Reading the Bibles: The Problem (Part 1)

May 8, 2012 | 11 comments
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I received the following from an educated friend, and got permission to respond via blogposts.  Slightly edited, he asks-

>>As someone without training in the original languages, how can I evaluate alternate translations of scripture? Here’s what motivates this question:

I’ve been reading Grant Hardy’s Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon, which I love. I’ve been working through Nephi’s Isaiah chapters, and, as I started working through 2 Nephi 19/Isaiah 9, I decided it was time to check alternate translations. I have several: a 4-in-1 that includes KJV, New Life Translation (NLT), New International Version (NIV), and New American Standard Version (NASB), a copy of the English Standard Version (ESV), and, via the web, the NetBible (NET), plus, of course, Nephi’s  versions of Isaiah (BOM).

There are four issues that one can observe by working through 2 Ne 19/Isaiah 9:
•     Similar translations, but with variations in clarity.
•     Most translations reading the same, but with one that disagrees sharply.
•     All translations vary
•     Most translations reading with clarity, but with one that is absolutely opaque.

2 Ne 19:1 illustrates 1-3. Note how these different translations say more or less the same thing [point 1], up until all of them but KJV say something about how Galilee will be honored or made glorious, while KJV explicitly says the opposite [point 2]. Galilee is defined differently, alongside the bit about Jordan and the “way of the sea” [point 3, pay attention to the various linguistic gymnastics that each translations take to figure out where we're talking about. NET notes that these are three different places, while the others attempt various efforts to make them the same]

NIV says “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan” (italics for comparison)

NLT says “Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will soon be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory

NASB says “But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on he shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles” (my emphasis).

NET says “The gloom will be dispelled for those who were anxious. In earlier times he humiliated the land of Zebulun, and the land of Naphtali; but now he brings honor to the way of the sea, the region beyond the Jordan, and Galilee of the nations.”

KJV says “Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations.”

I’ll illustrate point 4 with a comparison between KJV and NASB in 2 Ne 9:5/Isaiah 9:5, although the other translations did similar things as Netbible does. I find KJV to be stultifying and I can only barely see how underlying texts might be the same (which may itself be a strong assumption).

NASB: “For every boot of the booted warrior in the battle tumult, and cloak rolled in blood, will be for burning, fuel for the fire.”

KJV: “For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood; but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire.”

I really want to prefer any translation that makes sense over ones that don’t, but I suspect that sometimes, either because of cultural coding or, well, prophetic obscuration (letting hear without hearing, as it were), scriptures won’t make sense without lots of additional study and prayer. I suppose at one level, the answer to my question is “go pray about it.” But let’s say I want to spend a little more time studying before my prayer, or assume that I’m a neglectful prayer–when I do pray, I never remember to pray about this stuff. Any thoughts?

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I’m thrilled to see someone studying this way and asking questions, and also happy to lay out some basics and then respond with some specifics. I expect it will take several posts to do the topic introductory justice, so check back soon.

Link to Part 2.

11 Responses to Reading the Bibles: The Problem (Part 1)

  1. Dan on May 8, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    This is how the NRSV has it:

    But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

    personally i like the NRSV the best. I think it is the closest to Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible.

  2. Christopher on May 9, 2012 at 7:22 am

    Good stuff, Ben. This is useful for folks like me. Thanks.

  3. Adam Greenwood on May 9, 2012 at 8:33 am

    Interesting questions raised here, but at a point or two you get a little myopia in your own discipline, as if Mormons had the evangelical position that the real Bible we’ve canonized is the original writing that we try to reconstruct.

  4. Sam Brunson on May 9, 2012 at 9:14 am

    Adam, I don’t think Ben’s evidenced any myopia. Yet, at least. Unless I’m entirely misreading him, this is his friend’s email, bookended by his introduction and promise of more. (That is, he only wrote the portion before the initial >> and after the terminal less-than signs (sorry, typing them in messes with the comment).)

    That said, I look forward to the more, Ben!

  5. bpeifer on May 9, 2012 at 9:51 am

    Wow! What a timely post. I read Grant Hardy’s paper, The King James Bible and the Future of Missionary Work about two months ago. I started searching for a translation to use in companion with my KJV. After using the English Standard Version (ESV) for a while I went back to a previous one I had been using. The NET Bible. I loved it so much I had to get the First Edition. I like it because it gives you the 60,932 translation notes and was a brand new translation and note based on other translations. Plus, they go to explain their translation process in the opening notes in the bible.

    My reasons for choosing the NET bible are clear. Translation notes and clarity. I think so much of our fruits from reading the scriptures come from study, prayer and discussion. Please, I hope no one gets offended, but I find that a good number of our can give a talk in sacrament or quote a scripture in gospel doctrine class from the Book of Mormon. When it comes to a bible it’s almost like, A bible, a bible…what’s a bible? Grant Hardy’s point in the article that I read is that we do not toss the KJV aside, but use the newer translation side by side and this makes for more enriched scripture study.

    Anyway, if anyone here has not checked out the NET bible, go to bible.org and check out their website. Also, you can obtain a copy of the article I referred to earlier at http://bycommonconsent.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/king-james-bible-and-missionary-work.pdf

    Thanks

  6. Ben S. on May 9, 2012 at 10:01 am

    Adam, nothing so deep. If we’re going to read the Bible, at minimum we’re going to notice differences between BOM Isaiah and KJV Isaiah. If we pick up another Bible, we’re going to notice differences in translation. Once the average joe has become aware of these, how can s/he evaluate and account for these difference, and what to prioritize? Or in Isaiah, does the Book of Mormon trump everything? (It doesn’t, for reasons I’ll explain, and which most commenters will agree with, I think.)

    At least, if I’ve followed your brief comment correctly.

  7. Ben S. on May 9, 2012 at 10:04 am

    Sam parses correctly. Only the brief open and closing are mine.

  8. Martin on May 9, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    I’m looking forward to seeing what else you have to say here, Ben S.

  9. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 9, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    I actually chose between Android and iPhone over which one had the better implementation of the NET Bible.

  10. Steven B on May 9, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    It seems to me that one judges alternate translations of scripture by how easy and clear they are to understand. In the case of Isaiah, the translation should also convey a sense of the poetic structure, because it should be read as poetry.

  11. Adam G. on May 10, 2012 at 11:53 am

    Sorry I misunderstood. Carry on.