Who is the Bible for? Who are the intended readers of a Bible translation? To use a more technical term, who is the ‘audience’ in translation?
For centuries, it was generally believed that one translation was sufficient and that the translation was for the entire church and, by extension, even for an entire Christian nation.
However, today, we have hundreds of translations of the Scriptures in the English language. Furthermore, there is a growing perspective that one translation is never sufficient, given the diversity in modern societies and the different ‘audiences’ that exist.
How did this view arise? What is the ‘audience’ and why do some think there are many ‘audiences’ in Bible translation?
I would like to introduce you to an often overlooked book that was very significant in the development of the concept of multiple audiences. The work is William Wonderly’s Bible Translation for Popular Use.
Wonderly and a New Audience
Wonderly’s work was published in 1968. At that time, the American Bible Society had published the Today’s English Version: New Testament, 1966. In this historical context, Wonderly’s book is both an extended argument for a new kind of English Bible and an in depth explanation for how to go about producing a “common language” translation.
It’s noteworthy that this work and the subsequent Good News Bible are commonly referred to as “dynamic equivalent” translations. They are also referred to as “common language” translations. Despite the evolving terms to refer to this approach, Wonderly gives an detailed explanation of the approach that is still relevant today.
Wonderly proposes that there is a growing readership in English who would benefit from an English Bible in “common language” as opposed to archaic language or contemporary but overly formal language.
He proposes that the standard English Bibles such as the King James Version and the Revised Standard Version were inaccessible because of their archaic language. Furthermore, he mentions the New English Bible and Jerusalem Bible as translations in contemporary language that serve educated readers. Yet he suggests that their language is still too formal for the least educated readers.
Finally, he proposes that a new translation is needed for a new and previously neglected audience. This new translation is the “common language” translation.
It is worth reading Wonderly’s work because he carefully explains the steps to produce the “common” or simplified English that best communicates to the least educated readership.
Furthermore, he gives the purpose of Bible translation as communicating in the most basic language so that the reader is not requires to learn special vocabulary. The translation, thus, communicates without educating. The key to this kind of text is to use the language that the reader is already familiar with.
The ultimate goal of the translation is to communicate the gospel to the readers while requiring as little instruction in the language of the text as possible, especially not introducing theological terms unfamiliar to them.
Three Kinds of Translations and Audiences
At the time that Wonderly published his work in 1968, he and his colleagues at the American Bible Society were promoting “common language” translations. In this context, Wonderly argues for this new approach to translation on the basis of the needs of a specific segment of English readers, that is, based on the intended audience.
To highlight the need of the least educated, he argued that the English translations available at the time served the higher “socio-educational” levels of society, but not the least educated.
He classifies the translations of his day into three versions.
First, he uses the term “traditional church version” to refer to the King James Version and the Revised Standard Version. He describes these versions as using the upper socio-educational levels of English; he also notes that these version have language only familiar to Christians.
The second group of translations are referred to as a “literary language version.” Wonderly mentions The New English Bible and the Jerusalem Bible as examples of this group. These translations use contemporary language, but it might be more formal.
The third group is the “common language” version. He refers to the Today’s English Version as an example. Wonderly describes it as using contemporary language that is more casual; furthermore, it does not use terms that are only known inside Christian circles. It uses language that non-Christians would generally use and understand.
Response to Wonderly’s Classification
I think Wonderly’s classification of translations is very insightful. It’s important to recognize that major revisions in English such as the Revised Standard Version employ more archaic language, while modern translations like the New English Bible have more freedom to employ contemporary English.
Furthermore, Wonderly makes a strong argument for the “common language” version on the basis that it is a version for those not well served by existing translations, especially those with less education.
Wonderly appears to be very concerned about the least educated. However, he doesn’t seem as concerned that they learn the more formal language of the contemporary versions. He is even opposed to them learning the traditional Christian language of the Bible; he considers theological terms found in Scripture of limited value, except for conversing with theologians.
He wants to translate with a variety of English that the least educated will understand at their level of education but is opposed to improving their level of education. In fact, the concept of translation as communication is expressly in opposition to translation for education.
Finally, Wonderly organizes the existing translations into three groups with distinct socio-educational levels of English for their readers. Yet these versions were not created primarily or exclusively for the most educated readers. In fact, it would be very unlikely that the translators of the traditional and modern versions didn’t want everyone to read their work. Even Wonderly suggests that more educated English readers might want to read a common language translation, even though the target for this kind of translation is the least educated readers. Although the level of English in the different English translations can be associated with different levels of education, it doesn’t follow that the distinct socio-educational levels would benefit from a unique translation.
Legacy of Wonderly’s Audiences
A significant point which Wonderly illustrates by his work without explicitly discussing it is that translators and their respective organizations have the right to define their own audience. Regardless of the grounds for this position, it has been accepted without much discussion.
Furthermore, it has contributed to the view that there are multiple, distinct audiences and, as a result, a need for a variety of distinct English Bible translations.
It appears that Wonderly’s work and the broader efforts at the American Bible Society have contributed to the following widely-accepted views on audience:
- There are multiple audiences in Bible translation.
- The translators define the audience for their translation.
- The translators may define the audience according to the function of the translation, the needs of a specific linguistic group, or a combination of both.
- The best translation is the one that benefits the less educated, especially those who have the least knowledge of the Christian faith.
Concluding Thoughts about Audience
To return to our original question of how many translations of the English Bible do we need, the answer for many is as many as there are distinct audiences with unmet needs. As long as translators approach the question from this perspective, the number of translations will continue to grow.
What if we look to the Scriptures themselves to ask how many distinct translations of the Bible are needed?
How many versions of the Law did Moses receive at Sinai? How many versions of the Gospel of John were written by the aging apostle for the early church?
How many centuries did the English-speaking church rely primarily on one translation? Even today, how many language communities have a single translation? The vast majority!
More importantly, what is the role of the local church and the preaching and teaching of Scripture? Could the Christian community be more central to addressing the needs of those who struggle to understand Scripture?
As I note in my 10 Affirmations About Bible Translation, I believe that the church is the primary audience, both the local expression of the church in specific language communities and the universal church who has been entrusted with the Scriptures (Psalm 102:18; Romans 15:4; Hebrews 1:1).
I would contend that if we view the Scriptures as authoritative, it follows that the Author of Scripture should determine the number of translations needed, and, moreover, that there may be little justification for multiple translations in any given language, unless the rationale has its origin outside Scripture.