Presentation is Everything



In any large box bookstore you will more than likely find an entire shelf lined end to end- and perhaps even two or three shelves high- with Bibles. The Green Bible, The Message, The Princess Bible, (yes, it’s true.) the New Living Translation, The King James Version; the sheer amount of English translations and versions is almost overwhelming.

And the Bible continues to be a perennial best-seller, with millions of Bibles in English alone bought every year. Thus, in no danger of glutting the market, a new translation has appeared on the scene- The Voice.

Although it has been out for a little while, I only discovered its existence earlier today. I perused the website and even downloaded the free version of the New Testament to give it a whirl.

As I read some of the Gospel of John, I was struck by a few peculiarities that I felt would be interesting to comment on. But first a little background.


Unlike most translations which begin with biblical/linguistic scholars translating first and then handing it off to writers more skilled in poetics/prose/etc. to make the rendering more idiomatic to English, the Voice intentionally inverted the order, allowing the writers to produce the first draft followed by the scholars who gave input on adjustments to capture as much nuance as possible. Thus, the foremost aim of The Voice is to not only capture the meaning of the scriptures in understandable English, but to craft the translation to be artistic and beautiful. As Chris Seay, the pastor who headed up the project, relates

“What we’re looking for is almost like the King James version,” he says. “We’re looking for a more literary rendering that will stand the test of time. Our take is, if it’s written beautifully and calls you into the narrative, that when you finish a chapter you really want to read the next chapter to see what’s going to happen, then more people in their 20s and 30s will end up reading the Bible.”[1. FRITZ LANHAM, “Scripture Gets a New Voice,” Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle]

Additionally, the intent of The Voice is to be well-adapted to hearing and reading aloud. David Capes, who also helped spearhead the translation, says:

“It’s a way to get people reading the Bible,” Capes says of the format changes. “The Voice is also intended to encourage the practice of reading the Bible aloud, and making that an important part of the worship service.”[2. FRITZ LANHAM, “Scripture Gets a New Voice,” Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle]

It is these areas of interest that I am, well, more interested in commenting on, since I am not skilled enough in biblical languages or translation theory to meaningfully comment on the translation itself. Does The Voice accomplish this goal of being:

  1. a literary rendering that will stand the test of time?
  2. written beautifully?
  3. something that is accessible and meaningful to the younger generation who have little familiarity with the Bible?
  4. something that will encourage reading aloud?
  5. an important part of a worship service?

While I do have a stronger background in theology, I thought it might be more interesting to come at it from a graphic design/layout perspective. After all, the readability (and perhaps even understand-ability ) of the Bible is at least partially conditioned by how it is presented.

Screenplay Format

One thing that I found interesting is how The Voice is presented (at least in the dialogue sections) in screenplay format. Thus, instead of lots of Jesus saids and He replieds, character cues are given in the dialogue. You can see this below:

I think this is one of those things that can be a good idea that gets really old, really fast. Certainly it’s great if you have two or more people and can parcel out lines- in this instance it’s quite brilliant. (It sort of reminds me of what happens during the Gospel reading at a Maundy Thursday service.)

But this becomes a double-edged edged sword in just about any other context. Reading screenplays is great and all, but most great literature that is meant to be great literature is not presented in screenplay format. While reading on one’s own it can become extremely tedious. Screenplays are generally not meant to be read, they are meant to be performed and seen.

I would also wonder how this would work in places where there is meant to be a public reading, but for whatever reason there is only one speaker available. The screenplay format is meant to facilitate the narrative flow, but in this case it would be absolutely devastated, unless the reader was skilled at improvisation and had a thorough knowledge of the text to know where statements are made, replies offered, questions asked, surprise, disdain, internal monologue, etc.

For the non-dialogue sections The Voice reverts to prose/poetry where the text requires it to be. The way in which the dialogue is bracketed in sections with less dialogue (Acts, for example) works better than the Gospels since it serves to highlight the speakers involved and what they say, but the Gospels are kind of a mixed bag. Since there are large sections with continuous dialogue, the lack of action on the part of the speakers (replied, said, asked, etc.) tends to seriously disrupt the narrative flow. Without the visual picture these descriptions provide, it feels like the speech is detached from the speakers.


