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Translation? Paraphrase? Gratuitous Rewriting? All of the above....
on December 22, 2010
I have given this book a three star rating not because I am ambivalent in my feelings towards it, nor because I am lukewarm in my reaction. I would like to give it five stars for its vision and how far it's moved toward accomplishing that vision, and I would like to give it one star for its failures and excesses, so, rather than write two reviews, I averaged the score.
Five stars: The Voice does bring the text alive in some fresh ways which are apparent as soon as one cracks it open (or, I suppose, scrolls down -- since many of its target audience will probably prefer the electronic edition). For example, the presentation of many of the narrative scenes in the format of a drama (again, "screenplay" would be the more familiar analogy for its target audience) is a brilliant move, and one with a revered pedigree in the churches. I think, for example, of the dramatic reading of the Passion of Our Lord in many liturgically-oriented churches on Palm/Passion Sunday and on Good Friday, a tradition that goes back to late medieval chanted presentations of the drama of Matthew 26-27 (or a parallel in Mark, etc.) and came to fullest flower in the settings of the Matthew and John Passions by Bach. This format would also encourage the dramatic reading of these texts in churches rather than the solo-voice lay reader approach, something that I wish churches would do more often, since so much of Scripture is drama. The explanatory boxes -- as a concept -- are also actually a quite interesting idea. They invite an interactive reading of the text, allowing the box-writers to jump in, as it were, to try to give some background, to keep the reader fixed on the major plot of the drama, and the like. They also remind me, to some extent, of the time-honored tradition of the Bach Passions, where reflective arias and hymns explore responses to each scene in the narrative. And, of course, I do applaud the goal of making the Scriptures as accessible as possible. I believe that The Voice could have done so, however, without the debits (see next paragraph).
One star: I have some serious reservations about this translation -- and, indeed, with calling The Voice a "translation" at all. A "translation" seeks to represent the meaning and impact of a text written in a source language as fully as possible in a new, target language. A translation tries to lose and to add as little as possible. It does not matter whether that translation be based on formal equivalence or functional/dynamic equivalence: the purview of a "translation" is limited. A "paraphrase" often works from an existing translation, seeking to make that translation more accessible. In practice, they add a whole lot. The Voice is sometimes a translation, sometimes more of a paraphrase, but sometimes an all-out interpretative Targum. In and of itself, that's not a bad thing, as long as readers are clearly made aware that they are reading a highly interpretive, highly "leading" representation of the original, and provided the leading is not "mis"-leading.
Let me begin here with my strongest objection: the introduction, in italic typeface, of material not actually represented in the Greek manuscripts. The NASV had used italics in English Bible translations to represent words that had no direct correspondence with the Greek but that were necessary to make good sense in English. This practice was unobjectionable. The preface to the Voice explains that the material in italics "may contain information that would have been obvious to those originally addressed in the Gospel or letter" and are meant "to help the reader better understand the text without having to stop and read footnotes or a study guide." The reader is alerted to expect the italicized text, then, to bring out what is implied in the text, or what a first-century reader would infer. This, too, might have been unobjectionable, to the extent that the writers really fought hard against their tendencies to have the text imply what they, rather than first-century audiences, would infer. But I find the italicized text in practice to do far more (and therefore far worse) than the preface indicates/warns. For an example, let's just look at a few passages in the first half of the Letter of Jude. The italics in The Voice will be indicated here in brackets.
1. Jude 3
The Voice: "Friends, all I think about is our communal redemption, [the story of our Father sweeping us up together in His salvation hands. But these days my heart is troubled,] and I am compelled to write to you and encourage you to continue struggling for our common faith that was entrusted to the saints once and for all."
DdeS translation, for the sake of comparison: "Beloved, while I was exercising all diligence to write to you about the salvation we share, I found it necessary to write to you to encourage you to keep struggling for the faith that was handed over once for all to the holy ones."
