Mark Strauss’ 40 Questions About Bible Translation is an excellent addition to the 40 Questions Series by Kregel Academic, edited by Benjamin Merkle. Strauss, a New Testament scholar and experienced Bible translator, approaches the topic of Bible translation by way of 40 questions organized into six general categories.
In the first section, Strauss addresses several introductory topics such as the need for Bible translation and the goals of translation. He then surveys the major methods of translation, noting their strengths and weaknesses. He concludes by surveying some of the latest research on translation and considers whether these approaches go beyond the accepted boundaries.
The second section looks in more detail at some more technical questions that translators consider in preparation for a translation, including which books to include, which manuscripts to follow, and which audience and reading level to focus on.
The third section of the book, entitled “Challenges for Translators”, is the longest and most in depth. Strauss walks the readers through different challenging topics in translation such as lexical issues including collocations, figurative language, cultural differences, and gender. He also notes the issues relating to determining chapter, verse, paragraph, and section breaks. Finally, he introduces the readers to several challenges related specifically to the translation of terms for God and manners of referring to God.
The fourth section shifts from topics in translation to the history of Bible translation, focused primarily on English. Strauss begins with the first translations of Scripture and then works forward, noting the contributions of John Wycliffe and his colleagues at Oxford, William Tyndale and his associates Miles Coverdale and John Rogers, and the translators who produced the King James Version. He then surveys the revisions of the King James Version until the present as well as modern translations which are outside that tradition. He then reviews the major Roman Catholic translations. Finally, he notes early attempts at “natural-language” versions.
Strauss then shifts from history to the current Bible-translation scene in his fifth part of the book. He surveys the most popular or noteworthy translations in five categories. He considers the most popular formal and functional equivalent versions. He then considers mediating versions, which stand between formal and functional and include the New International Version. He then considers amplified or expanded translations which “blur” the line between translation and commentary. He concludes with a survey of several “radically recontextualized” Bibles, that is, translations that change the cultural background of Scripture.
In the sixth and final section of the book, Strauss considers the work of Bible translation beyond English or in his words, “international” Bible translation. Strauss surveys the major world’s languages and their translations. He then notes the need for Bible translation that still exists in many languages of the world, and the work of mission organizations like Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Bible Societies in meeting these needs. He notes some of the unique challenges of translating outside the English-speaking world. Finally, he discusses one of the most controversial topics in Bible translation—the replacement of “Son of God” in translations for Muslims.
Strauss’ 40 Questions About Bible Translation is a valuable contribution to the literature on Bible translation oriented to a general audience. He skillfully introduces the readers to the history of Bible translation, the modern versions in English, the challenges of translation, and the incredible need for Bible translation beyond English. The book ends with a list of resources for further study and a Scripture index.
One of the strong points of Strauss’s work is his recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of the major approaches of translation. Although Strauss favors the mediating translations and especially the New International Version, he recognizes value in formal equivalence translations. Furthermore, Strauss is not averse to noting the shortcomings of works that move beyond translation into commentary and cultural adaptation. He even reminds the readers of the dangers of cultural adaptation as seen in Muslim Idiom translations in his discussion of the “Son of God” controversy.
Another strong point is the rationale for Bible translation. Strauss notes that the Bible is God’s Word. Furthermore, it is for Christians today (pg. 15). In short, we translate for the visible church so that believers are able to use the Word of God, whether in public reading, preaching, or teaching. To read more on the concept of translation for God’s people, check out my blog post on the purpose of translation.
Strauss sets forth a helpful definition of accuracy in translation: “reproducing the meaning of the source text in the receptor language in a way that preserves, as much as possible, the author’s intention” (pg. 23). Strauss’ discussion of accuracy is noteworthy because an ever increasing number of Bible translators consider accuracy to be either one of several important qualities in translation or a secondary quality with impact on the readership being the most important feature of translation.
Unfortunately, Strauss sets aside his impartial presentation of translation methods and describes formal equivalence in an unusually negative light at several points. For instance, he states that formal equivalence fails as a consistent method of translation (pg. 43). He also states that formal equivalence translations introduce inaccuracy to the extent that obscure language may lead the reader to misunderstand the intended meaning (pg. 42). He also states that the New American Standard Bible is “plagued by faulty linguistic assumptions” (pg 290).
Even though he implies that expanded translations and cultural adaptations are problematic, he doesn’t speak as directly and forcefully against them as he does the formal equivalent translations. For instance, after a survey of works that “radically recontextualize” the Bible, Strauss simply states that they prioritize relevance rather an historical and cultural accuracy (pg. 310).
On the topic of formal and functional approaches to translation, it is important to note that Strauss defines functional equivalent translations as ones that focus on translating the meaning (pg. 29). Formal equivalent translations, by contrast, focus on the form (pg. 29). Strauss does not provide the classic definition of functional equivalency as focused on translating the meaning of the message of the text.
The distinction between formal and functional is not a difference between form and meaning but between the relative importance of the meaning at the lexical and sentential levels for formal translations versus the meaning at the level of the paragraph or text, i.e., the message, for functional translations.
Furthermore, Strauss fails to note that one striking feature of functional translations is the avoidance of traditional biblical expressions and theological terms. Interestingly, he does note this topic in the context of explaining how the New International Version gained a larger readership than the Good New Bible and other non-formal equivalence translations (pg. 292).
Finally, he does not mention that the functional equivalent translations are intended for those outside the organized church and with a limited knowledge of the Bible. In fact, he puts on the lips of “stuffy biblical scholars” the claim that non-literal translations are not suited for serious study (pg. 291). In so doing, he fails to note that the translators who originally produced functional equivalent translations were the first to defend their work by claiming that their translations were primarily for evangelism and not for serious biblical study.
These are significant features of the functional equivalence translations which should be explained to the readers so that they might understand more fully the differences between formal, mediating, and functional translations.
Unfortunately, the readers are left with the impression that the formal equivalent translations are significantly distinct from the mediating translations and especially the New International Version. Strauss even describes the New International Version as having a “modified dynamic/functional equivalent translation philosophy” (pg. 291). As a result, the similarities between the formal and mediating translations are easily overlooked, such as having Christians as the primary audience, having preaching and teaching as the uses of the translation, employing traditional theological terms in the translation, and being endorsed by conservative denominations and pastors.
A helpful feature of the book is that every chapter ends with reflection questions. In order to make the book more suited for teaching, an index of topics addressed in the book would have been a helpful addition. A glossary of technical terms would also have been useful, given the introductory nature of the work and the breadth and complexity of the topics addressed.
I highly recommend Strauss’ introduction to Bible translation. He skillfully introduces the readers to a broader range of topics in this field, drawing on his own expertise and involvement as an experienced translator. He also writes in a style accessible to a general audience and, as a result, this work should be a valuable resource in the classroom as well as for personal study.
Strauss, Mark L. 40 Questions About Bible Translation. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2023. 368 pp. Paperback. Price: $24.99. ISBN: 9780825447501