I’ve been using The Voice translation a little bit lately, and am enjoying it. I received a review copy, and want to offer one — but I begin with an excursus on Bible translation generally and dynamic equivalence specifically, since this will frame helpfully what I want to say about The Voice.
I have a confession to make: I’ve never really been a big fan of The Message. There — I’ve said it. Now I know that many (most?) of you are quite in love with it and will tell me that it has enriched their Bible-reading and made the text come alive again. That’s okay… the reasons I’ve never been enamoured of it are a little different. It isn’t the missing verse numbers nor the fact it was done by one man — J.B. Phillips has those in common, and I love his translation. My issue with it is much along the lines of the challenges faced by any dynamic equivalence translation that seeks to bring the language and setting into as contemporary a setting as possible.
Firstly, with The Message, Peterson attempts to contemporize the story as much as possible, such that when Jesus approaches the scene where there has been a death in the house, we see people coming and going with casseroles. I don’t think that’s in the original, but it helps paint the scene in a graphic way that we can readily relate to. In other words, it captures the sense of the original scene without being too literal about how it was actually written down in the first place. The issue here is that in a real way, the Bible is not a modern story — it isn’t set in our time or place, and that necessarily changes some of the ways we understand it. To be clear, it’s message is timeless, but the narrative story it tells is pretty much fixed in time and space to the events which are described. I may get a kick out of The Cotton Patch Version, but I wouldn’t exactly recommend it as a study tool. Eugene Peterson doesn’t go this far with The Message, but still. This is a challenge with all dynamic equivalence translations seeking to make the historical setting relevant and easy to grasp significant nuances as they occur. Idiom is a particular difficulty, and is often lost completely.
Secondly, speaking of idiom, there are a number of points at which interpretive decisions must be made with dynamic equivalence translations in a way that isn’t as necessary with a more literal rendering. There’s quite a bit of wordplay in John 3, for example, and anything approaching a pun or an idomatic expression is generally lost with any type of translation, unless you do some digging for yourself. With a dynamic equivalence translation, the sense of seeing something new in the text is often the result of an interpretive decision where the translators opt for the sake of clarity to make clear something that may have been ambiguous in the original. For all the sermons we’ve heard explaining the specificity of a Greek word, there are many instances in biblical languages where the original language is less specific than the receptor language (English, in this case). In such cases, an interpretive decision must be made which will have the effect of narrowing the theological understanding of the text. Read the Beatitudes in a variety of translations, and you’ll start to see this — the same is true with a number of texts. My personal preference is to leave the interpretation as wide as possible at the translation level and leave it with the reader — which is sometimes accomplished through margin or footnotes. The more dynamic translations, such as The Message generally do not indicate what has been added to the text, and the reader can be left a little uncertain about where the original language offers or does not offer latitude of a differing range than does the translation.
This preface is not to specifically disparage The Message so much as it is to point out the difficulties in dynamic equivalence translation. In my view, the better these are dealt with, the more dynamic the translation can be without damaging equivalence. Even the NIV and NLT are, strictly speaking, dynamic equivalence, but deal with these issues generally by attempting to stay closer to a literal rendering, seeking to strike a balance between the two. These observations also bring us straight to The Voice, where we find the single biggest difference in this translation is the way in which it deals with these issues. Quoting from p.viii of the Preface:
Italic type indicates words not directly tied to a dynamic translation of the original language. These words or sentences 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.
Outlined Boxes delineate material that expands on the theme. This portion is not taken directly from the original language.
Screenplay format is used to avoid the endless repetition of simple conjunctions and to identify dialog. The speaker is indicated, the box is indented, and quotation marks are not used. This helps greatly in the public reading of Scripture. Sometimes the original text includes interruptions in the dialog to indicate attitude of the speaker or who is being spoken to. This is shown either as a stage direction immediately following the speaker’s name or as part of the narrative section that immediately precedes the speaker’s name.
The team working on the translation includes an “award-winning fiction writer, an acclaimed poet, a pastor renowned for using art and narrative in his preaching and teaching, Greek and Hebrew authorities, and biblical scholars.” The unusual makeup of the translation team helps ensure that the eventual rendering is graphic, descriptive, clear, and flows easily. I’m not convinced that the format necessarily aids in public reading unless multiple readers are used for dialogue, but this is a small point.
The website description offers a slight paraphrase of part of the material that appears in the physical copy to describe the project.
Chris Seay’s vision for The Voice goes back 15 years to his early attempts to celebrate the beauty and truth of the biblical narrative. As western culture moved into what is now referred to as postmodernism, Chris struggled with a deep desire to preach the whole story of God. Much like the Hebrews at the time of the New Testament, emerging generations today connect with story rather than isolated facts. Too often, preaching is reduced to articulating truth statements somehow hidden in a complex, powerful, and redemptive story. Jesus taught through parables and metaphors; modern Christians have attempted to translate His teaching into a system of irrefutable fact statements and something seems to be getting lost in the translation.
Hence, a group of writers, poets, scholars, pastors, and storytellers have committed to work together to bring the Scriptures to life in a way that celebrates both beauty and truth.
