Brunn, Dave, One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2013). Pp. ii + 205. Paperback. US$16.00. ISBN 978-0-8308-2715-2.
Dave Brunn, a career Bible translator with New Tribes Mission, contributes an accessible and gracious volume to the often-too-acrimonious Bible translation debate that infects some conservative evangelical churches. He argues that most North American Bible readers are far too idealistic and Anglo-centric in their assumptions about “the best” contemporary translation, and offers detailed examples. He calls out, gently and graciously, translation committees for using imprecise language to characterize their translation ideals. He does all of this as an insider and friend. The volume argues that there are more similarities than differences in translation practices among modern English translations, and that these similarities are unavoidable, having to do with the very nature of translation work itself. He also suggests that English speakers’ fixation on the “words” of the Bible as the primary determiner of translation accuracy may have more to do with the language community of which we are a part than anything inherent in the biblical text itself.
Brunn’s book is organized into ten chapters. The first four chapters focus on some of the linguistic challenges of translating texts, particularly ancient ones. Chapter 1 is an introduction and offers numerous examples of the similarities in translation practices of recent biblical translations, in spite of their proclaimed differences. Chapter 2 discusses the relationship between form and meaning, and is important for some of his later discussion. Brunn asserts that reflecting the original form of a text in its translation is not possible: “If they do not change the form, they have not translated” (p. 38). Rather, the goal of translation is to retain meaning from the original, but in a necessarily new form. He discusses the challenges of idiom, figurative language, and language dynamics, those subtle turns of phrase that convey emotion or tone. In these cases, aggressive attempts to preserve the form can actually result in mistranslation. He cites examples. Chapter 3 discusses the differences between translation ideals and translation practices. He demonstrates that actual translation decisions made by working translators often do not reflect the ideals articulated in Translator’s Prefaces. Brunn believes this is as it should be, again due to the nature of translation work. Chapter 4 discusses challenges associated with translating the words of the Bible, and fittingly contains a lengthy discussion of translation options for the Greek word, logos. Chapter 5 discusses reasons why translators of even the most literal English versions necessarily set aside their translation principles. And chapter 6 explores the relationship between the doctrine of inspiration and the practice of translation. Brunn seems to suggest that many of the tests applied to biblical translations to test for this fidelity are not appropriate, and in fact would be failed by even the most literal translation.
Chapter 7 is in perhaps Brunn’s most important chapter, as it challenges (again, graciously) the myopia of English speaking Christians on the subject of translation. He notes that most Americans have never learned (to fluency) another living language, and if they have, that language is most likely another indo-European language (e.g. Spanish, French, German) with strong connections to English. This impoverishment necessarily limits the average American’s perspective on what “good translation” might look like, Brunn asserts. “As we seek to determine what practices are acceptable in translation, we need to include the evidence that exists in all living languages of the world” (p. 146, italics mine). Chapter 8, somewhat provocatively, includes examples of non-literal translation practices by New Testament writers. And chapter 9 recites the well-known maxim that “all translation involves a certain amount of interpretation,” (p. 166), providing examples from contemporary “literal” translations in which translators make interpretive decisions when rendering texts into English. An accessible discussion of the complexities of the Greek genitive is an important part of this chapter. A discussion of gender neutral terminology in Bible translation appears here as well. Chapter 10 offers a summary of Brunn’s observations and a pastoral conclusion.
All in all, Brunn’s book can be taken as a plea for humility about our English Bible translation preferences in light of the remarkable complexity of human communication across time, space, and culture, within God’s providence. Yet interestingly, it is just this humility that allows Brunn to retain a strong view of inerrancy, arguably more robust than that of the Chicago Statement, which he affirms.
My critiques of the book are minimal, given its author and audience. The book is accessible. It is not mean. Footnotes are few, and confined to a handful of secondary sources. Most of the research in the book involves primary source texts: the various contemporary Bible translations themselves. The author does restrict his examples to just a few translations (NIV, NASB, ESV, NKJV, KJV), leaving out others (RSV, NRSV, JPS). This likely won’t matter, given the book’s audience. It is written for generally conservative evangelical Christians engaged by debates over just these translations. One question Brunn does not engage in detail is the question of the Bible’s own influence on language, culture, and ideas. If the form of biblical language is altered too much with the goal of retaining meaning, might Christians across the globe lose some of their shared biblical vocabulary—shared metaphors? Would this matter? In addition, readers of any text are invited by the text to enter into the text’s own world, leaving theirs behind and allowing the horizon of the text to enfold them. In this process, the foreignness of the biblical idiom may function as an important cue that the world of this text is strange to the reader, a reminder that this world is different than ones’ own world and thus a vital challenge to it. How does one know when this kind of necessary strangeness is reduced too much?
While there is little in this book to greatly surprise anyone who has extensive experience with languages, including Biblical Hebrew and Greek, it is still worth the read. This is so primarily because of the author’s unique perspective. Brunn has translated the Bible into a non-Western tribal language, and has trained others to do the same. He speaks, not as a theoretician or academician, but as someone who has been asked to put God’s Word into the hands of those who have never had it. For some lay readers, it may feel like Brunn is pushing the envelope a bit, at times uncomfortably. However, his experience gives him standing to do this. More importantly, whatever pushing he does is always gracious, kind, and done with the Church’s unity clearly in view. Not a bad combination.