The italicized text here is introduced to give a brief overview of what the translators would regard as the message about "the salvation we share," motivated perhaps by their general desire to keep the larger picture in view. Not terrible, but neither can one say that the first-century audience would infer all this, and do so in this particular way. What is lost here, however, is what Jude specifically wanted to convey: the current issue is so urgent that he ceased writing about the "salvation we share" and turned instead to write a short, admonitory letter about the dangers of the interlopers. He wasn't just "thinking" all day about "our communal redemption"; he was writing about it and a greater need arose (thus heightening the audience's attention to what follows).
2. Jude 5
The Voice: "But even you, in your knowledge, forget God's saving acts.] You have heard the stories many times, [and the Spirit has enlightened you about their meaning,] but you still need to be reminded. Remember when the One [who scooped us from the earth] saved our ancestors by scooping them from the land in Egypt? [He breathed life into our earthen lungs] and took back the life from those who did not believe."
Again, for comparison's sake: "So I want to remind you, even though you know all this already, that the Lord, having decisively saved a people out of the land of Egypt, later destroyed those who didn't show faith."
The first two sentences in The Voice just seem to me to be a much wordier and unnecessarily pointed way to say what Jude had already said more clearly: "You know all this, but a reminder can't hurt." The part about the Spirit enlightening and imparting knowledge is probably true to the early Christian mindset (cf. Heb 6:4-5), but how the translators/writers feel justified in bringing it out here is beyond me. The second half of the verse is what I find far more objectionable. The Voice introduces two resonances with the story of God's creation of humankind in Genesis 1-2 that simply have no basis whatsoever in Jude 5 or its context. There is nothing in the Greek that would begin to say "hey, think about Genesis 1-2 as the background here." It's gratuitous rewriting of Jude on the part of the translators here. Moreover, it obscures the very point Jude is trying to make: The people who left Egypt with Moses experienced God's deliverance but, when they didn't press on in faithfulness, they were condemned to perish in the desert and were destroyed." Hmmm.... An attempt to domesticate a passage that might speak against "eternal security" (see below on "The Team")? Or just a really bad translation?
3. Jude 7
The Voice: "Sodom and Gomorrah and all their neighbors were defeated by their own sexual perversions as they pursued the strange and unnatural impulses of the flesh. Let these who [went their own way and] are experiencing the eternal heat of God's vengeance -- a punishment by fire -- be a warning to you. [Let it be known: God will be glorified.]"
A tighter translation for comparison: "So Sodom and Gomorrah and the neighboring cities, similarly indulging in sexual immorality and going after a different kind of flesh, lie as an example, suffering the punishment of everlasting fire."
First, The Voice misses the specific sin of Sodom as Jude portrays it: it is not simply pursuing "the strange and unnatural impulses of the flesh," but "going after strange (i.e., a different order of) flesh," namely trying to have sex with the angelic visitors -- a fitting counterpoint to the example of the Watchers in Jude 6 (see Gen 6:1-4 and 1 Enoch 6-16). Second, Jude doesn't actually say that the people of Sodom suffer ongoing fiery torment, but only that the still smoldering plains where Sodom was believed to have been situated remain a geological "hot spot" as a testimony to their sin and punishment (cf. Wis Sol 10:6-8). The Voice underscores its incorrect interpretation with the first addition here. The second addition -- a complete sentence! -- is just gratuitous. The best that can be said for it is that it's in keeping with the regula fidei, I guess, but there's no reason to suppose that this is a natural inference from the Greek.
4. Jude 12-13
The Voice: "They are waterless clouds, carried away by the wind; autumn¡¦s lonely and barren trees, twice dead, uprooted; violent waves of the sea [breaking over the bow,] foaming with shame; [lost and] wandering stars destined to live forever in gloomy darkness. [They are hopeless and without a home.]"
A comparative translation from the Greek: "They are waterless clouds carried along by the wind, fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead and uprooted, wild waves of the sea, churning up their own shame like foam, wandering stars for whom the gloom of darkness is forever reserved."
