Feb 2008

MBCDS Tutor Andy Cheung interviewed Dr Hall Harris, the Project Director of the NET (New English Translation), an excellent recent production of the Bible. The entire interview is reproduced here. This article follows a recent review of the NET Bible on the college blog, and an interview with Dr Ed Blum, editor of the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

Andy Cheung: Dr Harris, perhaps I could start by asking you about your role in the New English Translation.  How would you describe your input as the general editor?

Dr Hall Harris: Well, my actual job description is "Project Director and Managing Editor," so it goes far beyond the normal role of a general editor. I (along with Dr Daniel Wallace) was instrumental in the original planning and design of the New English Translation (NET Bible) back in 1995, and I have done just about everything one could do on the project since, at one time or another. I prepared the "proof of concept" presentation which was given to the sponsor at the very beginning of the project, and which included not only a draft translation of the Johannine Epistles but also the extensive translators' notes. I prepared the draft translation and notes for the Fourth Gospel and the Epistles of John, worked on the translation of 2 Corinthians, Colossians, and Revelation, and even worked over the initial draft of Ezekiel for the Old Testament. I also handled translation and editorial assignments, prepared and issued contracts for translators and editors, handled endorsements, chaired the Executive Steering Committee for the translation, and managed the development process as we moved from draft translations and notes to early "beta" versions of the NET. I also laid out the original "frames" version of the online NET in the spring of 1996.

In 2002 when we had the opportunity to co-publish with the German Bible Society the New English Translation – Novum Testamentum Graece New Testament, a diglot edition with NET English text and customized notes combined with the Nestle-Aland 27th edition Greek text, I not only edited the notes for it along with Dr Wallace and Dr Michael Burer (by then Assistant Project Director for NET) but actually did much of the complex typesetting myself in Microsoft Word. For the first several years I also handled most of the correspondence regarding NET. Since my first degree was in English literature, I also did a number of stylistic reviews of the translation at various stages of the process. So I have been involved in just about every aspect of the NET except for actual print production, for the creation of various software versions, and for the maintenance of the online versions on the web. However, I think your question may have concerned more the extent of my input into the translation and notes themselves, and here I did not get (nor did I necessarily want) the final say on decisions regarding the rendering of individual passages (although I did have significant input regarding the specific books I worked on myself, as I mentioned before). Our team of scholars who did the draft translations and notes, and who then did the subsequent editorial work, were responsible for detailed decisions regarding text and notes. In exceptional cases a particular issue would come before the Executive Steering Committee for a final decision, but even here I, as the seventh member of the ESC, exercised the "tie-breaking" vote only when necessary (which was not often).

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the NET are the copious footnotes. Was this part of the original plan when the translation team set out?

Yes, the multi-layered note structure, with its preponderance of translators' notes, was part of the original design of the NET Bible. As soon as we realized that a new translation (rather than a rework or update of an existing translation) was needed, the sponsor himself suggested that we document electronically the decisions made by the translators and editors as they worked, in order to preserve the reasoning that went into major translation decisions. The vast majority of the NET Bible notes (about 80 per cent) fall into this category. This extended not only to the rationale for the translation itself, but the textual decisions behind the translation, especially in the cases where the NET follows a different textual base than Nestle-Aland 27. (We do generally agree with the NA27 in the Greek text behind the NET NT; otherwise there would have been no point in producing the New English Translation – Novum Testamentum Graece New Testament diglot edition which we co-publish with German Bible Society.)

The big advantage of the NET notes, of course, is that a user no longer has to try and second-guess the original translator as to why a particular word or phrase was chosen for the translation, or a particularly difficult grammatical or syntactical construction was rendered in a certain way. This permits a level of transparency into the decision-making process of the translator or editor far beyond anything ever attempted in an English Bible translation before. And because the majority of our translators and editors were scholars who focused primarily on exegetical issues in their own teaching and research, these sorts of issues often receive detailed attention in the notes. We were assisted at a number of levels by linguists and Bible translation specialists, but a primary focus of the NET is its exegetical scholarship.

The first edition was released in 2005. Are there any updates being made to the online edition or is it essentially static?

Actually there are several aspects to this question. As we have stated in our Preface, planned updates for the NET are scheduled for five-year increments, so our next update is on track for 2010. This one will not be a major update, but will make a number of improvements to both text and notes. The online edition is something of a separate issue. Originally we thought we would make ongoing updates, fix typos, and make other incremental changes to the online version in real time. However, the need to maintain version control, and the desire of our users to have the printed NET Bible and other software versions stay synchronized with the online version, caused us to rethink that policy. We now keep the online NET Bible synchronized with the printed version, so it will be updated in 5-year increments as well.

What kind of feedback have you had and what changes might there be in the next edition?

We have an automated online comments database that allows our users to report everything from typos to suggestions for major improvements to text and notes, or even retranslations of verses. Thus someone can make a suggestion online, and the DB will generate an automated response acknowledging the suggestion, while at the same time notifying my Assistant Project Director, Dr Burer, that a comment or suggestion has been made. Things at the level of typos are put on the revision list immediately, while issues involving retranslation or additions to the notes are routed to the appropriate editor for action. Many of these changes are scheduled to appear in our next revision in 2010.

