Monday, October 4, 2010

Do we have too many translations?

That seems to be the gist of a recent article in Christianity Today entitled Good News Glut. The article is about how the release of the Common English Bible brings more clutter to an already crowded translation market.

In the article Ken Walker points out that no one seems to know exactly how many English versions of the Bible exist. The American Bible Society says 32, Christian Book Distributors offers 50 and Paul Wenger at Phoenix Seminary says there were nearly 100 in 1950 and that the number has probably doubled by now.

I am not sure if these are all translations or versions. I doubt there are 100 different English translations. But when you throw in the various designer study Bibles that are on the market I guess it is possible there are that many versions. (Update: Jeremy tells me that Rick Mansfield lists a number of available English Bibles up to 2005)

With so many Bibles you would think people would be happy. But Wegner is not. In the article he is quoted as saying "It may be doing more damage than good. It's gotten to the point that people are making money". And Leland Ryken of Wheaton College ( a member of the ESV translation team) says "With the proliferation of Bibles, the public has become confused."

Now I want to be careful with the above quotes since I know too many people (including myself) who have been misquoted. But they do raise some interesting points.

Bibles are big business. It is difficult to determine exact numbers, but a quick scan of a Christian bookstore (those that still exist), Amazon or your local Walmart will reveal that there is almost as much choice in Bibles as there is Baskin Robbins ice cream. The question is, do we really need all these flavors?

Now, by way of disclosure I need to reveal that I am one of the Common English Bible translators. I translated the book of Judith in the Apocrypha. But I also was a bit unsure about the whole project. And my biggest question before I agreed to participate was "do we need another translation." In the end, I agreed to do it because I thought it was important that there be another Protestant Bible available that included the Apocrypha. The NRSV also includes those books, but they are not found in the NAS, NIV, ESV, NLT, or the Message (although I admit it would be interesting to read them in the Message). So, since most of the commonly used translations do not include the Apocrypha, I signed on. And yes, I was paid. Satisfactorily, but by no means handsomely.

But I am still nagged by the question, do we need so many translations, let alone so many versions. In the article Ryken makes the statement that the CEB's title is ironic since the "numerous versions have created a lack of common understanding of scripture." Perhaps he is right. In some cases you can open five different translations of a verse and read it five different ways. I wonder if it is really helping people to get the sense of what the Bible is saying.

The availability of multiple Bibles is not a new one. There have been numerous English versions before and after the 1611 KJV. But the number of Bibles produced in the 20th and 21st centuries has certainly overshadowed anything previously. The question is, though, do we need them? Are we producing and collecting Bibles the same way we do other collectible items? Have market forces come to dictate which version/translation the faithful read?

What do you think? Do we have too many translations? Is money a factor?


  1. Rich Mansfield has a page on the number of English Bibles up to 2005. From that point it should be easy to count them.

  2. you know what? if all of them are the quality of NET, i don't mind a few more translations to help our Bible studies to upgrade their quality.

  3. At one level, it is good to see different translations because it allows people who want to take the text seriously, but who also do not have the facility with the biblical languages, to see how scholars are wrestling, and not always agreeing, with how to translate various portions of the texts. On the other hand, when it becomes a racket and you see different translations re-packaged as Christian junk (Sports Bible, Teen Bible, etc.), then I think there is need for pause and reevaluation of the enterprise

  4. Money also talks, and the money is in English translations. I'm contracted with Logos right now for a new OT translation.

  5. Hmmm... I think there is something positive about he many translations. To me the many translations is like big conversation about Word. It keeps us studying, it keeps us talking and it also introduces newbies to understanding Christ. Fo...r example, it wasn't until I read the TNIV / NIV that I began to understand the bible and it relevance to today.

    Reading the NIV is like someone my age talking to me; reading the King James is like my grandfather talking to me; reading the Message is like my homies talking to me. To me, the translations help me dig deeper in the Word and it challenges my faith, and it helps me communicate the Word to those who do not understand it.

    My pops always quotes fromt the King James when he is teaching me a lesson. (in my head - I'm like, "what did he say?) But I'll remember the verse and look at it in the NIV then I'm like,m "Ohhh, I get what he's telling me."

    Basically, responsible translations are good and the truth should be free. The bible business should be non-profit. It is something wrong when you are making a profit at the expense of people's faith.

  6. Yes, we have too many translations in English. In my opinion, instead of coming out with another translation, our energies should be focused on getting translations of the Bible into the many languages of the world that still don't have a translation in their own language.

  7. When I look at my own bookshelf and see several versions, not including the couple that my wife has, I wonder if there isn't an over-saturation of the market. My first was a KJV that I replaced with the NASB because that was what everyone else was using. Of course, I had to get the Amplified when it came out because it was new. Then the NIV, again because that became the version of choice for the masses. And the New Living Translation because it was an actual translation. The NRSV because that's what the seminary recommended. And so on, and so on ad nauseum. I think it's good to have several different English versions for people who don't have access to the original languages. It gives a more rounded look at what the text may be saying. On the other hand, I agree that too many people are standing firm on one version or translation and polarizing the body of Christ.