WHAT WAS THAT YOU SAID?
This short essay seeks to discuss different approaches to the problem of translating the Bible into modern English. Right at the outset, one may ask a very pertinent question: What is modern English? Indeed, what does ‘modern’ mean? Is the English language spoken today, complete with its generational peculiarities and time-limited expressions, modern? Or is modern to be seen as an up-to-date way of speaking that will retain relevance for longer than just a few years?
Furthermore, where is modern English spoken? Not only in England! Many countries in the world have English as their first language, but there are huge cultural and linguistic differences between them. Someone has said that the United States of America and Great Britain are two continents divided by a common language. Does the English language spoken by someone living in the United Kingdom bear any real resemblance to that spoken by someone who lives in Australia?
Consider also the United Kingdom, and the linguistic differences between Northern Ireland, Eire, Scotland, England and Wales. Is there such a thing as a common language between them? Not according to Billy Connolly who said that, for many of his younger years, he thought the hymn said, “A wean in a manger”!
Modern English, then, is not a precise term, and it must include all countries where English is spoken as a first language. This places great demands on the translators. Dr. Lewis Foster, one of the translators who contributed to the New International Version and the New King James Version, acknowledged the difficulties and said, “It is necessary to continue making new translations and revising old ones if people are to read the Word of God in their contemporary languages.” Indeed, as it was said: “Biblical translating is an awe-some vocation. The translator stands on holy ground, bearing the tremendous responsibility of articulating the revealed language of Theophany in the common language of humanity.”
IT’S ONLY WORDS
In translating the Bible into modern English, those who do the work of translation readily acknowledge the difficulties of the task, the frailties of humanity and the impossibility of being truly neutral. It is also true that not all translators have the same end in view, or use the same methods. F. F. Bruce has declared that: “The translator’s business is, as far as possible, to produce the same effect on readers of the translation as the original text produces or produced on those able to read it.”
Understanding the original text in all its culture, context and history is essential if the above declaration is to be fulfilled, but the translators of the New English Bible recognised difficulties here: “A major difficulty in translating the Old Testament lies in the difference of time and place. Palestine differs greatly from the Western world in its physical aspects, in its plants, birds and beasts, its arts and crafts, as it did also in its social, administrative and religious, institutions, so that no English words exist to represent much about which the Old Testament speaks.”
Such difficulties stretch the translator’s attempt to produce a modern English Bible, and it is the translating of what the writer meant rather than his words which would seem necessary to communicate the Bible to English speakers. It is inevitable that something will be lost or changed in the course of translation. In this respect, the translators of the New English Bible urged caution to those who would easily criticise Bible translators: “No one who has not tried it can know how impossible an art translation is.”
Two translation methods are highlighted by Bill Lovegrove, who also gives his definition of a good translation: “Following the wording of the original as closely as possible, even when it makes the meaning confusing, is known as ‘formal equivalency’. Trying to match the ideas of the original as closely as possible, even when it means altering the words, is known as ‘dynamic equivalency’. Any good translation must be a balance between representing the words and representing the ideas.”
Archaeological discoveries in secular and sacred sites of artifacts and manuscripts in the last sixty years have added greatly to the translator’s work by enhancing their understanding of vocabulary, grammar and idioms of Greek and Semitic texts. If you improve your understanding of the original text, you can improve the accuracy of your translation.
It is therefore important for those who translate the Bible to understand thoroughly the vocabulary, grammar and idioms of the language that they are translating into. This is no small task, and it is in this context that another problem arises.
A new translation of the Bible can take up to thirty years to complete. The New International Version took thirteen years to get to publication, and the text was revised only five years later because of language changes and new evidence discovered. The New Revised Standard Version took seventeen years to complete. In language terms, a new modern English version can be many years out of date the moment it is printed.
This makes the demands on the translators very great and tests their skills to the limit. This is certainly true in our fast-moving world, but it was also true hundreds of years ago for Martin Luther, who said: “I have undertaken to translate the Bible into German. This was good for me; otherwise I might have died in the mistaken notion that I was a learned fellow.”
WHAT IS THE BIBLE?