Main point to make here: where the heck did the ship come from in The Voice, such that the wild waves are "breaking over the bow"? The Voice prides itself on capturing the poetry of the Scripture. Doesn't that first involve careful consideration of its images? Jude wants us to imagine a churning sea that results in foamy scum gathering on the surface -- this is what the intruders are like, as their carnal passions churn up and make visible their own degradation in their outward behavior. The Voice's italics simply intrude on this image by introducing one that has no basis either in the text or in inferences from the text. The remaining italics just strike me as redundant, certainly not necessary nor even helpful to bring out the meaning of the text.
Perhaps the translators simply felt Jude was too short and were trying to give it more presence in the New Testament by doubling its length. :) To the casual reader, perhaps none of this really matters, but it matters to me that The Voice has substantially changed Jude's meaning at several points, has obscured rather than clarified Jude's voice underneath the voice of the translators/writers. The italics here generally allow these writers to yell over Jude; they do not help us hear Jude. In short, drop almost ALL the italics, and The Voice is already vastly improved.
Now before I get really nit-picky, I do want to say that The Voice occasionally makes some brilliant improvements on earlier translations. For example, translating God's (and Christ's) self-revelation as "the One who is, the One who was, and the One who is coming" (Rev 1:8) takes an important step forward over the NRSV's "who is and who was and who is to come." The NRSV speaks of God in a more static manner as present, past, and future; The Voice correctly captures the apocalyptic sense of the third verb -- the God who is and who was is also "on his way" to intervene in the present world order. The relationship between commands concerning the Christian husband's treatment of Christian wives and the motivations for these commands in 1 Pet 3:7 is correctly reflected in The Voice: Christian husbands are to show consideration on account of the wife's physical vulnerability and to show honor to their wives on account of the latter's dignity as co-heirs in Christ. Many translations incorrectly assign both motivations to the latter command. The commitment to avoid using English words that are essentially transliterations of Greek words (e.g., angel, Christ, baptism) is also laudable, as it refuses to stop the process of translation prematurely. But, again, a few examples of mistakes (not possibilities, but mistakes):
1. Heb 12:2
"Now stay focused on Jesus, who designed and perfected our faith." It is typical for English translations to add "our" here, even though this has no basis in the Greek text. At the very least, it should appear in italics, but even so it would be misleading. Ignore the chapter numbers for a moment. What is Jesus doing here? He's the climax of a long, long review of what faith looks like in action and what people have been able to accomplish acting on faith. He shows faith-in-action better than anyone before or after, hence, he is faith's pioneer and perfecter. The "our" just gets in the way and misdirects the readers' focus: it's not about us and OUR faith.
2. 1 Peter 2:7 on "precious"
This is, admittedly, a litmus test verse for me. Almost every translation since the KJV has rendered this as, essentially, "to you who believe, he is precious," as if 2:7 were some statement about how believers view or value Jesus. This was a blunder back in 1611 and continues to be so here. The author has used the adjective "precious" (Greek, entimos) in the preceding paragraph to speak of the "stone" that he interprets as Jesus. But the point of 2:7a is to draw an inference from the Scripture quoted in 2:6b -- those who trust in this stone, Jesus, will not permanently suffer disgrace. "Honor" (Greek, time), then, is for you who believe." My own Greek students get this right when they are working from the Greek text rather than running on auto-pilot remembering how earlier (mis)translations render this verse.
3. Romans 1:5
The Voice reads Paul explaining his mission as "to spread the [one true and] obedient faith to all people." Aside from the issue of the gratuitous italic addition ("one true and"), The Voice has reverses the relationship of the two nouns in the original, namely "obedience" and "faith." In Romans 1:5, the noun "faith" really must describe "obedience" in some way (e.g., "faithful obedience," "the obedience that springs from faith," or some such thing); in The Voice, "obedience" has been turned into the modifying noun and "faith" the main noun. I might guess that this springs from the conservative tendency to privilege "faith" in Paul's theology of Christian response rather than "obedience."
