Which Bible Translations Think You're Dumb

Condescension is a good thing if we are using it in theological terms, but do we want it out of our Bible translators?

There are well-known differences of opinion when it comes to philosophies of translation. If we believe in inspiration and inerrancy, how literal a translation is becomes important. How much work ought the reader to do in the text, and if left to his own devices, will the reader become confused? To ensure comprehension, ought the translators to do most of the work for the reader, and risk altering the meaning of a sacred text?

It is the difference between the wicked speaking with "heart and heart", "double heart", or "deception in their hearts".

From BibleGateway.com

Given the main point of this post, which cometh in but a while, you would soon know where my sympathies lie. So I'll go ahead and lay 'em down gently here: I delight in a literal translation (or as near to that as could exist) for the fun and insight it gives, and I admire the elegance of a translation that feels natural even while maintaining the idiom and tone of the original text. But I feel deceived, yea, like the translators spoke with heart and heart when I can see interpretation in translation. While I understand that not everyone has the same literary proclivities as I, I hope to convince you with a quick example to reject the translations that do all your work for you.

The example is from Genesis 9:13, which I'll quote from the "King James" Authorized Version: "I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth." We all know the story, so without even thinking we know that the bow, God's war bow, is the rainbow. To some men the rainbow has been a bridge between heaven and earth, to others a vicious snake-dragon, to still others a sparkly trail left by the messenger of the gods. To the Hindus and the Sumerians it has been a war bow. And so it is to us, who are Israel.

God is telling us in this verse that he is putting up his bow. That he's hanging it above the mantle, perhaps next to some other celestial memorabilia, there to gather dust. The time to make war against the earth is done; his weapon is put up. It is vitally important to this verse, to the entire passage, and to our understanding of who God is that we understand he is talking about a bow.

But some translations have decided that you might be too dumb to figure out what God meant by "I set my bow in the cloud". So they write "rainbow". The word rainbow, quite naturally through daily use, does not make us picture a thunder bow. It makes us picture Rainbow Bright or leprechauns with buckets of gold. Perhaps a little addendum would do, a little footnote: Dear reader, when God says bow he is talking about a rainbow. Get it, dear reader? It's a bow in the cloud.

If you have not yet settled on a (or a few) preferred translation, perhaps this list will help. There are the translations that translate qesheth as "bow", which is what it means, and the translations that will translate it "rainbow", which is indeed what God was talking about but not what he said. You can make your decisions from there.

So, without further ado, the translations that think you can read, and the translations that think you're dumb.

English Standard VersionNew International Version
American Standard VersionNew King James
King JamesLiving Bible
Good News TranslationThe Message
New American StandardThe Voice (VOICE)
Revised Standard Version
New Revised Standard

A brief post-script: one could make the "icons" argument for a certain kind of translation. That is to say, let the simple people take simple comfort from a simple message. They don't actually have to know how to read, they can simply see God's story told in these images. I am no iconoclast. But I do not believe the solution to the illiteracy of the faithful is icons. Instead, the solution is literacy. In the same way, the solution to ignorance, obliviousness, lack of critical thinking skills, and a failure to pay attention in junior high English class is not over-translation. The solution is learning to engage with God's Word. It is educating the people of God.


  1. This is why I like the Revised Standard Version; it updates the most archaic of terms from KJV and yet doesn't completely neuter the structure and poetry like the NJKV does. It's not all perfect (changing 'virgin' to 'young woman' in Isaiah) but I typically prefer to chant the RSV over the English Standard Version. And don't get me started on the NRSV....

  2. It probably bears consideration that there are numerous places for such rounded corners in the text, and while a certain translation (the NIV for example) might take that approach on this particular word, it may do well in that department in many other places. Another translation (say, the ASV) might be in the left column here but fail terribly in many other places, with this instance standing as a lone exception.

    Now I don't honestly know, since the only Bible I ever really read is the same copy of the King James that I've been carting around for the past 14 years. It does seem, though, like using a sample size of 1 could produce some misleading results. I'm not suggesting that you go through and make a chart of 10 or 20 different cases and how each translation handles each one, because I realize this is just a food-for-thought blog post and not a research project. What I am saying is that readers should remember that this is a way to get the ball rolling on discussions of translative liberties, but it is not a definitive guide to good and bad translations of the Bible.

    1. Hopefully my readers will be perceptive enough to realize that, as you say, this is just a conversation-starter.

  3. Actually, it's easier to use a mediocre concordance and get the sense of the scripture than it is to get the depths hidden in an icon without a good translator... But all the ones I prefer to use are in the left column of that list. Well, except the Rheims-Douay...

  4. Well put and thought provoking, as always. I'm glad to see my preferred version made the cut.

    1. I thought about you when I wrote this.


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