It may seem a silly question when first considered, but what is the Bible? It is a remarkable collection of books which contain an astonishing variety of literary styles. You will find historical narrative, songs, poems, prayers, lamentations, demands for justice and much more. The Bible in our modern English is a translation of the Scriptures, a point picked up by Kendrick Grobel: “We need to remember that it is a translation, and not the Bible. Some who forgot this have engaged in violent debates about ‘what the Bible really says’ on the basis of details not found in the original text.”
In the light of the above comments, it is useful to remember what the Bible writers were trying to communicate by their writings. Making God’s truth available to modern English readers seems only to have given some people sticks with which to beat each other. Surely this is because more weight is being given the version of the Bible itself, rather than what it is trying to convey.
Fairness and neutrality in translation is a worthy goal, but one that is very difficult to achieve. In an attempt to be fair and neutral, the New Revised Standard Version scholars were selected from throughout Christendom: twenty-four Protestant, five Roman Catholic, and one Eastern Orthodox. A Jewish scholar was also part of the translating committee.
The New English Bible likewise had a wide group of scholars working in panels on its translation, but: “There is probably no member of a panel who has not found himself obliged to give up, perhaps with lingering regret, a cherished view about the meaning of this or that difficult passage.”
The New International Version translation of the Bible highlights a number of difficulties of translating into modern English, beginning with the original texts but realising that problems abounded: “The first concern of the translators has been the accuracy of the translation and its fidelity to the thought of the Biblical writers. They have weighed the significance of the lexical and grammatical details of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts. At the same time, they have striven for more than a word-for-word translation. Because thought patterns and syntax differ from language to language, faithful communication of the meaning of the writers of the Bible demands frequent modifications in sentence structure and constant regard for the contextual meanings of words.”
In producing what they regarded as an ‘international’ version, the New International Version translators were careful to avoid obvious Americanisms on the one hand and obvious Anglicisms on the other. Very worthy. But English is spoken in more countries than just America and the United Kingdom, and this serves to highlight again the difficulties faced by translators. Little wonder that Kendrick Grobel said: “For a text of much length and depth of meaning a translation can never be more than an approximation. The good translator aims at bringing the reader as close as possible, not to the wording of the original, but to its intent.”
Translation difficulties that I have not yet mentioned include taking into account literary devices used in the original texts, the context in which things were said and done, and deciphering illustrations that mean nothing to us today unless someone explains it. The task of preaching and teaching from the Scriptures is a daunting one – even after one understands the original text.
There is also the issue of which canon we regard the Bible to be, since across countries and denominations the content of “The Bible” can be very different to that which we favour. Whose Bible is the ‘right’ Bible? Whose canon is the ‘right’ canon’?
The translator into modern English today faces a world very different to that of even thirty years ago, as computers and Information Technology make communication across the world happen in a few seconds. The challenge of translation is surely growing ever harder as the modern English world moves ever faster.
WHO IS MODERN PERSON?
I ask it in this way because it is no longer politically correct to ask, “Who is modern man?” How do the translators into modern English hope to cope with the language changes of the present day? This world is one in which gender appears to be rapidly disappearing: “Many in the churches have become sensitive to the danger of linguistic sexism arising from the inherent bias of the English language towards the masculine gender, a bias that in the case of the Bible has often restricted or obscured the meaning of the original text.”
Bible translation appears to be a thankless task which attracts a great deal of criticism from the minority and vast indifference from the majority. For those who labour unceasingly to make the original Scriptures available to us in a language which is clear and relevant, perhaps some knowledge of the difficulties involved may lighten the critical tone. Then again, perhaps not.
The story is not ended, not just because no translation has achieved the finality of perfection, but because the world, knowledge and language are constantly changing while the human needs to which the Bible speaks remain.
Preface to the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Great Britain, William Collins Sons & Co Ltd for the Bible Societies, 1952
Preface to the New English Bible, Oxford, Oxford University Press, Penguin Books, 1974
F F Bruce, History of the Bible in English, Cambridge, Lutterworth Press, 1986
Editor: Charles M Laymon, The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1971
The New International Version of the Bible, Eastbourne, Kingsway Publications, 1991
The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995
Theology-Liturgics, Holy Trinity Cathedral Home Page on their Internet web site at:
Bill Lovegrove, Translation Methods, on the Internet at: http://www.pilgrimworks.com/trans.htm#methods
Kendrick Grobel, The Languages of the Bible in The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, Editor: Charles M Laymon, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1971