Thursday, April 23, 2015

NET Bible (Review)

As previously recounted, I have a long history with the NET Bible in its pre-printed form. Although, using any text online isn't the same as having a physical book. Particularly with regards to editions of the Bible, engaging the text of a physical book really makes or breaks things. Bible.org kindly sent me a copy of the NET Bible with full translator's notes to review. So, how does the physical reading experience compare to accessing the electronic copy (nostalgia for the Pacific Northwest being noted)?

The first thing one notices is that the physical book is rather large. If one forgets one is dealing with a study bible, one will be taken aback by the girth of this volume. One look at the spine tells you why: approximately 68,000 translators notes. Take a moment and consider that. This a mark that the NET Bible wears like a badge; there isn't any edition of the bible in print that contains so much text data. The presence of copious study notes influence how one utilizes this translation. One should read the NET Bible with the intention of fully engaging these notes throughout.

The translation itself is, courageously, an entirely new English translation. Most English translations follow the direction established by the KJV. The NET Bible is one of a crop of newer translations that decided to embark on their own course, largely due to new understandings of Greek/Hebrew grammar and vocabulary. So, what does this mean for translation quality? Overall, it is well done. The NET Bible leans closer to the New Jerusalem Bible in terms of not avoiding gender inclusive language when the original text, critically speaking, warrants it. Like the NJB, paraphrase is occasionally utilized when the original text is either too convoluted as a one-to-one translation, or when a one-to-one translation would be somewhat jarring for and "English" ear. Overall, the translators have let critical scholarship guide their translation decisions. As I mentioned in my review of the NJB, this is my preferred approach to translating.

As is to be expected with any translation, there are a few quibbles one can have with the translation decisions. The decision to translate the sense of certain names of God in Hebrew text is of questionable value. For instance, when rendering El Shaddai as Sovereign God, the NET Bible provides considerable translators notes which provide the rationale for the translation decision. This is in of itself is positive - it provides the reader with insights into the decisions that created this translation. However, in the instance of El Shaddai, we're dealing with a divine name of both uncertain origin and uncertain meaning. The decision and accompanying notes corners the translators into owning a particular translation when the specific meaning is not necessarily certain.

The decision to translate the first line of Psalm 25 as "O Lord, I come to you in prayer," is likely to raise a few eyebrows, especially those familiar with more familiar readings. The NET Bible fully follows the logic of many contemporary translations regarding this verse. The NJB and HCSB both have a similar reading, opting for a interpretive paraphrase. Whether or not the original text is meant to be read as a more literary expression is contested. Again, it is a matter of whether or not the translators want to back themselves into a corner with their interpretation of the text. In this instance, the NET Bible is not alone.

The translation of John 1:1 is perhaps the point at which the NET Bible may take a lot of flack. There will be those who for doctrinal reasons will say the translation is a less-than-clear affirmation of Christian doctrine, possibly verging on subordinationism. Translators may argue that the NET Bible's rendition is too convoluted. The accompanying translators note provides the reader with a lot of data behind the translation decision. This said, the argument seems a little too complex for its own good, delving into the finer, more esoteric points of Greek grammar. The conventional translation could have been retained with an appeal to the greater narrative context of the Gospel of John and more conventional Greek grammar.

The study/translator notes really are what sets this bible apart. Being able to collate as much historical and textual data into one's reading of the text is the hallmark of an edition whose aim is intelligence. Thus, when one reads only the first two or so verses of Genesis and finds a full page of notes that extrapolate upon the text and note the Babylonian parallels (via the combat myth of Marduk and Tiamat), one is, right off the bat, dealing with a translation one should take seriously. The study notes really are the pivot upon which this translation rests. Again, it is possible to quibble with some of them. There are times when the notes appear more defensive of the translation than insights into the text. This said, the NET Bible doesn't pull any punches when it comes to incorporating historical and textual criticism into its text.

Conclusions

Intelligence. I am convinced this is the dominant trait a vernacular edition of the Bible must have in the 21st century. Believer or not, the reader must come away from a vernacular edition impressed with what he or she has found. The greater a bible can incorporate historical and textual criticism, the more likely it will yield such results. Ultimately, despite some points of criticism, the NET Bible reaches that target. 

Currently, the NET Bible has the reputation of being something of a niche translation. This is somewhat understandable. With time and careful development, it may go on to become more of a standard. Considering the scholarship behind it, it is my sincere hope it makes it there.

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