The boxes often attempt to draw the reader's attention to the larger story of God's interventions in human history, which is one of the stated goals of The Voice. Some seek to provide some background information, some draw out some theological or devotional point. In many instances these are good "parenthetical remarks" on the text. Occasionally, I would wince a bit. For example, a box immediately following Romans 8:38-39 refers to these verses as the climax of Paul's argument, claiming that "in all of Paul's letters, there is no more triumphant note." This pretty well sweeps aside a generation of scholarship on Romans that has finally understood why Paul wrote chapters 9-11 at all, how these chapters fit integrally with 1-8 and are not a mere afterthought or digression (but still essential to Paul¡¦s goal of establishing the faithfulness of God), and how, therefore, 11:33-36 presents a more likely climax of the argument of Romans. There is, notably, no box in that vicinity at all. Little things, perhaps? But easily caught and improved, if there had been closer collaboration with perhaps a wider sampling of biblical scholars on this project.
Some of these are quite strong and indicate a good measure of finesse in light of scholarly investigation. For example, there is no attempt to link the John of Revelation with one of the twelve apostles and the reader is encouraged to discover what John's images would have meant for his first-century audience before trying to decipher them in a modern context. Bravo! On the other hand, there is not a hint that 1 Timothy or 2 Peter might be pseudepigraphic. I myself am not dogmatic on that point, but it does seem a bit disingenuous not to admit the degree of debate on such issues. Hebrews is said to address Jewish Christians, despite evidence of a mixed Jewish and Gentile Christian audience (not least because it addresses a church formed as part of the Pauline mission). Authorship of the Gospels is handled in a mixed way. The bronze type clearly affirms traditional authorship of each of the four Gospels without room for doubt, while the introductions to Matthew and Mark, at least, introduce the element of uncertainty in a non-threatening, but still responsible way. More could have been said in this regard on the authorship of the Fourth Gospel, given the well-founded debate concerning the identity of the "Beloved Disciple." In short, the highly conservative/traditional bent of the project is evident here.
I personally know and deeply respect several members of the team of biblical scholars that appear to have served in a consulting capacity for the writers of The Voice. I have used the commentaries and other works by Darrell Bock, Peter Davids, and Alan Culpepper to great profit in my own study and writing. But the team, one must admit, is a bit stacked: Capes, Blair, and Sorgwe all teach at Houston Baptist University; Culpepper and Jones teach at McAfee, a Baptist Seminary in the Atlanta area (the former had been at Baylor, the latter in a Baptist church in Decatur, GA); Dodson (a good man with whose work I have not yet made myself familiar) teaches at Ouachita Baptist University in Texas. Miller teaches at Crichton College, now Victory University. He earned his M.Div. degree at Southeastern Baptist Seminary. Bock teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary, and Waters at Azusa Pacific (a university in the Holiness-Pentecostal tradition). Waters is ordained, I think, in the United Methodist Church, and Davids is ordained Anglican. All this to say, this is NOT really an interdenominational team. It's a highly conservative, and very much Baptist team -- and disproportionately Texan, one might add. (And, though there are two or three women among the ten or so writers, the scholarly reviewers are all males.)
Something as important as a new representation of the New Testament should really have the best representation of the church and the scholarly guild -- not the safest theologically, certainly not the most locally convenient (the Ecclesia Bible Society is based in Houston). The Voice has a lot to offer. Its vision is fresh and its style winsome. It's also got some distance to go before it's really a good TRANSLATION. I would urge Thomas Nelson to go the extra mile with this product, and solicit a review of each NT book from persons who have written solid, critical commentaries on the Greek texts (among the biblical scholars already involved, Bock wrote an excellent commentary on Luke, Davids on 1 Peter and on James, and Culpepper has contributed important monographs on John, but I'm not aware of other commentaries written by other members that would specifically suit them for this task). Let the editors spearheading The Voice receive feedback concerning where the translation really needs to be revised, where italics really should be deleted or altered, and where the block comments could stand some tweaking, and work from there for the improvement of the whole before the release of the complete Bible. You've got a great thing in the works here, but please don't leave it like this!