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Industry Forum: Launching a new Bible translation Print Email
Written by James F. Couch Jr.   
Wednesday, 26 September 2012 11:38 AM America/New_York

FrankCouchBringing a fresh version of God’s Word to market involves careful decision-making

Vice president, reference, curriculum and translation development
Thomas Nelson

Launching a new Bible translation often starts with the question, “What is needed in the 21st century church to truly translate God’s Word to today’s readers?” In the midst of the numerous publishers of Bibles and the even more numerous translations available, deciding if the market actually needs another Bible translation really depends on who is asking.  If the person asking is actively using the Bible and cannot imagine an improvement with his or her preferred translation, then the answer is maybe not.

If the person asking the question is actively using the Bible and cannot imagine an improvement with his or her preferred translation, then the answer is maybe not. If there is flaw in the translation or it is not being read because of a cultural disconnect, then the answer is probably yes.

We live in a very complex society with an enormous number of theological subgroups and yet biblical illiteracy is still growing. The real questions to be answered then are: What is the motivation for introducing the translation? Who is the primary audience, and is that audience being adequately served? How does this translation meet the specific and real needs in the primary audience?


We say in Bible publishing that the best Bible is the one that is going to be read. Virtually every Bible translation is created by people who care deeply about God’s Word, and the result is a trustworthy representation of the Scriptures. But if the translation is simply in existence to bring income to the publisher or to take market share away from other publishers in an area that is presently served effectively, then the publisher is making a very expensive mistake.

It should be noted that introducing a new translation is a difficult, costly and highly risky task. The decision to begin a new translation must be made carefully. A number of critical factors must be considered: Who is the primary audience? What makes this translation uniquely suited to that audience? What style of translation is needed for this audience (formal, dynamic or functional, use of religious terminology, gender inclusiveness, use of variant text, identification of supplied words, doctrinal orientation, traditional or contemporary English style, among other considerations)? More recently, how the text is to be displayed on the page and whether it is delivered in a printed or electronic medium should be considered. The most critical factor is identifying a truly unique place in the landscape of Bible translations.

Chris Seay, a pastor from Houston, Texas, brought the concept of The Voice translation to Thomas Nelson and then formed Ecclesia Bible Society to sponsor the work. Normally the translation organization completes the task and then turns over completed text files for the publisher to use in creating the individual Bible products. In this case, Ecclesia and Thomas Nelson worked together throughout the development phase. In this way, both organizations were able to speak into the entire process.

When the decision was made to begin work on The Voice, we looked at many of the elements discussed above. Several of the distinctives did not become clear until we were more than a year into the project.

We started with a market reality that drove everything else. There is a growing biblical illiteracy in the U.S. and an increasing decline in Bible reading by Christians. In doing our due diligence, we discovered that according to the Center for Bible Engagement, 34% of Christians never read their Bible, and an additional 32% read it very seldom. This means that 66% of Christians are not active Bible readers.

After further research, we found a large number of young believers were not satisfied with either the dumbing down of translations or the “evening out” of the writing style. Either the translation felt out of style or it used contemporary jargon that was uncomfortable to readers. Our goal for The Voice became to reach a younger audience that was either outside the church or in the church, but dissatisfied with their Bible. We purposely did not try to replicate what was done in an existing translation.

These assumptions led us to use aspects of Bible translations that had been employed on the mission field, but never in English Bibles. We translated a number of terms left untranslated in English Bibles (Christ, baptism, angel, apostle, among others). We paid attention to the literary style of the original manuscripts, we formatted the text to help identify the speaker and to aid in public reading, and we incorporated skilled writers in the translation process.

Recent English translations have focused on other markets, such as congregants from liturgical denominations, people with lower reading proficiency, individuals from a specific theological background or a specific age group. These submarkets led translators and eventually publishers to make various decisions to make the translation more useful for its intended audience.

One interesting response that Bible publishers receive when introducing a new translation is criticism that the translation is different from the critic’s preferred translation. This usually follows the first question of, “Why a new translation?” Well, if the translation were not different, then there would be no need to publish it. And if it is truly unique for an unreached market, why is either question being asked?


For a successful introduction of a new translation, several things must be communicated: the validity of its audience, the uniqueness of the translation and that the first two points will serve the body of Christ. I have been involved in the introduction of four English Bible versions: the New King James Version, The New Revised Standard Version, the Contemporary English Version and The Voice. The challenges were completely different for each. The things that were in common were that the Christian marketplace was, and remains, very skeptical; the market believes a negative message more readily than a positive message; and on the whole, the church is not aware of the lack of Bible use by believers.

So, how do you introduce a new Bible translation? First, you need a translation that meets an authentic need. Second, you have to clearly and fairly state the case for the translation. Third, you have to tell you story to as many people in the primary audience as possible. We have found that the proof is in the reading. Only through active use can the traits of a translation be experienced. Until people experience the translation, they do not believe the marketing communications.

How do you make “raving fans” of retailers? You don’t; they have to discover the value of the translation for themselves. It must be a personal choice. All you can do is provide the opportunity. The retailer must be able to separate personal bias from customer needs. That is totally in the hands of the retailer. Fortunately, most Christian retailers are sold out to serving the customer, and their work is a labor of love.

Will a translation be accepted into the marketplace? It will find its place if there is a truly unique need. The publisher and the retailer alike must get the translation before the right decision-makers and into the hands of as many of those in the primary audience as possible. The great thing is that with each proper placement, a person is set on the road to being a faithful follower of Jesus through reading God’s Word.