Translating, Copyrighting, and Profiting from God’s Word
Q: The radio show Issues, Etc. recently covered the topic of the number of different versions of the Bible. The statement that there are so many English translations because publishing houses want to sell study Bibles but don’t want to pay royalties to those holding copyright on existing Bibles surprised me. How can anyone hold a copyright on God’s Holy word? This doesn’t seem like correct use of the copyright laws, at least as I understand them.
A: God never applied for copyright either directly or through Scripture’s human authors. He says, “My Word ... shall accomplish that which I purpose,” and it “shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)” Since most of this column’s readers don’t understand Hebrew, I gave you the words in English. And since I chose to quote the translation of another rather than do the translating myself, I’ll be sensitive to the copyright held by Crossway Bibles, the publisher of the English Standard Version, which I usually use for my preaching, teaching, and writing.
I can and do cobble together decent translations from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. But in order to share information easily and widely, I like being able to quote and point people to an existing translation. In most circumstances, the ESV does fine for this, although I think there are areas where it misses the point of a word, a phrase, or a concept.
Translation deficiency holds true regardless of the version we choose to cite. The archaic words and sentence structures of the Authorized Version (a.k.a., the King James Version) make it difficult for many modern readers to follow. Some more modern texts are too wooden: They strive so much for word-by-word accuracy that they make easy English reading impossible. Others try so hard for readability that they miss or gloss over important points. Meanwhile, translators carry presuppositions to the task of rendering one language into another. Some will choose obscure alternate meanings or completely botch a text in order to make their own theological points.
Consider Acts 3:19-21 as an example. Speaking of the ascended Jesus Christ, Peter talked about His return to bless us. However, translations vary on Christ’s heavenly dwelling in verse 21. Of Him, the Authorized Version says, “Whom the heaven must receive.” Likewise, the ESV says, “Whom heaven must receive.” However, the NIV editors, seemingly uncomfortable with the communication of Christ’s attributes, appear unwilling to believe that Jesus’ body can be in one location (heaven) while still filling Creation and also being established specifically and locally in Holy Communion. Thus, the NIV says, “He must remain in heaven.” Remain! As if God just parked Jesus until the end of time!
We must choose translations carefully, checking veracity as we are able, for every translation is an interpretation and, ultimately, a paraphrase. Yet God speaks to us through these just as He does when He calls pastors to preach His Word with power. So, if you hear me preach, you might say that you’ve heard God’s Word in the Walt Snyder Version.
Now we return to “rights” and paying for something God gave for free. Nothing in Scripture says that honest labor should not receive fair compensation: Quite the opposite, the Word calls for the laborer to receive his wages. Publishers pay people to translate, edit, typeset, print, bind, and distribute the Bible. Thus God gives people their daily bread.
The program probably was correct about those who retranslate just to save a buck: This doesn’t seem congruent with an unimpeded spread of God’s Word. Yet as long as languages grow and change, words alter in meaning. Compare, for example, the use of “prevent” or “suffer” in the AV with modern usage. Or see Psalm 16:7, where the AV says, “My reins also instruct me in the night seasons.” Modern readers might see the psalmist imagining having straps coming from his mouth like a horse. Yet the ESV says, “In the night also my heart instructs me.”
The translators of the AV understood “reins” to mean the kidneys, loins, or lower back and the Hebrew word is probably best literally translated “kidneys.” Still, this makes little sense to us. We don’t consider the kidneys to be the seat of emotion, as did the ancient Hebrews. Besides “heart,” the modern translator might also choose “gut” (as in “gut feeling”) to make an accurate yet communicative translation. But reins are out, and so, for most people, is the AV’s rendering.
Thus, we’re back to the need for accurate modern translations and the need to fairly compensate those who provide them. God allows free distribution of His Word, yet He also allows those who bring it to us to feed themselves and raise their families. If He encourages fair compensation for those who preach the Word (see 1 Timothy 5:17-18 and 1 Corinthians 9:3-12 as examples), do you think He would starve those who translate these ancient languages into our modern tongues?
Added note: On 2 November 2005, the ESV Blog cited this post, saying that it replaced their “too dull” comments on trademark law and noting that it “addresses the occasionally asked question of how a publisher can justify selling and holding a copyright on a translation of the Bible. He provides a good introduction to the issue.”
Except as noted, Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
Passages marked NIV are quoted from the New International Version®, © 1973, 1978, 1984 by the International Bible Society.
Passages marked AV are quoted from the Authorized Version of 1611 and are in the public domain.
Graphic taken and modified from the Copyright Symbol Page at the Copyright Authority Website.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.