One Bible, Many Versions, by Dave Brunn. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013. 195 pages
Dave Brunn is dean of academics for New Tribes Mission (NTM) USA Missionary Training Center. A missionary, translator and educator, Brunn spent over twenty years in Papua New Guinea where he served the Lamogai people. Among his other works is a complete translation of the New Testament into the Lamogai language.
How literal should a Bible translation be? Since the time of Jerome and before, translators have wrestled with this question. More recently, it has resurfaced in our country with the publication of the NIV 2011 and, in our circles, with the discussion on choosing a translation for our publishing house. In One Bible, Many Versions, Dave Brunn examines some of the underlying reasons for the ongoing debate and attempts to show that the chasm between those who favor different translations is not as wide as it is often perceived to be. Instead of adding fuel to the debate, the author hopes to help his readers sort out the many competing claims for superiority among English Bible translations and to demonstrate that instead of being opposed to each other, the different Bible versions can be seen as being mutually complimentary – even mutually dependent.
When discussing different Bible versions, Brunn emphasizes the need to focus on the real world of translation practice rather than philosophical ideals, since no translation consistently follows its own ideals. So throughout this book the author uses many examples from different Bible versions (laid out in easy to compare tables) to make his points. The first chapters of the book address the claim that literal versions are better versions. Brunn begins by showing that whether a translation claims to be more literal or more idiomatic, no translation is entirely consistent in its approach. He states: “My work as a translator brought me to the realization that literal Bible versions in English often take turns being the most (or least) literal among their peers” (33). In fact sometimes the so-called non-literal translations are more literal than the literal ones. It is not enough to simply claim literalness because “every version gives priority of meaning over form” (191).
Some argue that a literal translation is better because the form of the original is more transparent in translation. However, since translation always involves changing the form to some degree, Brunn believes that the question really should be: How much of the original form can and should be preserved? Again several examples are offered to show that “a literal translation of figurative language can often produce either wrong meaning or zero meaning” (61). Among these examples is Job 29:4 where a word-for-word translation would have Job saying, “Oh for the days that I was in the autumn of my days.” While most English speakers might think that the “autumn of days” is referring to the last chapter of one’s life, the Hebrews viewed the autumn not as an end of the seasons, but as a time of fruitfulness and harvest. So in this case, a less literal translation like the NIV’s, “Oh, for the days when I was in my prime,” seems to more accurately capture in the meaning.
Chapter six addresses the important question of divine inspiration and translation. Some claim that a less literal translation stems from a lower view of the divine inspiration of Scripture. Is this claim fair? Brunn asks, “Are the actual words of Scripture inspired? Of course they are! Every detail of the original is the ‘product of the creative breath of God.’ But what does that mean for translation? Does it mean every word in the original must be represented by a word (or combination of words) in our translations of Scripture” (102)? However, every translation omits words, adds words, and substitutes modern day equivalents (e.g. translating money terms) in order to preserve meaning. Therefore Brunn concludes, “If the doctrine of verbal inspiration requires consistent word-for-word translation, then every English version is disqualified.” Instead of saying that the Scriptures are inspired down to the very words, he prefers to say something even more comprehensive like, “they are inspired down to the smallest unit of meaning and form” (187). This would cover the highest levels of discourse all the way down to the word level and below. He then asks: “Was the readability and naturalness of those original texts inspired by God? Of course it was. There is no aspect of the original that is not inspired. Since the naturalness and readability were divinely inspired, it seems appropriate for translators to try to reflect those features in their translations too” (187). While the discussion of divine inspiration and translation was fascinating, this chapter raised more questions than it answered.
As someone who translated the New Testament into a non-Indo-European language, Brunn warns against forming principles that only apply to English. He says, “As long as the debate about Bible translation stays within the realm of English translation, the tendency will be to oversimplify some of the issues” (139). His concern is that when absolute undeniable principles of translation are proposed, they should be ones that can be properly applied to every language – and not just English.
In his final analysis Brunn proposes a multifaceted view of translation and encourages the student of the Word to use many different versions. He asks, “Which of these ocular instruments gives the best and truest perspective – a telescope, a microscope or a wide angle lens? Obviously, each one is valuable in its own way, and each makes a distinct contribution toward helping us understand the world around us” (166). None of these instruments eliminates the need for the others. “Instead they complement and balance one another” (166). Perhaps, it is the same with Bible translations. However, he also adds, “We can and should go back to the Hebrew and Greek texts on a regular basis. The truth of the matter is that none of the literal versions could replace the original either” (194). This is a welcome encouragement for those who have the ability to work in the original.
Did the author meet his goal of showing that Bible versions should be seen as mutually complimentary rather than divisive? In one sense, yes. The many examples given show that translations that take the Word of God seriously are often aiming at the same goal – to communicate the Word of God effectively. However, it also seems important to remember that just because all translations are aiming for the same target doesn’t mean that they all get just as close to the bull’s-eye.
This book is a thought provoking and accessible resource for anyone interested in the issue of Bible translation. The many helpful charts that compare how different versions handle the Greek and Hebrew are well worth the price of admission, and the author’s real world experience of translating the New Testament give him insight and credibility. While anyone who has spent time in the original languages is aware of some of the difficulties of translation, this book helps the reader think deeply about some of the issues involved. Hopefully, such thinking will help us speak to those with different opinions on Bible versions with Christian love and sensitivity.
 Jerome himself said, “If I translate word by word, it sounds absurd; if out of necessity I alter something in order or diction, I will seem to have abandoned the task of a translator.” (Jerome, Letter to Pammachius, trans. Kathleen David, 398.)