Four Major Layout Options for New Foreign Language Bible Translations

I’ve recently done a little volunteer consulting work for a Bible translation organization. Volunteer, as in I’m not sure they wanted it or will do anything with it but they don’t yet have a “no unsolicited opinions” sign up and I couldn’t help myself… Here’s what I sent them. It’s a suggestion for four Bible typography options that might be presented to national church leaders as they prepare to print their new Bible.


I think at least four major options need to be made available to national church leaders, with explanations of pros and cons. More explanation under each point could be given, but below are the basics.

1. Double-column, every verse a paragraph

double-column-every-verse-a-paragraph

  • Pros: This format looks like what most Christians around the world, as I gather from talking to translation consultants, expect a Bible to look like. This is important for successful mass adoption, particularly in places which have had other Bibles (perhaps in colonial or majority languages).
  • Cons: This format is not conducive to good Bible reading; it invites misunderstandings, such as the tendency to lift Proverbs 24:16 out of context.

2. Double-column, verses collected into paragraphs

double-column

  • Pros: Uses page space (and therefore paper) economically; collects verses into meaningful units, aiding smooth reading.
  • Cons: Makes best practices for laying out poetic portions of Scripture convoluted, because hanging indents don’t work well on narrow lines; makes it difficult to lay out languages with long words in an aesthetically pleasing way.

3. Single-column, verses collected into paragraphs

single-column-paragraphed-verses

  • Pros: This balances smooth reading and ease of reference.
  • Cons: “Wastes” paper, particularly in the Psalms and other poetic sections of Scripture.

4. Single-column, verses collected into paragraphs but without verse divisions

single-column-paragraphed-verses

  • Pros: This is the set of conventions Westerners have arrived at over the centuries which, in the collective judgment of compositors everyhwere, is most conducive to good reading. Verse divisions are a comparatively late addition to Bible publishing, and increasingly people around the world can use their phones if they need to know verse references.
  • Cons: No national church that I know of in the world has gone without verse references in their Bibles in living memory.

On balance, I think I’d find myself recommending option 3 most often—because it would take bold leadership and a unique situation to make option 4 possible. I’d love to see what a church might do with option 4, however. And I wouldn’t push a group of national leaders who wanted option 2. Or even option 1. As long as they had a chance to go through the options in this post.

Review: KJV Reader’s Bible

KJV Reader’s Bible, Black/Brown Tooled LeatherTouch by Anonymous
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m being generous and hopeful with four stars; I love the idea of this KJV Reader’s Bible, and the the execution is both brilliant and deeply flawed at the same time.

THE GOOD

Let’s start with the good.

Most importantly, this is a reader’s Bible: no chapter or verse numbers clutter the text. We get nicely paragraphed (though see “THE BAD” below), single-column text and a much smoother reading experience than most double-column, every-verse-a-paragraph settings of the KJV. I’m so glad this new reader-Bible fad—which I hope transitions into a lasting tradition—has reached the KJV (although this was done for the KJV in the 1930s, I happen to know). This is the best way to read the Bible, though to study it we still have, and ought to have, study editions with chapter and verse divisions, footnotes, cross-references, and lengthy notes. Reader’s Bibles complement study Bibles; they do not threaten to replace them.

2K/Denmark did the typesetting, and I know them personally. They do good work:

  • The typeface for body text is well balanced between clarity, beauty, and spacing. It feels slightly compressed, but that helps the Bible avoid being massive.
  • The printing includes the now fairly standard line-matching, so that lines of text on the back of a page don’t bleed through the space between lines on the front.
  • The copy I received for review has a beautiful binding of reasonable quality and comes in a sturdy box.

THE BAD

But when a review has to praise the box in order to have sufficient bullet points under “the good,” you know “the bad” is coming.

The worst thing about this Bible is truly and gloriously bad: all proper nouns are split into syllables and given accents. So, yes, there may be some readers out there who need some help pronouncing Me-phib´-o-sheth or Ma-her´-sha-lal´-hash-baz´.

I have no idea what anyone was thinking. I strongly suspect no one was.

But who in the world needs help with “Je´-sus,” “Zi´-on,” or “Je-ru´-sa-lem”? The practice is needless, distracting, and ugly. Some genealogy pages in the OT look like somebody dropped black sprinkles all over them. I thought the whole point of reader’s editions was to get rid of visual clutter so readers could focus on reading. No explanation is given for the pronunciation helps, so I have no idea what anyone was thinking. I strongly suspect no one was. It’s that bad. (At least “God” and “Lord” are one syllable, or we’d be in a truly impossible mess.)

The setting of the Psalms is another terrible problem. Each psalm is one big, fat paragraph. No poetic indents. No numbering of the psalms (the way other reader’s editions do).