The result is a retelling of the Scriptures: The Voice, not of words, but of meaning and experience.
The Voice is a fresh expression of the timeless narrative known as the Bible. Stories that were told to emerging generations of God’s goodness by their grandparents and tribal leaders were recorded and assembled to form the Christian Scriptures. Too often the passion, grit, humor, and beauty has been lost in the translation process. The Voice seeks to recapture what was lost.
The obvious question is how well the goals have been accomplished. One of the things I did with the New Testament I received was to take it along with my NLT to our small-group gathering as we were working through some of the early chapters in Matthew. As often happens in such group-discussion settings, there was a certain amount of “my translation says…” going on. By the second time I showed up with my copy of The Voice, even some of the Message-readers were asking how The Voice rendered a certain verse or passage. Generally in these settings, I found that the translation enlivened the text in a helpful way, while the conventions used by the translation to depict added material were easy to distinguish. For the texts in those settings, I did not find any that would significantly change or distort meaning — mainly they offered “flavour” such as context or setting details.
Some other unusual translation decisions have been made for The Voice as well. Titles for Jesus like Messiah or Christ are rendered “Liberating King,” while “baptized” is rendered “ritually cleansed” and John the Baptist is “John the Immerser.” In John 1, the Word is called the Voice. In fact, with the prologue to John being perhaps my favorite scripture passage, it is one that I will often turn to in evaluating a new translation… and where my opinion can be particularly harsh if I feel it’s being mishandled. Here my feelings on the translation are mixed. Overall, the passage comes across more as story than poem, but I can’t fault the translation too much for that. Some of the idioms appear obscured, and interpretive decisions have been made as well. I have written before on darkness and light (a recommended post, btw), referencing John 1:5 where I suggest that the darkness has never “grasped” the light due to the dual meaning possible in the English word, which aligns with the dual meaning possible in the Greek word — it can mean either “comprehend” or “seize.” In verses 16-17, we find interpretive decisions that contrast the grace of Christ with the Law of Moses in a more antithetical manner than is intended (I’ve previously posted about this “grace upon grace” as well). To be fair, both of these particular instances are not easily translated, and there is much discussion about their precise meaning.
An excerpt from Acts 12:
Picture this event: Peter is sound asleep between two soldiers, double-chained, with still more guards outside the prison door watching for external intruders. Suddenly the cell fills with light: it is a messenger of the Lord manifesting himself. He taps Peter on the side, awakening him.
Messenger of the Lord: Get up, quickly.
The chains fall off Peter’s wrists.
Messenger of the Lord: Come on! Put on your belt. Put on your sandals.
Peter puts them on and just stands there.
Messenger of the Lord: Pull your cloak over your shoulders. Come on! Follow me!
Peter does so, but he is completely dazed. He doesn’t think this is really happening–he assumes he is dreaming or having a vision. They pass the first guard. They pass the second guard. They come to the iron gate that opens to the city. The gate swings open for them on its own, and they walk into a lane. Suddenly the messenger disappears.
Peter finally realized all that had really happened.
Peter: Amazing! The Lord has sent His messenger to rescue me from Herod and the public spectacle of my execution which the Jews fully expected.
Peter immediately rushed over to the home of a woman named Mary. (Mary’s son, John Mark, would eventually become an important associate of the apostles.) A large group had gathered there to pray for Peter and his safety. He knocked at the outer gate, and a maid, Rhoda, answered. She recognized Peter’s voice, but she was so overcome with excitement that she left him standing on the street and ran inside to tell everyone.
Rhoda: Our prayers were answered! Peter is at the front gate!
Praying Believers: Rhoda, you’re crazy!
Rhoda: No! Peter’s out there! I’m sure of it!
Praying Believers: Well, maybe it’s his guardian angel or something.
All this time, Peter was still out in the street, knocking on the gate. Finally they came and let him in. Of course, the disciples were stunned, and everyone was talking at once. Peter motioned for them to quiet down and then told them the amazing story of how the Lord engineered his escape.
The story here does tend to come to life, but importantly, the additions to the text are clearly marked. Does the original text say that everyone was talking at once? No, not exactly — but it is fairly clearly implied, and the stylistic addition helps the flow of the story without changing the meaning of the text.
The New Testament letters are similarly translated, but with no direct action or dialogue, the screenplay style does not appear. I haven’t read through the New Testament in The Voice yet, but the selections I have read lead me to believe that overall, it is to be recommended. It will be of particular interest to those seeking a more dynamic translation than the NIV or NLT, but who want more reference to literal touchstones in translation than The Message affords. Indeed, with the textual additions clearly delineated as they are, The Voice can be used for lay-study as well as reading for pleasure or devotional purposes. The Voice is fresh and lively, adding contextual notes into the text without unacceptably altering the original meaning. While it will have its critics (as all dynamic equivalence translations do), but it can be recommended for daily use and casual study. In this application, I believe it will re-enliven some of the passages which may have become dry and dusty for some through over-familiarization.
Paperback version reviewed; also available in cloth. To date, only the New Testament is available, with a copy of John’s Gospel being downloadable from The Voice website. Hopefully a translation of the Old Testament will also appear in due course.