Full of Sound and Fury: Translating the Bible in 21st Century America
All the books in my office—save one—sit in their place on my bookshelves. The Bible that belonged to my great-grandparents stands by itself on a brass bookstand. It is a massive book, delivered to their home in rural Missouri by Montgomery Ward, and containing the Authorized and the Revised Versions in facing columns, along with pictures, maps, and places to record marriages, births, and deaths. The volume stands in quiet contrast to the two shelves of my bookcase filled with more recent translations of the Bible.
My great-grandparents' Bible testifies to a simpler world than ours. Theirs was a world in which one need own only one book, one that served as ledger, vault, and recipe box, as well as a spiritual guide. Ours is a world with multiple options, and Bible translating has certainly kept pace.
When Jana Reiss of Publishers Weekly (RSN, June 2002) was asked if she considered the multitude of Bibles to be a sign of readerly sophistication, she responded that it seemed more like "reader overload." Forget ordering a Bible displayed on the same page of the catalog as "Bib Overalls." Choices facing today's Bible-buying customer are bewildering at best.
The availability of multiple translations of the Bible is not a new phenomenon. Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament circulated in multiple versions and translations. Jerome's Vulgate gave the Roman Catholic Church a standard version for many years because the church chose to make it so. With the Protestants, however, new translations sprang up across Europe, as the Bible became the primary (re)source for reforming the church.
When James I ascended England's throne, a number of Bible translations had their adherents. He commissioned a new translation to be used by the different factions. His authorized version soon became the standard for English-speaking Christians, and it remained virtually unchallenged until the early 20th Century. By then, people on either side of the Atlantic were moving to update the now-archaic language of the KJV, but such challenges were relatively minor. By the early 1950s, American scholars had produced a modern American alternative to the KJV, and the RSV began to take hold in mainline churches and across the academic world. Certainly those who termed the RSV "demonic" and burned it understood its challenge to the KJV and American fundamentalism.
Other versions of the Bible emerged during the 1970s, beginning the explosive growth of versions, translations, and formats that comprise our present landscape. In quick succession Bible translators offered the NASB, the Living Bible, the GNB/TEV, and the NIV. Each of them offered a new and improved version designed for a new (and improved?) generation of churchgoers.
New translations and paraphrases continued to hit the market over the next twenty years. In addition, a new phenomenon signaled the marriage of Bible publishing and sophisticated marketing. Perhaps the astute observer could have predicted the "formatting" of the Bible by noting that the LB could be purchased with a denim cover or that the paperback cover of the GNB/TEV mimicked newsprint. As Dr. Reiss noted: "Publishers discovered a number of years ago that some key customers would identify more clearly with a Bible if it were marketed directly to them." Bible marketing grew exponentially in the last quarter of the 20th Century.
A final piece in our historical puzzle became apparent as Bible publishers faced the unavoidable conclusion that American cultural changes demanded new translations to speak to this new audience. The major English translations were revised around the turn of the 21st Century, producing the NRSV, the NLT, the CEV, the NASB Update, and the TNIV. Other translations underwent similar revision processes.
Our quick tour through the history of Bible translation in America suggests that at least three commitments-theological, cultural, and economic- interact to produce new Bible translations and versions in America.
Most versions claim to be accurate translations from a set of ancient texts. Rarely will a translation claim to be guided by sectarian theological views; in some cases the preface to the reader claims that the translation process has involved little or no interpretation. Anyone who has translated knows that choosing the words in one language to translate words in another language always involves interpretation. Therefore, all English translations of the Bible contain some theological tendencies, and a commitment to theological positions influences all translations.
A second factor is a commitment to produce translations acceptable to our present American culture. The academic community plays a role in the translation process, so part of the cultural commitment must be to scholarly integrity and accuracy. This often results in a translation committee's choosing the "best" and most recent scholarly editions of ancient biblical texts. The Bible is a serious document that ought to be handled by the best-trained and most trustworthy scholars; only the rare translation will not claim to have its stable of highly competent scholars who have worked to present the most accurate and up-to-date version possible.
That commitment to present the most up-to-date version is one of the obvious motivating factors in the recent wave of revised translations. American culture changed significantly in the last half of the 20th Century. Some of the versions produced in the 1970s reflected the beginnings of that change. The revisions of the 1980s and 1990s confirmed the change. To various degrees, new translations addressed changes in attitudes and/or changes in American English. Changes in the sensitivity to language referring to gender or ethnicity have had the most impact on new Bible translations. In fact, a battle is raging concerning the TNIV, whose translators attempted to introduce "gender-neutral" language when it seemed appropriate. The version has been accused of violating translation principles and introducing false interpretation into the sacred text.
The translation philosophy of "dynamic equivalence" will require that translations be "updated" on a cycle designed to keep the language of the translation fresh and culturally relevant. The "verbal equivalence" philosophy should be less susceptible to cultural change, but a careful examination of trends suggests that most versions undergo a revision process about every 20-25 years in order to appear culturally relevant.
A cynical person would say that the economic commitment is the primary motivating factor in producing new translations. That commitment to gain and maintain market share has driven the development of so many different formats (or packages) in which the Bible has been produced. Niche marketing is less difficult now than in the past, and the Bible (in all its forms and formats) remains at the top of many bestseller lists. Zondervan's ownership of the NIV—probably the best selling version presently—made the company a good purchase for HarperCollins. Such mergers and acquisitions crossing traditional theological lines suggest a strong economic commitment in the publishing world. That the Bible market is so lucrative also probably explains why so many publishers heretofore without a version of the Bible have entered (or reentered) the market.
What will happen in the near future? I anticipate that Bible publishers will continue to honor these three commitments. Of the three, theological differences will be the least important factor in developing new translations. Important versions are identified along major theological fault lines, and they are likely to maintain a strong enough readership to fend off most new challengers. American culture will continue to change, so we can look for every major translation family to undertake some revision at intervals intended to communicate to the buying public that the translation remains fresh and current, as well as accurate. Economic competition will continue to drive the development of new translations and new formats. Niche marketing will continue, with Bible publishers looking for every possible way to format the Bible to gain and maintain market share. Serious competition will take place among versions aimed at conservative American Christians.
My great-grandparents' Bible sits quietly as a reminder of my roots. But the shelves in my bookcase are a more insistent reminder that cacophony will probably be the legacy of the present.
Steven Sheeley is Professor of Religion and Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs at Shorter College in Rome, GA. He is the coauthor of two books with his colleague at Shorter, Robert N. Nash, Jr.: The Bible in English Translation: An Essential Guide, and Choosing a Bible: A Guide to Modern English Translations and Editions, both published by Abingdon Press.
Citation: Steven Sheeley, " Full of Sound and Fury: Translating the Bible in 21st Century America," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=88