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Review of Brunn’s “One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal?”


David Brunn is the director of education for New Tribes Missionary Training Center and as a career Bible Translator translated the New Testament into the language of the Lamogai people of Papua, New Guinea. Rev.
Chuck Huckaby is the Minister of Congregational Life at First Protestant Church in New Braunfels, TX. A video review is also available on Pastor Chuck’s Youtube Channel.

As Evangelicals, we’ve been taught that Bible translations are either basically “literal” and, therefore, “faithful” to God’s Word or “dynamic” and - to one degree or another - less “faithful” to God’s Word.

People who believe the above statement to be true will find that Dave Brunn’s new book “One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal” illuminating to say the least!

When this book arrived unrequested and unannounced, this reviewer groaned. The evangelical debate over Bible translation has grown simultaneously heated, polarized and extremely simplistic. It seemed doubtful another book on the subject could do much good. But because Dave Brunn works for the New Tribes Mission that did so much to popularize Chronological Bible Teaching as a method of evangelization, and because another writer drew attention to Brunn’s amazing comparisons between modern translations, ultimately this translator could no longer be ignored!

Brunn moves the reader beyond translation theory into the realm of actual practice. Our current evangelical discussions are long on statements on how faithful Bible translation should work, but short on discussing the actual realities involved in that process. The issue is complicated because most Americans (over 80% by some reckonings) have never learned to fluently speak or write another language, let alone a language completely unrelated to English. To that degree most Americans - and American Christians - are unaware of the potential translation problems involved when moving from one language and cultural setting to another. Visit any area where two languages are prominent, however, and you’ll notice just by observing bilingual signs that the same message rarely can be translated using the same number of words!

Brunn’s book began when confronted with the responsibility of translating God’s Word. He puts it this way:

"I realized that I had unintentionally made English the ultimate standard for Bible translation. This realization became even more noteworthy when I learned that only 6 percent of the world’s living languages are classified as “Indo-European.” That means 94 percent of the languages spoken around the world today are not related to koine Greek in the way English is. My view of translation was based on a pretty narrow segment of the worldwide linguistic landscape.

As I continued translating the New Testament into Lamogai, I frequently compared various English versions side-by-side. That is when my idealistic perception of translation really started to unravel. It quickly became apparent to me that the English Bible versions identified as “literal” versions are not nearly as literal as I had previously thought.”

As someone who knew the burden of having to stand before people with his published work and say “This is God’s Word”, he brings a different perspective to the issue than someone who is, for instance, a full time apologist who dabbles in translation theory to buttress prior theological commitments. There is an honesty and reverence to Brunn’s tone that pervades his presentation and undergirds his plea for integrity in discussing the relative merits of various translations.

The previously uninitiated reader who comes to this work will have many surprises in store. First, the reader will learn how a missionary translator goes to work to translate the Bible into a completely unrelated language. Readers will also be introduced to dozens of Hebrew and Greek figures of speech that cannot be literally translated into English and make much sense. In fact, some potentially literal translations into English would convey the exact opposite of their intended meaning!

As examples of that last statement consider these: Genesis 31:20 says in Hebrew that Jacob “stole Laban’s heart”. In English that implies Laban fell in love with or was captivated by Jacob. In context, those words were intended to convey that Jacob had deceived Laban. If anything, Laban hated Jacob rather than being “captivated” by him!. Likewise Genesis 38:21 speaks of a “sacred woman”. That connotes a priestess, nun, or even the Virgin Mary for some modern English speakers. In context a “sacred woman” was a pagan cult prostitute.

Perhaps most shocking for some will be the reality that the very translations being promoted as “essentially literal” and, by implication, “most faithful to God’s Word” are neither necessarily. Time after time and phrase by phrase it becomes apparent that all modern translations - New International Version, New Living Translation, English Standard Version, and even the New American Standard Bible - are forced by the translation process itself to engage in “dynamic” translation if modern English readers are to understand the original intent of the Hebrew or Greek text!

Brunn’s work reveals that, ultimately, every translation is forced to make numerous choices to arrive at a final “translation”. There is no English translation (even the “King James Version”) that at some point (indeed many points) does not engage in “thought for thought” translation. Even the New American Standard BIble and English Standard Version depart from “literal” translations when the translators deem it expedient...and even when the translators of the New International Version and New Living Translation take a more “literal” path in communicating the same verse!

The bottom line is that every criticism leveled at the NIV or NLT could as easily be levelled at the NASB or ESV at some other point in the same translation! In the end, many of our pleas for a certain mainstream evangelical translation over another boil down to arguments about preference, not whether one translation team used an infallible translation method while another team used a failed method.

Brunn’s enlightening work is endorsed by well-respected evangelical scholars like D. A. Carson  and Darrell Bock from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Dallas Theological Seminary respectively. It is profound enough for academics yet easy to read for non-scholars. Its tables are both informative and entertaining. Pastors, seminarians, or anyone interested in Bible translation should not consider their studies current until they have heard what Brunn has to say.

IVP Academic, 2013 (Paperback, 207  pages)

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