How Many People Does it Take to Translate the Bible? (The Answer May Surprise You!)

How Many People Does it Take to Translate the Bible? (The Answer May Surprise You!)

This is a question I had to ask myself when I started The Readable Bible project. Is it better, or even necessary, to have many translators? Will Christians accept a one-person translation? Common patterns would seem to indicate that a committee is necessary. But the history of English Bible translation seems to indicate otherwise.

There are about 120 English translations of the complete Bible. Only about 15 of those were translated by a single person. That is, one person looked at every word in the original language and made the English text decision. In addition, there are an additional 300 translations of significant portions of the Bible into English.

When you look at the major Bible translations you see seven Bible paradigms:

Paradigm Translation Paradigm Translator/Author # Sold
1 Wycliffe Word-for-word translation from the Latin Vulgate John Wycliffe
2 Tyndale Word-for-word translation from the original manuscripts William Tyndale
3 1611 King James Word for word for personal use* Committee >1 bil.
4 1909 Scofield Reference Bible text with commentary on the pages with the text and topical chain references** Cyrus I. Scofield >20 mil.
5 1966 (NT) Good News Thought-for-thought translation Robert Bratcher*** >30 mil.
6 1972 Living Paraphrase Kenneth Taylor >40 mil.
7 2002 The Message Modern idiom Eugene Peterson >11 mil.
* Earlier Bibles were pulpit size.

** King James Version with Scofield’s notes.

*** Mr. Bratcher translated the New Testament and, due to its popularity, later headed a committee that translated the Old Testament using his principles.

So we can summarize English Bible history this way:

  • John Wycliffe lit the fire of hunger for a translation in our language.
  • William Tyndale fanned the flames with a Bible right from the source, Hebrew and Greek manuscripts.
  • The King James committee produced a Bible that had such beautiful language that nothing has ever replaced it. 500 years later it is still a best-seller, and its language has influenced almost every English Bible since then.
  • James Scofield developed a way to satisfy the hunger people have for understanding not only the text, but how it relates to other text and biblical theology.
  • Robert Bratcher put the thought of the text ahead of the words themselves, bringing out the meaning of the text.
  • Kenneth Taylor produced the easiest Bible to understand by paraphrasing the text in many places.
  • And Eugene Peterson took it a step further, using modern idiom to express the thoughts in the text, such that oftentimes one does not even know what the text actually says.

Other than the King James Bible, each advance has been the work of one man.
Open Bible with pages flipping
Why just one man? I do not claim to know, but have observed two things. First, just because a translation comes from a committee does not mean it is better, best or correct! There have been instances when committees were divided on the best translation to render. Compromises are made (“your way here, mine there”), and sometimes the chairperson breaks the tie. Being human, there are those with more sway than others. The perfect is never the result whether the work is done by one or many.

Second, committees are not prone to take risks. They are not spending their own money, and they have responsibilities to the publisher and/or owner of the resulting text. An individual has a one-on-one relationship with God, a calling from Him and (hopefully) is willing to abandon all, follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and please his Father and Savior. What looks like a fool’s journey to others is simple obedience by the one called.

All these men sensed God calling them to the work. His call is sufficient. The six men above all have greatly enriched our lives. And we should not forget the other 15 or so who did complete Bible translations, nor the other 300 who translated significant portions, people whose names we have never heard. Their work was just as important as it fulfilled their call from God.

I once read that John Wesley’s father did a translation of the New Testament and gave it to his king. It has never been seen since. But he was faithful. I hope the story is true, for I often hope I will be as faithful as him in my daily work.

Each one of us is called to do something for God. We were each put here for a purpose, “for we are the product of His Word, created in Jesus the Messiah for good works which God has prepared in advance that we should do them.” (Eph. 2:10 TRB) So let us honor the work each one of us does, whether it seems to fit popular patterns or not.



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