In rejecting word-for-word translations, Dr. Daniel B. Wallace explains that, “Jerome argued against this, noting that his translation of the Vulgate was not word-for-word, but sense-for-sense.” A follow-up comment suggests that Jerome implied that he translated holy scriptures “word for word.”
Here’s my question: Does it matter what Jerome did? More generally, does it matter how anyone in the ancient world approached translation? What if Paul had a clear position on the matter? Should we care what approach the Septuagint reflects?
I have often pointed out that we are better equipped now to retrieve the ancient Hebrew and Greek meanings and render them in a new language than we have been at any time since the words of Scripture were first written down.
My analogy is that we know more now about ancient Egypt than they did in the days of King James or of Jesus. Even though they were closer in time, modern science gives us tools they couldn’t even have imagined: carbon dating, for example, and satellite imaging. Similarly, we have better linguistic tools now than they had 400 or 2,000 years ago, and these tools give us better insight into the original texts.
Though I think most people agree that we’ve made huge progress in the fields of linguistics and translation, that doesn’t mean that the matter is settled. After all, “out with the old, in with the new” is hardly a phrase commonly heard resounding in seminary halls.
As it happens, the traditional Jewish answer is that the modern advances are irrelevant. What’s really important is the tradition as reflected in the Talmud, Rashi, and so forth. In one case, the Dead Sea Scrolls, combined with the LXX, provided convincing evidence that two letters are switched in the traditional first word of Deuteronomy 31:1. This is why the KJV translates that verse as, “And Moses went and spake these words…” while the NRSV and NAB agree on “When Moses finished speaking these words…” But the Jewish Publication Society translation retains the older understanding, based on the older text. It’s not that the evidence isn’t convincing. It’s irrelevant.
Another example comes from the Ten Commandments. There’s very good reason to think that the 10th commandment has to do with taking, not wanting, but not everyone agrees that we should update the translations or our understanding of the text.
All of this brings us back to the issue of historical translation approaches. Does it matter how people translated in the past? Or should we just use the best that modern science has to offer? What do you think?
The RNA singled out three events that contributed to the prominence of Bible translations in the news this past year:
- Celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version. There’s no doubt that the King James Version (“KJV”) has had an unprecedented impact on English and on religion, as well as on the practice of Bible translation, though I insist that at this point its value lies less in what it tells us about the original text of the Bible — I did, after all, call it a fool’s gold standard — and more in its historical and cultural role. (For more on why I think the KJV is now inaccurate, take my “Exploring the Bible” video quiz: “Do You Speak KJV?“)
- Criticism of the newest NIV. The NIV was officially published in 2011, but it was released on-line in 2010, which is perhaps why the RNA didn’t single out the publication of the NIV, but rather criticism of the gender decisions in it. Southern Baptists were especially vocal in this regard, and I don’t think this gender debate is going away. (Just a few days ago I was denounced by some Southern Baptists for my translation work, in particular for my suggestion in the Huffington Post that the Song of Solomon advocates equality between men and women.)
- The completion of the Common English Bible (CEB). The CEB proved hugely popular, even beyond what its publishers expected, though I like it less than many. It’s not a surprise that the translation made news. It was reprinted twice within weeks of its initial run, and has over half a million copies in print. It also made some bold decisions, like changing the traditional “Son of Man” into “human one.”
Though all three of these news items seem to be about Bible translation, I think there’s more going on.
The gender debate, in particular, seems less about translation than about the role of men and women. As I told the AP, I think the NIV is a step backwards in terms of gender accuracy in translation. The loudest complaints this year were that it didn’t take a big enough step backward.
Similarly, I think the admiration (and sometimes reverence) that many people have for the KJV has a lot to do with keeping things the way they were.
And on the other side of the coin, part of the CEB’s appeal is tied up with specifically not keeping things the way they were.
Certainly one common theme here is how we deal with modernity. There seems to be a more specific message behind the stories, too, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
This past July I had the pleasure of presenting at a TEDx conference in East Hampton, the broad theme of which was “The Next Generation.”
So I offered an 18-minute segment on Bible translation, on what so often goes wrong with translations, and on how to avoid the common mistakes. I couched these topics in the broader theme of why the Bible is important for the next generation.
The edited version of my presentation is available here and on YouTube:
After watching it, you’ll be able to answer these questions:
- Why is the King James Version (“KJV”) so important for understanding Bible translation today?
- What are the three most common ways of understanding ancient languages?
- Why don’t those ways work? How do we know? And what are some consequences?
- What is a better approach? Again, how do we know?
- Why are the Ten Commandments still uniquely relevant?
- What does all of this have to do with supermarkets?
I’ve touched on many of these themes in individual blog posts here, and I go through all of them (except for the supermarkets) in And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning, but here’s a compact and relatively complete introduction. Enjoy!
And then take a look at the other presentations.
I also want to express my thanks to Left of Frame Pictures for producing the videos.
David’s point was that a translation into English should sound like English.
Bob MacDonald seems to counter that the foreignness is part of the text and a translation that isn’t foreign has destroyed that aspect of the text. Also apparently in rebuttal, Theophrastus claimed that the text of the Bible is qualitatively different than other texts
Wayne Leman focused the issue, noting that the content can sound foreign (Levirate marriage, wave offerings, praying for the dead, temple prostitution, etc.) even if the language sounds like English.
