Book Review: One Bible, Many Versions by Dave Brunn

I haven’t done much in the way of book reviews on this blog, but I just read a book by fellow NTM missionary and friend, Dave Brunn, and seeing as the subject of the book follows right alongside many of the discussions that we’ve had on this blog over the past months, I thought I would recommend the book and share with you some of my thoughts about it.

One Bible, Many Versions is a very informative and well-written book that is readily understandable by translators and non-translators alike. Dave Brunn sets out a modest thesis and then thoroughly proves that thesis with rich examples and great explanations. Dave draws on his experience as a Bible translator to the Lamogai people of Papua New Guinea and as a translation consultant and teacher with New Tribes Mission. In many ways, the subtitle made me think that Dave was going to go in a different direction than he did. Are all translations created equal? sounds like a rhetorical question with a negative answer, but I would have to say that the book gives the answer: “More than you might think.”

The main point of the book is that so-called “literal” translations really are not as literal as you might have been led to believe, and therefore the “Translation Wars” that have erupted over many of these misunderstandings have created unnecessary and even harmful disunity in the body of Christ. Using numerous examples, Dave proves that a truly literal translation is impossible, and that on many occasions, more idiomatic translations actually are more literal on a given verse. For example, he shows how in Matthew 1:6 the translators of the NASB (the standard of “formal equivalence” translations) made four very non-literal additions to the original Greek text in order to enhance readability and understanding. One of the most memorable of these is that where the Greek text has “the (fem article) of Uriah” the NIV necessarily changes the article to “wife”, but the NASB goes even further and adds in the name “Bathsheba” even though that name is not  found anywhere in the New Testament!

I think the most useful parts of the book are the copious tables that compare translations of various verses demonstrating the complexity of the translators task and how many of our popular versions have sought to deal with difficult passages. Dave has done a very thorough job of researching many, many examples that are a great reference for students of translation.

Another noteworthy portion of the book touches on how the nature of English in its relationship to the underlying Greek and Hebrew has created translation debates that are meaningless for other language families. A idiomatic translation is required when looking at the grammatical structures of indigenous Melanesian languages found in New Guinea, for instance.

Dave does an excellent job of proving his thesis, but I came away from the book wanting more. (Clear evidence that it is a well-written book!) As unity is the overall theme of the book, Dave steered away from controversy, but it would have been good to have had more of a discussion about how one can evaluate a translation more critically without an underlying knowledge of Greek and Hebrew (if this is even possible). A couple of specific topics I would love to see Dave address in a sequel(?) would be the following:

  • Dave introduces the concept of an “unduly free” translation. Using the (somewhat ridiculous) Cotton Patch Version as his example he illustrates the point well. But what are the criteria for when a more widely-used paraphrase (such as The Message) might at times stray into this area? While such free translations may have their uses in personal devotions, I inwardly cringe when I see believers using them as their primary study Bibles unaware of the inadequacy of these versions for those tasks. Are there times when, for the sake of faithfulness to the Word of God, we need to risk disunity to raise these concerns?
  • The gender-inclusive debate could be more thoroughly discussed. This is one that we’ve talked about on this blog in our discussion on the NIV 2011. Again, Dave’s book is a call for unity, which is needed and admirable. But, the problem of competing translation goals (e.g., political correctness vs. transparency to the underlying message) is a difficult one. Dave dismisses the gender-inclusive problem simply by saying many languages (such as Lamogai) don’t even have gender-based pronouns, so if this was such a big issue for the Lord, would he not have seen fit that every language have gender-based pronouns? I think the problem is more complex than that and could be discussed in more depth.

Overall, however, this is a great resource that will not disappoint students of the Bible who want to know more about the translation process, not only into English, but into other languages as well. You will come away from the book thankful for the rich variety of so many translations available to us in English (maybe to the point of embarrassment).

Perhaps you will even be challenged to consider what part you might play in seeing the Bible translated into one of the hundreds of languages that have yet to have a single verse of God’s Word in their tongue!

Thanks, Dave, for this great resource and the challenge to all of us!


About Neil Burleson

I serve as a missionary in the country of Papua New Guinea.
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