As The Voice mentions in its preface, italic type

indicates words not directly tied to the dynamic translation of the original language. These words bring out the nuance of the original, assist in completing ideas, and often provide readers with information that would have been obvious to the original audience. These additions are meant to help the modern reader better understand the text without having to stop and read footnotes or a study guide.

Due to the nature of the translation, this sort of addition is inevitable and not entirely objectionable. Again, my intent is not to comment on the translation per se but rather the presentation. In this instance it seems that the use of italics might be amiss.

Given the presumed level of biblical literacy of the target demographic, (20’s-30’s) one might wonder if the use of italics to indicate explanatory, complementary or finishing words/statements/clauses is not self-defeating. After all, the intent is to alert the reader that this instance does not necessarily tie into the translation of the original language.

However, for the target demographic which has been weaned on the internet, the use of italics may very well have the opposite effect. One would only know the intended purpose of them from reading the preface. (which I suspect would be a very low percentage of its readers)

In most other encounters with italicized type the intent is to emphasize the word/phrase/clause/idea. I will not comment on whether or not these types of instances should be emphasized or not, but it seems that if care is being taken to indicate what isn’t tied into the translation, one would want to ensure the reader doesn’t assume that very portion is the take-away.

An example is here:

To be fair, I am somewhat hard-pressed to think of a better way of presenting this sort of indication. Perhaps brackets might be a better way to indicate this since brackets are sometimes used to expand or elaborate on a word or thought without signaling a parenthetical.

In-line Commentary

The Voice is not meant to be a study bible, yet it still offers some explanatory notes here and there as well as brief summations of key points. Instead of placing them in the margins like many other bibles, these items are either in-line under a divider line (with a small v) or bracketed much like an in-line quotation on a blog. The former uses a sans serif type (Gotham) to differentiate it from the scriptural text, (Times) while the latter uses a bolded Gotham with a color highlight. (Gold-ish in the downloadable copy.)

From an aesthetic standpoint the text is well laid-out, which is certainly a good thing. The double column format maximizes space without necessarily sacrificing readability or leaving it feeling cluttered.

Once again, however, to the target audience this sort of lay-out could present significant confusion. For someone completely unfamiliar with the Bible, unless the Preface is read (and understood) the in-line content could very easily be mistaken for the scriptural text. The very means of setting these items apart from the scriptural text tends to highlight them over-against the scripture.

The entire reason for using bold with a typeface is to emphasize it against the surrounding text. In this case, however, the emphasized text is not a scriptural quotation. Instead it is a commentary of sorts or further information/background on the passage.

Lest I be misunderstood, I am not saying these things are bad, out of place or shouldn’t be there. Rather, I am simply looking at this from a visual hierarchy perspective, and the reality is that any written material that intentionally sets off or highlights certain elements or text ensures that those are the take-aways from the writing. (A similar effect is achieved with ‘red-letter’ editions of Bibles.)

There is also the issue of the in-line notes. The little ‘v’ is clearly supposed to be a short-hand for The Voice. This sort of branding, however, can have the effect of creating a brand-recognition hierarchy in the visual cues. If you see the little ‘v’ which is set over-against everything else on the page, you are naturally drawn there first. Since it is in the gold-ish color, your eyes then move to any other gold-colored text. Finally, the black (which set against the color seems to bleed together) of the scripture text as a serif type is slightly smaller than the sans-serif type of the in-line content which essentially leaves it the last thing your eyes will fix on within the visual hierarchy.

Again, not necessarily a negative, but since (among other things) the purpose is to present the Bible in a fresh way that is accessible to people who may have not read it before, this sort of presentation can very well breed confusion.

Lastly, I would have to question how conducive this would be for reading out loud. One of the skills involved in reading out loud is to be able to visually read ahead while speaking something else. The in-line sections essentially break up the flow of the text meant to be read aloud and could very well make reading out-loud a nightmare. Some pages are worse than others:

Because of some of these issues, I think that The Voice takes a few mis-steps in regards to its purpose.

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By deviantmonk

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