I understand that most of the work on the NET was done by scholars from Dallas Theological Seminary. Do you think that there is a danger that the translation might be perceived as merely reflecting the theology of DTS?

Well, the way you've asked the question, yes, I think there is the possibility the NET might be perceived that way. We have had executive-level discussions over this a number of times. There are basically two ways to counter bias in a Bible translation. One is to have a translation committee made up of representatives from many denominations and theological backgrounds, so that they serve to check and balance one another. This usually results in a very large translation committee (a hundred members or more) and the administrative and organizational inertia that goes along with such numbers. In the case of a Bible translation, on a particular passage this often means the blandest and most neutral translation is the one everyone can finally agree on. With the NET Bible we chose a different approach. We went with a much smaller translation committee (just over 20 scholars) and we hand-picked these for their exegetical expertise, that is, their years of experience in research, writing, and classroom teaching on a given biblical book or combination of books. Almost all of them were from the departments of Old Testament Studies and New Testament Studies at DTS, known for their expertise in the original biblical languages (rather than, say, systematic or historical theology). Many of them held advanced degrees from leading schools and universities in the U.S. and Europe. Then, when it came to issues of potential theological bias, we posted everything online from the very first working drafts and invited public comment. We have received almost no negative comments in this regard.

Second, we relied on the extensive notes by the translators and editors to explain the scholarly rationale for the translation. Third, we requested help from colleagues of different theological persuasions to alert us to potential bias in the translation. One example of this is that Dr Gregory Beale, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation at Cambridge on Daniel and Revelation and later produced a major commentary on Revelation in the NIGTC series, was kind enough to read through our translation of Revelation to see if he thought we had introduced any dispensational bias. Dr Beale suggested a few changes to the translation of conjunctions in Revelation which he felt implied a chronological sequence of events which was not in the original, and we incorporated these changes into our next revision. I think the combination of all these approaches should give the user of the NET a high degree of confidence there is no hidden agenda behind our translation. We are simply trying to achieve a blend of accuracy, readability, and elegance in our translation that is second to none. I think we have done very well on the first two, and we are still working on the third (though we have a long way to go to surpass the elegance of the Authorized Version).

Are there any other Bible translations that you appreciate or recommend in particular?

Because I have a degree in English literature, I will always appreciate the Authorized Version for its impact on the English language. In the degree of its influence I don’t think it will ever be surpassed. In the same way I admire Luther's Bible in German, for it practically shaped modern German out of many competing dialects. I also have a fondness for the original NEB, perhaps partly because its Director, Prof. C. H. Dodd, was a Johannine scholar of monumental importance, and I have spent much of my own career working in the Fourth Gospel. As for other modern translations, when working on a particular passage I frequently consult a dozen or more, ranging from very literal (ASV and NASB) to paraphrase (CEV, The Message), and everything in between.

In the last 20 years there's been a huge number of mainstream Bibles produced compared to earlier periods in Church history.  Do you see this trend continuing or has the perceived "need" for improvements in translation begun to subside?

Speaking personally, I'm not sure the perceived need for improvements in translation is what is driving the proliferation of English Bible translations today. That was certainly true with the original RV and ASV over a hundred years ago, and arguably so with the release of the RSV in mid-twentieth century. But other factors are in play now, like the need for understandability, producing paraphrases like J. B. Phillips, the Living Bible, TEV (now known as Good News Translation), CEV, and The Message, or the desire for a very literal translation, producing the NASB, or an evangelical translation, resulting in the NIV. In the case of the NET Bible the need for a new approach to copyright which would allow the entire Bible to be posted on the Internet for free was a major factor (along with the desire to produce the accompanying notes), since at the time of the NET Bible’s inception bible.org (then known as Biblical Studies Foundation) had already tried unsuccessfully to obtain the rights to several other existing translations for use on the Internet. Today (in my opinion) some translations are produced simply because a publisher wants to have a "house" translation for various reasons. I really think it is hard to justify another new Bible translation in English today unless there is some compelling reason.

Finally, there have been some interesting productions of the NET such as the diglot Bible and the readers edition, not to mention the online suite of tools. What other plans are afoot?

I think you can look for continued refinement of the online Bible study interface. It already has some pretty advanced search capabilities. Obtaining the rights to better tools and reference works for the online study interface is something we will continue to pursue. We are also working to complete the Old Testament of the Audio NET Bible. Of course we will also continue to expand the range of printed editions (the most recent is the Compact Edition, which by the way includes a very neat Compact Concordance, the first concordance we have printed in a Bible). We have in the works a printed Synopsis of the Four Gospels based on the NET Bible text. Also in development is a pictorial database which would accompany the online NET Bible involving not just images but tagging with metadata which would then be searchable. Ultimately, too, the NET notes will continue to expand, at least in electronic forms (since we have just about reached the limits of print production at a readable font size in a single volume with the 60,932 notes we already have). I have recently started a NET Bible blog (called NET Bible Revolution) at bible.org, and I will be covering new developments as well as other topics of interest there.

Thank you Dr Harris.

The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty members of the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School.

The Talks with Scholars series is a regular feature at the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School. Visit the interview page for more engaging dicussion and conversation with world class academics. Andy reviewed the NET on the College blog.