Children’s Bible Translations: Thoughts

Categories: Biblical Studies, Religion & Theology

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Joel Hoffman has just posted on the subject of Bible translations for children, spurred by Ellen Frankel’s post on “Making the Bible PG.” Hoffman brings up some good points about children speaking a different dialect than their parents and lacking the conceptual base to understand certain language or actions: a “barren woman” is one example he offers, as is rape. Hoffman does list several drawbacks, however, finishing with the question of whether children’s translations are truly advisable.

My take on this is related to my take on child-rearing in general (passed on to me from my father, who took this philosophy): “We are not raising children, we are training them to be adults.”

I think it’s better as a rule to have children read more challenging material as it should force them to think more clearly and expand their mental horizons. This is one reason I resist the idea of keeping children from reading books that are presumed “too hard for them.” Let the child determine that! If a 9-year-old wants to read Tolstoy, let him/her. Sure, he/she may not get as much out of it as an adult, but a 30 year old probably won’t get as much out of it as when the same person is 50, either. As a rule, it’s better for children to read adult-level literature and have their minds formed to think like adults than to have them read low-level material that won’t challenge them, leaving them as children. Western culture grossly underestimates the intelligence of children as a whole anyway, which leads to setting the bar lower throughout life.

Secondly, younger children should probably be reading the Bible with their parents or some sort of adult teaching anyway—let the parents or other adults help them understand what these foreign concepts mean. Again, it’s a way of stretching them. Additionally, it’s good for the adults, because it takes more understanding to teach the child than to just passively read it. Plus, the relational aspect of a parent explaining adult concepts to the child is far superior to a children’s translation—especially since, as Hoffman mentions, children’s translations are difficult, often simply turning out to be bad translations..

Thirdly, I’m probably in the minority here, but I am against the notion of “making the Bible PG.”  (In fact, I often complain about the way most adult translations tend to minimize explicit sexual language, using modern euphemisms with less “bite,” with many translations softening especially violent passages as well.) But I think hiding our children from the realities of life as presented in the biblical text does them a grave disservice.

The notion that children somehow need to be sheltered from learning about sex traces back to Puritan discomfort with sex, not to any sort of real benefit for the children. Let’s face it—through most of history, most children in most of the world have grown up in a one or two room home with their parents. Most children throughout history have gotten their sex ed by recognizing that it’s a normal and natural part of married family life. Somehow, that notion is unacceptable in the West, despite the culture becoming more overtly sexualized. But children learn these things with remarkable poise and at their own pace—it’s not like all the facts need to be dumped on them, they just shouldn’t be hidden from them.

I feel the same way about the violence in the Bible. Some of the scenes in the Bible are absolutely stomach-turning, complete reflections of how violent human beings can be to one another. But children need to know from a very early age that the world is not always a nice place, that people aren’t always nice to one another—put differently, children need to understand the problem of evil, that evil exists. And again, they learn these things at their own pace—I know that when I heard many of these passages as a kid, my grasp of these passages changed as I grew older, starting with a more vague sense of the wrong in the passage when I was younger and building into greater understanding with age.

I’m not suggesting that we sit children down in front of blood-filled movies to introduce them to the world’s violent side (there’s reason to question whether that’s advisable for adults), but I don’t think we should hide the realities of life or expunge unpleasant passages from the Bible for their sake. I think societies in general benefit from children having to grapple with things like the problem of evil from an early age, learning that evil does exist and that it must be resisted.

Let’s be realistic: take a look at a few cartoons or children’s movies. All the old stories have notions of good versus evil, violent versus good. Children need—they crave these stories which show the triumph of good over the evil and violent. I wept when Aslan was killed in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when I was a child, but I loved that book and read it (and the rest of the Chronicles) repeatedly. I didn’t have the same grasp of violence that I have today, but reading such things (and the Bible) greatly impacted my grasp of these things. And it is my view that they benefit by having to grapple with the biblical presentation of these concepts in a very raw form—with the extent of their understanding limited only by their own development, not by adults determined to keep them “innocent” (anyone who has been around children for very long quickly learns that they are anything but) and infantile.

Tags: children, Pedagogy, sex, Translation, violence

2 Comments. Leave new

  • Jason,

    Insightful. I have repeatedly told my kids that I am raising them to be 25 not 15.

    Have you read Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card? I think you will see a number of your beliefs reflected in a really well written sci-fi story.


  • When I was growing up, I had pretty much free reign at the library, so I paid no attention to difficulty, I just picked up whatever looked interesting. Not surprisingly, I was reading college-level material by adolescence. Too bad I didn’t have the study habits to really use that skill constructively…


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