I think part of what’s going on here is that poor Bible translations have created a false image of the Bible, and many people are reluctant to give up that false image because, for them, the image of the Bible has become the Bible itself. In other words, they want the Bible to sound like what they think the Bible sounds like.
An example I use frequently is “God spoke unto Moses, saying…” That’s not English. Furthermore, it’s pretty clear that the Hebrew leimor here — which became “speaking” in translation — functions the same way our modern quotation marks do. So the translation should read, “God said to Moses, `…'”
But for people who grew up hearing “God spoke unto Moses, saying,” that’s what the Bible sounds like. They heard that (poor) translation frequently, internalized it, and then came to the reasonable but wrong conclusion that the Bible is foreign and strange in exactly the way that “God spoke unto Moses, saying” is.
So any attempt to retranslate the Bible into better English, for them, destroys part of what the Bible is.
At its extreme, this gives us the KJV-Only movement. For people who adhere to that philosophy, the archaic language of the KVJ — “spake,” “verily,” “holpen,” etc. — is the Bible, and for them, modern translations destroy what the Bible is.
But I think that this perceived foreignness is an artifact of poor translation and a misunderstanding of how language works. That is, the foreignness of the Bible that some people want to capture in translation is really just the foreignness of previous translations, not of the Bible itself.
Making matters much worse, many of the people who decide to become Bible translators do so because of their love for the Bible, a love they gained as they grew up with bad translations. So Bible translators (a) start to think that “God spoke unto Moses, saying” actually is English; and (b) want to produce a translation that preserves their childhood understanding of what the Bible is.
This situation strikes me as doubly lamentable. Not only have poor translations hidden the original beauty of the Bible, they have prevented people from taking the steps to find it.
In 2008, as I was writing And God Said, I described the King James Version (KJV) as the “fool’s-gold standard” of English Bible translation. That was approximately 397 years after the watershed publication of the KJV, hardly a date worth noticing.
But today the KJV turns 400, and with that anniversary has come renewed world-wide attention to what certainly ranks as one of the most important and influential translations of the Bible ever. But some of the celebration is misplaced.
It’s not that I don’t like the KJV. I do. It’s often poetic in ways that modern translations are not. And I recognize all it has done both for English speakers who are serious about their faith and more widely. Dr. Alister McGrath is correct when he writes in his In The Beginning that the “King James Bible was a landmark in the history of the English language, and an inspiration to poets, dramatists, artists, and politicians.”
Equally, I appreciate the dedication and hard work that went into the KJV, as Dr. Leland Ryken passionately conveys in his Understanding English Bible Translation: “[f]or people who have multiple English Bibles on their shelves, it is important to be reminded that the vernacular Bible [the KJV] was begotten in blood.”
Yet for all its merits, the King James Version is monumentally inaccurate, masking the Bible’s original text. There are two reasons for the errors.
The first is that English has changed in 400 years, so even where the KJV used to be accurate, frequently now it no longer is. (My video-quiz about the English in the KJV — Do You Speak KJV? — illustrates this point.)
The second reason is that the KJV was written several hundred years before the advent of modern translation theory, linguistics, and, in general, science. Just as advances like carbon dating and satellite imagery help us know more about antiquity now than people did 400 years ago (even though they were a little closer to the original events), we also know more about ancient Hebrew and Greek now than they did 400 years ago. In fact, we know much more, both about the ancient languages and about how to convey them in translation.
Like Heinrich Bunting’s famous 16th-century “clover-leaf map” of the world that adorns my office wall (the map puts the holy city of Jerusalem right in the middle, surrounded by three leaves: Europe, Asia, and Africa), the KJV translation is of enormous value historically, politically, sentimentally, and perhaps in other ways. But also like Bunting’s map, the KJV is, in the end, not very accurate.
And those who would navigate the Bible solely with this 400-year-old translation journey in perils.
I’m thrilled to announce the beta version of my latest project: Exploring the Bible videos. The site is a growing collection of short text-based videos about the Bible, frequently focusing on translation issues.
The first three videos (also available on YouTube) are:
- John 3:16 – What does “God so loved the world” really mean?
- Quiz: Do you speak KJV?
- Thou Shalt Not Covet – Why “covet” is a mistranslation in the Ten Commandments.
Longer than a soundbite and (much) shorter than a lecture, each video presents a single idea in two or three minutes.
My hope is that these videos will be an effective way of discussing the text of the Bible, because the medium of video makes it possible to display the text as I talk about it.
Please let me know what you think.
I’ll also be grateful if you can ask a few friends or colleagues to take a look — particularly if they don’t follow this blog — so I can get a sense of what these videos are like for people who encounter the material for the first time.
The BBC News Magazine has an interesting, accurate, and balanced piece on the KJV out today, called “King James Bible: How it changed the way we speak.”
Based largely on works by David Crystal (Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language) and Alister McGrath (In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible), the article quantifies and explains the impact of the KJV on English, along the way describing the nature of the KJV.
From the middle of the article:
Perhaps the most intriguing reason for the impact of the King James Bible is that it ignored what today would be considered essentials for good translation.