Archive for the ‘GOD’S WORD’ Tag

Bible Translations and Reading Levels   Leave a comment

Above:  An Old Family Bible

Image Source = David Ball



I admit it:  I have a well-developed English vocabulary and a deep love for the language.  Skillful turns of English delight me.  So it follows that I like translations of the Bible which do not assume that I operate on the reading level of an Elementary School student.  I should (and do) have a more advanced vocabulary, for I am a native English speaker, an adult, and a college graduate.

I have looked up estimates of reading levels for various Bible translations online.  The results follow:

  1. Authorized (King James) Version–12th Grade
  2. Revised Standard Version–12th Grade
  3. New American Standard Bible–11th Grade
  4. New Revised Standard Version–10th Grade
  5. Jerusalem Bible–10th Grade
  6. New Jerusalem Bible–10th Grade
  7. Revised English Bible–10th Grade
  8. New American  Bible–9th Grade
  9. Good News Version/Today’s English Version–8th Grade
  10. Today’s New International Version–8th Grade
  11. Holman Christian Standard Bible–7th to 9th Grades
  12. New King James Version–7th to 9th Grades
  13. New International Version–7th to 8th Grades
  14. English Standard Version–7th to 8th Grades or 10th Grade
  15. Common English Bible–7th Grade
  16. New Living Translation–6th Grade
  17. GOD’S WORD–5th Grade
  18. Living Bible–4th Grade
  19. The Message–3rd to 5th Grades
  20. New Century Version–3rd Grade
  21. New International Reader’s Version–3rd Grade

Counting from 1989 and excluding revised versions (as in the cases of the New American Bible, the New American Standard Bible, and the New International Version) of translations published prior to 1989, I notice a pattern:  Those eleven translations from the above list divide almost evenly at the line separating Sixth Grade from Seventh Grade.  Six fall above it while five fall below it.  This pattern troubles me (although it could be worse), for it reflects an unfortunate decline in the quality of language education in the United States.  I have recognized this decline in the writing of college freshmen and sophomores.

The Bible is an anthology of texts which contain many subtleties.  A text’s meaning depends on various factors, including textual context (what precedes and succeeds it), historical context, and cultural context (which might not be explicit in the text itself).  And, when one examines a given passage, one might uncover possible shades of meaning.  A passage could mean A or B or C.  The proper communication of these subtleties cannot occur within the confines of a Third-Grade  vocabulary.

As for me, I prefer to read translations on the Tenth-Grade reading level and higher.  I have the vocabulary, so I use it.  Frequently I pull the New Revised Standard Version (which I hear almost all the time in my Episcopal parish) and the Revised English Bible off a shelf, but my main two choices–the ones I keep on my desk–are The New Jerusalem Bible (Roman Catholic) and TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures (Jewish), both complete in 1985.  (My copy of TANAKH is The Jewish Study Bible from 2003, so it contains the text of the 1999 second edition of that translation.)  I estimate TANAKH to occupy at least a Tenth-Grade reading level, for I have noticed some impressive vocabulary choices.  Both translations are modern English, lacking Elizabethan, archaic language.  And both break with the familiar King James phrases, so I read a new, graceful take on texts.  At the other end of the spectrum is The Message.  It is a stylistic disgrace, ruining the majestic prologue to the Gospel of John by having Jesus move into the neighborhood.  Instead of the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, it moves into the neighborhood.  That is too casual a rendering.  One can have both modern English and majesty of translation.

My prescription for dealing with an inadequate vocabulary is to consult a dictionary and a thesaurus as often as necessary in private.  If necessary, one should pursue other vocabulary-building strategies.  One should correct one’s vocabulary shortcomings, not read children’s Bibles as an adult for a long time.