On dinosaurs, hens and translations

By , 27 December 2008 6:08 pm

I suppose I could be seasonal and entitle this blog ‘three French hens…’ as in that most cryptic of Christmas songs, the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’. The general background is that I have sitting on my desk two fat volumes: the NLT Study Bible (thanks, Tyndale) and the ESV Study Bible (I bought this one myself). At some point I will talk about their respective merits but not today: simply note that I have been reading both and have therefore been exposed in an inescapable way to the curiosities and difficulties of Bible translation.

The more specific background is that I was reading the French newspaper La Monde on my iPhone last week (as one does) and there was an interesting article on some new dinosaur discovery which suggested that far from being vicious carnivores they may have been papas-poules. (‘Des dinosaures d’avantage papas poules que les mammifères’). ‘Papas-poules’ makes no sense whatsoever in English; it is almost literally translated as ‘Father Hens’. With it being Christmas and me having nothing else to do but write a book or two I did a little bit of reading around. What emerged was that the French and English clearly had very different ideas about what hens represent so that translating almost anything to do with poultry is extraordinarily complex. (And possibly dangerous; I am still unclear whether to call a woman a poule is to show affection, infer that she is a prostitute, or both.)

In English, the hen may mean either the domestic fowl as a genus, or the female of the species in particular. (I’m not going to discuss the male for fear that the diminutive of cockerel may trigger your adult-site-warning software.) The young are generally known for cowardice: as in ‘you chicken!’ however female hens are allowed a certain protective bravery. Yet mysteriously only 20 miles away across the Channel the species morphs. Thoroughly aggressive and very macho French football teams happily display the chicken as a logo; indeed it is even an approved symbol for the French state. Let me quote from the website Gallic Rooster:

History of Le Coq

The Gallic Rooster (Coq Gaulois), or cockerel, is the French national emblem, as symbolic as the stylised French Lily. From the very roots of French history, the Latin word Gallus means both ‘rooster’ and ‘inhabitant of Gaul’. The French rooster emblem adorned the French flag during the revolution. With the success of the Revolution in 1848, the rooster was made part of the seal of the Republic. In 1899, it was embossed on a more widespread device, the French 20 franc gold coins. The Coq Gaulois has often been the symbol on French stamps over the years, although now (in 2006) the generic French stamp depicts a stylised ‘Marianne’.

Anyway, it seems to be the consensus that the only real way of translating papa-poule is by using something like ‘devoted father’ or ‘doting father’ but by doing so you lose all the imagery that was present.

It is faced with something like this that you realise the real difficulty of translation: if we can’t easily translate hen-speak from French to English how on earth can we do anything serious? I have no doubt that there are those people who would argue on such a basis that translating the Word of God is impossible. (Islam, of course, gets round it by saying that the Qur’an is untranslatable and you must learn seventh-century Arabic. At the risk of courting controversy I refer them to the three letters Alif, Lam, Mim, which occur widely as a heading to the suras and point out that no one knows what they mean.) The Christian answer lies a) in God’s sovereign superintendence of all things so that he controls even translations and b) the Holy Spirit who can speak through even a poor translation. But I refer you to textbooks on theology to work that one through further.

Anyway whatever Bible translation you use, have a happy and blessed New Year. And be careful when you talk about chickens to the French.


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