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Plain English Versions of the Bible

by Sharon Tan

Why is there a need for more versions of the Bible in English, when there are already so many? This is certainly a valid question. The simplest answer would be that it really depends on whether a particular group is able to hear God speaking clearly through an existing translation. If there isn’t one, then perhaps there is a need for one more version.

Clear, accurate, natural, appropriate

Every translation seeks to be clear and accurate. In addition, it should be natural and appropriate. The last two goals, in particular, are what makes every translation different. There are many different ‘Englishes’ in the world, some used only by a group defined by a specific culture or locality or time. What is ‘natural’ for one group of English speakers may differ greatly from another (e.g. modern British English vs Singlish, or modern US English vs King James’ English). What is ‘appropriate’ for a seminary student who needs a text that is close to a word-for-word translation from the original languages will not be very helpful to the average person doing his daily Bible reading.

Finding the right balance between these factors is a challenge. The ordinary person today usually finds some of the English translations too old-fashioned or scholarly to understand easily, and others may find the style or vocabulary not what they are accustomed to. What every group needs is a version that uses the words and phrases that they might use in their day-to-day lives. After all, the original Koine Greek of the New Testament was the vernacular, or common language, of the day – the language of the working man.

Bible storying, the oral retelling of Bible stories, has a very similar idea – to tell scriptural truths in ordinary language. Wycliffe has an ongoing project translating Bible stories into Teochew for those who are more comfortable using that dialect than Mandarin or English. If you are keen to explore such an endeavour, do contact us!

Here are some English translations tailored for specific groups:

The Message (Eugene Peterson)

The goal of The Message is to give people a ‘reading Bible’ rather than a ‘study Bible’. Eugene Peterson, the translator of The Message, wrote, “I knew that the early readers of the New Testament were captured and engaged by these writings and I wanted my congregation to be impacted in the same way. I hoped to bring the New Testament to life for two different types of people: those who hadn't read the Bible because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become 'old hat.’” His main aim was to capture the tone and meaning, using the contemporary idioms and slang of modern-day American English as spoken by his parishioners.

Read or listen to The Message.

Plain English Version (Australian Society for Indigenous Languages)

This English translation of the Bible is for speakers of Australian Indigenous languages who do not use Standard English. It seeks to convey the same meaning as the biblical authors conveyed to the original readers, using language features that are common to most Australian Aboriginal languages. About 70% of the New Testament, with Old Testament portions, will be published in 2022.

Retired Wycliffe Australia member, Dave Glasgow, said, “People may speak English as a learned language but they still think in terms of their mother tongue. There may be some features they share in common with the learned language, but those that differ can cause significant misunderstandings. We are modifying the English contained in the Scriptures to conform to their Indigenous thought, culture, grammar and semantic patterns.”

Read or listen to portions of the Plain English Version.

First Nations Version (Terry Wildman)

Terry Wildman, himself a Native American and a pastor, felt the need for a translation of the Bible “in English worded for Native people”. He began by experimenting with rewording Scripture passages to give them a “Native traditional sound” – the traditional style in which Native elders spoke. He found that listeners, including young people, “just loved listening to it because it didn’t have the church language. It didn’t have the colonial language.” Young people said it sounded like one of their elders telling them a story. Elders have said it resonates with how they heard traditional stories from their parents and grandparents.

Megan Murdock Krischke, national director of Native InterVarsity, said, “Even though it’s still English, it feels like it’s made by us for us… It’s one less barrier between Native people and being able to follow Jesus.”

Watch an animated film of the story of Matthew 14:13-33 (Feeding the Five Thousand) as told from the First Nations Version for North American Native People.


More on oral storying:


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