Translations of the Bible and Other Classic Texts: Why So Many?

Books

The Wall Street Journal recently asked “How Many Times Can a Tale Be Told?” The piece comments on our superabundance of translations of classic texts and the fact that more come out every year. Why do we need so many translations?

One of the books that we seem to have too many translations of is Anna Karenina.

There are half-a-dozen English-language translations of the 1878 Russian novel available for sale online, including the 2001 version produced by celebrated translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. An endorsement by Oprah Winfrey turned that edition into a best-seller, with more than 1.3 million copies in print to date.

Yet next year, two new translations of the massive novel will hit the shelves. “Why two more now, and in the same year? I have no idea,” says Mr. Pevear in an email.

WSJ suggests that one of the reasons for these new translations is that publishers hope to boost their revenue stream. They are relatively inexpensive to produce, since translators don’t expect as much compensation compared to an author, and the new translation might find a home in the college classroom, providing the publisher with a small but steady income.

Of course it’s not just about the money, at least not for the translators themselves. The translators think they can bring more accuracy to their own editions. In most cases it’s a labor of love.

This piece about translations of classic texts caused me to ponder translations of the classic text, the Bible. We have more translations of the Bible than we do Anna Karenina. Undoubtedly, more are on the way. Do we really need all these translations?

To a certain extent, the same considerations that inspire fresh translations of Tolstoy encourage Bible publishers to create fresh translations too. 

Christian publishers need money, and the Bible sells well every year. Bible publishers push the market even further than Penguin and Norton by tailoring notes and study aids to a certain demographic. On Amazon, you have your choice of about twenty-five different English translations in over eight thousand different formats. Trust me, we wouldn’t have this many options if they didn’t make money.

Just like those who translate classic texts, Bible translators don’t expect much money. Actually they expect less because they usually work in committees. (I know. It sounds terrible.)

Copyright provides another economic incentive for fresh translations, not your own copyright, the other guy’s. By creating an in-house translation, Christian publishers save money on royalties. Lifeway has saved millions of dollars that would have gone to Zondervan, owner the NIV, because it now uses the Holman Christian Standard Version, owned by its subsidiary B&H Publishing Group.

While publishers probably concern themselves more with the bottom line, I have faith that the translators themselves strive for accuracy. Unfortunately, agreement concerning the nature of “accuracy” eludes us.

What’s constitutes accuracy? Often we can’t even agree on spelling. In Lattimore’s translation of the Odyssey we read about Athene, Kalypso, Aithiopians, Kronos, and Ithaka, while in Fagles’s we read about Athena, Calypso, Ethiopians, Cronus, and Ithaca. I find the second set a more accurate translation, but many would disagree. It doesn’t get easier when you start worrying about grammar, syntax, and interpretation.

What’s the best way to translate the Bible? A paraphrase that captures the spirit of the original text? A literal translation that captures the syntax of the original text? Dynamic equivalency that captures neither one nor the other? All helpful in their own way. Different translations will suit different readers and different purposes.

We’re left with an embarrassment of riches. Should I complain about having too many choices? I know people who do. I’ve decided that no matter the motive behind a translation, I’ll be thankful that it’s available. I’m glad that there are more than a dozen English versions of Dante and dozens of English versions of the Bible. Now if I could just find a way to convince my students to read them.

Cross-posted at First Thoughts

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