Modern Speech Translations


by Wayne S. Walker

     This is the final article on the preservation of the Bible as corroborating evidence of its inspiration. The previous two articles in this series looked at Catholic versions and "per"-versions of God’s word. This article will examine some of the various versions in modern language. "For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for the battle?" (1 Corinthians 14:8). Most of these so-called modern speech translations give an uncertain sound in their attempts to render God’s word. In 1973, the late Edgar V. Srygley, Jr., a faithful gospel preacher and a qualified teacher of Greek on the college level, gave an excellent lecture at Florida College entitled, "What Is Wrong With Modern-Speech Translations?" I can do not better than to share with you the points that he made.

     First, Srygley said, "The non-literary koine Greek papyri, principally discovered in the early part of this [20th] century, are exploited when they are offered as the primary justification for ‘idiomatic’ translations." The argument goes that the common Greek of the first century was the language of the "man on the streets" so that the Bible should be translated into the language of today’s "man on the streets," which often produces some rather bizarre renderings, such as Ferrar Fenton’s 1903 The Holy Bible in Modern English translation of Psalm 100:1, "Hurrah to the Lord of all the Earth." While no one should be opposed to taking modern accepted English vocabulary and using it to translate what the Hebrew or Greek says in language that produces in the same way or as nearly as possible the concepts of the original language, the actual content of the Bible must not be changed to do this (Galatians 1:8-9).

     Second, he said, "Almost all of the modern-speech translations are private translations that were never subjected to the critical examination of a committee of unbiased textual scholars who could dull the axes that the modern-speech translators were trying to grind." For example, it was a well known fact that Richard Weymouth did not hold scriptural views concerning the state of the dead and future life, so in his original edition of The New Testament in Modern Speech, published in 1903 after his death, he translated "eternal life" as "the life of the ages." If the original writing of the scripture did not come as a result of the private interpretations of men, then neither should the translation of those scriptures be the result of the private interpretation of men (2 Peter 1:20-21).

     Third, "The ultra-idiomatic English of modern-speech translations does not tend to create the reverence that should be accorded the Word of God." The primary aim of modern-speech translations, beginning with The Twentieth Century New Testament in 1902, was to "mediate the Word of God in a plainer English idiom." This means that they strive to produce an "equivalence effect" in the minds of the readers by translating the Bible into everyday idiom, which often results in the use of slang and sacrifices accuracy. For example, Edgar Goodspeed’s The Complete Bible: An American Translation (1927) replaces the word "chariot" in Acts 8:28-38 with the word "car." The scriptures are inspired of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Yes, we want them in language that we can understand, but the translation should read like the word of God, not some dime-store detective novel.

     Fourth, "Most of the modern-speech translations are not translations at all, but are, at least in many areas, paraphrases, emendations, and commentaries on what the translator thinks that the actual text means." James Moffatt in his 1928 A New Translation of the Bible renders 1 Samuel 14:11, "Look at the mice creeping out of their hiding holes." The original text says "Hebrews" and not "mice." In 1 Peter 3:19 Moffatt’s translation reads, "Enoch also went and preached to the spirits in prison." No manuscript of the original text has "Enoch." Commentaries are fine in their place, but when we read something that claims to be a translation of the Bible, we need to know not what the translator thinks that it ought to have said but what is "in truth, the word of God" (1 Thessalonians 2:14).

     Fifth, "The desire to achieve a so-called ‘equivalence effect’ results in the sacrifice of accuracy, and the incorporation of absurdity, in many English renderings of the original text." Edward Vernon’s The Gospel of St. Mark: A New Translation in Simple English (1951) says that the Gadarene demoniac "turned away and went off; and all over Ten-Town-Land he spread the story of what Jesus had done for him. What a sensation it caused!" (Mark 5:20). It says that Herodias’s daughter ran up to Herod and said, "Please, I’d like the head of John the Baptizer on a plate; and please can I have it now?" (Mark 6:24-25; emphasis mine, WSW). Translations, like preaching, should demonstrate the power of God, not the wisdom of man (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

     This is not to say that all modern-speech translations are all bad. A few of them may have some surprisingly refreshing renditions on rare occasions. Srygley wrote, "The use of modern-speech translations is an interesting diversion, if that is what one wants." But he concluded his lecture with a story, cited by F. F. Bruce, of a young minister in Scotland who visited an aged member of his flock and read to her a chapter from a modern-speech version. She responded, "Well, that was very nice; but now, won’t you just read a bittie of the Word of God before you go?" My sentiments exactly! (—taken from With All Boldness; January, 2000; Vol. 10, No. 1; p. 15)


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