Q&A with Thomas Wayment, translator of The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints November 04 2022

We talked with Thomas A. Wayment, professor of classics at Brigham Young University, about the revised edition of The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints, out November 9 from Greg Kofford Books.

Q: How has the reception to this project been since you published the first edition, four years ago? Have any reactions to the translation surprised you?

A: I would say the reception of the first edition has been overwhelmingly positive. I had a sense, based on decades in the classroom, that interest in the Bible and understanding it had atrophied over time. This led me to question whether there would be any reception at all for such a project, but the response indicates that there is still a broad market in the scriptural text.

Over time, I had come to appreciate how difficult the KJV’s prose is to understand, particularly for those who have learned English as a second language. I wanted to lessen the barrier, so to speak, for accessing the New Testament. I have been overwhelmed by the number of responses indicating that this new translation has done precisely that, namely made the word of scripture more accessible to a modern audience.

Q: What do English-speaking Latter-day Saints gain from reading a translation that's been prepared with them in mind, particularly compared to either the King James Version we're used to or other Modern English translations?

A: There are a number of excellent English translation already in circulation, and I think most students would benefit from reading a modern translation. The challenge with every translation is that it is couched in the context of a faith community, an academic context, or another such setting. The notes and other reader aids are printed for a certain type of reader. To date, the only effort to write notes specifically addressing topics of Latter-day Saint interest has been the church’s effort to write footnotes starting with the 1979 edition. Those notes are meant to be affirmative of church positions, and so for many readers those notes can be disappointing when a difficult question arises. Faith-affirming notes tend to avoid grappling with thorny issues, and this is where my notes differ. I attempt to offer a perspective on a number of difficult issues, and to give the LDS reader a careful discussion of the Greek text that they won’t find elsewhere.

Q: What have you added to this revised edition? How will they help readers as they study the New Testament?

A: This new edition has a number of new features. First of all, it is corrected in a number of places. Some of the corrections are due to errors I made in the first edition, and others were made for stylistic reasons and to make the text more readable Second, I received some feedback that I had not been transparent in my usage of the Joseph Smith Translation in the first edition. I have added a short introduction on the topic and clarified my approach. Third, I have restored the language of quotation to the footnotes so that I account for the numerous ways that restoration scriptures use the Bible. I use standard categories of intertextuality such as quotation, allusion, and echo. In the first edition there was some concern that by stating the Book of Mormon quotes the New Testament I might be making a claim about the authorship of the Book of Mormon. I’ve restored those footnotes so the reader can see places where New Testament phraseology rises to the point in the Book of Mormon where it can be considered a quotation. I have been cautious using this category, and the reader can determine for herself why the Book of Mormon has shared language with the New Testament.

Q: Walk us through your method for translating a passage from the New Testament. How much of the text do you focus on at a time? How do you know you've got a rendering you're happy with? How do you approach particularly ambiguous passages where translators and even the sources we have start to disagree?

A: My process over the course of about seven years was to translate one book of scripture at a time, starting linearly and moving from Matthew towards Revelation. I had initially thought that I would never translate Revelation, mostly for personal reasons and because its Greek isn’t what one would consider good or even readable in some places. As the project progressed and somewhere around Luke, I shifted to translating a chapter per day. I liked what I was seeing, and so I put more energy into the project. When I finished an entire book, I would then retranslate the entire thing using my first draft. I compiled the notes at this stage as well. I tried to wrestle with alternate translation possibilities and nuances that could be expressed in notes. I was, of course, terrified that I would miss a passage of text or verse because I hadn’t built a check into the system to make sure I avoided such mistakes.

When I had a nearly complete manuscript I read it out loud and had a student do so. That was the point at which I felt that I was happy with the text. It seemed to me to be quite readable, distantly related to the KJV and the NRSV, but not dependent upon them. I felt that my tone had to have some resemblance to the KJV because of my target audience. On a personal note, I would have like to completely abandon that text because its elegance doesn’t really show through in the New Testament, except for maybe the Gospel of John. I think when people speak of the elegance of the KJV they are thinking about the prophetic texts and Genesis. The translations of Acts, the letters of Paul, and Revelation are fairly pedestrian in the KJV.

When I came to difficult passages in the text, I tried to signal to the reader the possibilities that exist for translation. I would have liked to add much more in this regard, but at some point the notes needed to remain notes and not become commentary. I hoped to address the thorniest issues of the text, but that is a subjective measure.

Q: What kind of information do you find most helpful in understanding the New Testament and how did you incorporate that kind of info into your footnotes? 

A: I think that our generation obsesses about the New Testament as history. We want to reconstruct the “trial of Jesus” or understand the exact manner of crucifixion. We go on pilgrimages to sacred sites, and we bring our New Testament along and read from the passages that took place at those sacred sites as an effort at reenactment. Translating the New Testament reminds me that the New Testament is literature and the moment any author tells the story of another person in narrative form they’ve begun to shape the story intentionally or unintentionally. I’ve attempted to help the reader see this through the addition of a synopsis at the end of the book, so that the reader can determine that Matthew, Mark, and Luke told the story of Jesus in drastically different order and frequently quoting his words differently. I also placed subheadings in the text so that a reader can immediately see parallel passages and locate the differences in the accounts. The modern historian is often bothered by these differences, but as literature, the text preserves both things that Jesus said and did and how the gospel authors understood those events. Their understanding and contextualization were not unanimous or uniform, and we can learn by their varieties of belief and perception.

Q: What have you learned about the New Testament from working on this translation project? Has your perspective on any books or figures in these scriptures changed?

A: In some ways I would like to go back and retranslate the text again because no translation captures the richness of the story in a single attempt. I have been surprised that David Bentley Hart’s translation has been so popular among the LDS community. I think that is in part because his translation captures a disruptive Jesus, and it emphasizes the commonality of his speech. I originally thought this would be off-putting to many, but I can now see that for many the idea that Jesus destabilized religious norms creates a type of modern hero that is appealing to some.

I also came to see the visceral nature of Paul’s writing. He feels so angry on occasion (Galatians), while being reflective at other times (Romans). I don’t ever seem to have the capacity as a translator to capture these highs and lows. I’m currently working through the Gospel of John with a class, and I’m reminded how wordy that gospel is. I wonder if John felt that heavy and repetitive prose were intentionally didactic. At any rate, the New Testament is a text that continually offers new perspectives and insights and so I my greatest takeaway is a sense of confusion that anyone would remain committed to a four hundred year old translation from a bygone era when so many better options abound.

Q: Do you have a favorite book from the New Testament?

A: I don’t have a favorite book, but I have a favorite character: Paul. He expresses mood better than any other person in the New Testament, and although his biographer (Luke) often suppresses Paul’s expression of emotion, Paul preserved his own feelings in a small corpus of letters.