Reading the Psalms this way—though, thankfully, Psalm 119 is divvied up according to stanzas: one paragraph per stanza—reminds me why I prefer the conventions of indentation most modern Bible editions use for the Psalms. The paragraph format in this new KJV reader’s Bible makes the psalmists feel like choppy writers. The reason my favorite method of settings the psalms is still the one chosen by The Books of the Bible is that there really is a small pause built into every parallelism: right after the parallel lines, you’re supposed to stop for a tiny moment before moving on. A paragraph, however, induces you to keep moving till the end of the thought, the end of the paragraph—only it isn’t the end of the thought. A good psalm setting uses our modern typographical conventions to uncover seams of argument in the psalms. This settings smudges them all out.

Also, I personally found the textual decorations odd. The whole Bible looks classic, so it should remain so. Half-tone minimalist rectangular design elements don’t belong.

SECOND EDITION

I think this Bible is easily fixable, and that a second edition ought to come out soon. Meanwhile, KJV users do have a serviceable reader’s edition, and that’s a step in the right direction.

ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set: A “New” Old Bible

This review originally appeared in the Christian Library Journal. It is used here by permission.

The ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set, published by Crossway (cloth over board with cardboard slipcase), is something old, something new, something different, and something blue green—if you get the beautiful cloth-over-board edition, which is what’s best for libraries. It’s old, because presenting text in a simple, beautiful, and typographically intelligible way is an old idea. It’s new, because hardly anyone has ever made a Bible so innovatively old. It’s different, because Bible design has been in a deep rut since longer than you can remember.

What is theESV Reader’s Bible? Look:

No chapter numbers, no verse numbers, no double columns—this is a Bible with type set like a regular non-fiction book. You can’t see it in the image above, but the Bible also has uncommonly large type for easy reading and thick paper so text doesn’t show through as much as it does with normal (and very thin) Bible paper.

The ESV Reader’s Bible has come in a single-volume edition, with that thin Bible paper, for several years. What’s brand new—and exciting for those who care about the confluence of form and meaning in Bible typography—is the beautiful six-volume set. All Christian libraries should acquire it, not because of the hype currently surrounding Bible typography (yes, in a portion of the Christian world there is genuine hype over this topic), but because there is something of genuine substance being recovered by “reader’s” Bible editions.

That something—as detailed by writers like Glenn Paauw (Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well), Christopher R. Smith (After Chapters and Verses), J. Mark Bertrand (The Bible Design Blog), Andy Naselli (professor), and me, Mark Ward (presenter of “Why Bible Typography Matters”)—sounds something like this: divvying up the Bible into chapters and (especially) verses is not always conducive to healthy Bible reading practices. In particular, Christian people can tend to read verses out of context when each verse is treated (typographically) as a separate paragraph. A reader’s Bible, which is available in many translations besides the ESV (the NIV, TNIV, KJV, and [modified] ASV all have reader’s editions now), uses all of the typographical conventions skillful modern readers rely on for other nonfiction books: single columns, paragraphs, poetic indents, and simple, beautiful typography. Gone are not only the verse divisions but the superscript numbers and letters and the cross references and the columns and the study notes—all the things that clutter up and sometimes positively obscure the Bible text on the page.

The ESV Reader’s Bible is not an attack on verse numbers. This reviewer works for a Bible software company (Faithlife, makers of Logos Bible Software), and without those numbers our work would fall apart. Commentaries, confessions, reference works, sermons, and countless other Christian resources rely on the verse reference system. It is helpful for many, many things—but not, ironically, for reading. Now that we all have Bible apps which can find any verse, why do we need verse divisions in our printed Bibles? Truth be known, most Western Christians already have multiple Bibles in their homes. We have not needed all of them to be feature-studded study editions (rather than reader’s editions) for a long time.

The six-volume ESV Reader’s Bible comes with a slipcase, cloth-over-board bindings, thicker and creamier paper, and an attention to design detail that clearly borrows from the design of the past and the present. It even arrives in a beautifully designed box. Some have suggested that it and other reader’s Bibles (particularly Bibliotheca, a massively successful Kickstarter campaign that the ESV Reader’s Bible beat to the public by a few months) are hipster ephemera like other bespoke throwbacks—making one’s own pickles, vinyl record stores, handlebar mustaches, etc. But the aesthetics of the unboxing can be viewed from another perspective: the value of place. There is a story to reader’s Bibles, an infused delight in the craft of printing and design, a return to typographical roots.

I am convinced, and have been for over a decade, that reader’s Bibles are not a gimmick. I therefore hope and pray that it will not be a mere fad. Christian librarians, whose lives are spent in the pages of books, would do well to read up on reader’s Bibles, capitalize (yes) on the hipsteria over them, and help Christians see the value of reading the Bible as story, prophecy, poetry, and epistle rather than as reference volume. Whether the ESV Reader’s Bible gets read as an artificial marketing gimmick or an authentically valuable way to encounter the Bible is up to readers and those who serve and educate them.

Mark L. Ward, Jr., CLJ