Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Bible Translations, Part 4 of a Draft Article

This is the 4th installment of a series of draft portions of an article I am writing on Biblical translations. Comments are welcome via e-mail.See also Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

4. The Quality of the Translation, and its Liturgical Utility

A text can be accurate, based on the correct original text, be free from any taint of heresy, and yet still be a horrible translation. Let’s consider a two examples, looking first at the King James Version, and then at several subsequent “improvements”.

Psalms 8:4:

"What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?" (KJV)

"What is man that You take thought of him, And the son of man that You care for him?" (NASB)

"what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?" (Today's NIV)

"what are mortals that you should think of us, mere humans that you should care for us?" (New Living Translation)

"Then I ask, "Why do you care about us humans? Why are you concerned for us weaklings?"" (Contemporary English Version)

"what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?" (NRSV)

"But why are people important to you? Why do you take care of human beings?" (New Century Version)

John 1:14-17

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me. And of his fullness have all we received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." (KJV)


"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John testified about Him and cried out, saying, "This was He of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.'" For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ." (NASB)

"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only [Son], who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, "This is he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.' ") Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (TNIV)

"So the Word became human and lived here on earth among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father. John pointed him out to the people. He shouted to the crowds, "This is the one I was talking about when I said, `Someone is coming who is far greater than I am, for he existed long before I did.' " We have all benefited from the rich blessings he brought to us--one gracious blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; God's unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ." (NLT)

"The Word became a human being and lived here with us. We saw his true glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father. From him all the kindness and all the truth of God have come down to us. John spoke about him and shouted, "This is the one I told you would come! He is greater than I am, because he was alive before I was born." Because of all that the Son is, we have been given one blessing after another. The Law was given by Moses, but Jesus Christ brought us undeserved kindness and truth." (CEV)

"And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (NRSV)

"The Word became a human and lived among us. We saw his glory -- the glory that belongs to the only Son of the Father -- and he was full of grace and truth. John tells the truth about him and cries out, saying, "This is the One I told you about: 'The One who comes after me is greater than I am, because he was living before me.'" Because he was full of grace and truth, from him we all received one gift after another. The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (NCV)

"The Word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us. We saw his glory, the glory which he received as the Father's only Son. John spoke about him. He cried out, "This is the one I was talking about when I said, "He comes after me, but he is greater than I am, because he existed before I was born.' " Out of the fullness of his grace he has blessed us all, giving us one blessing after another. God gave the Law through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (Good News Translation)

I would contend that none of the subsequent translations listed above has made even the slightest improvement on the language of the King James version, and that to the extent that they have departed from the wording of the King James, they have diminished the beauty of the text. The only modern translations that have more or less maintained a degree of beauty in their translation have been those that attempted to revise the King James text, while maintaining to some extent or another its wording and cadence. I would include among these texts the English Standard Version, the Revised Standard Version, and the New King James Version.

Even some of the great skeptics of modern times have acknowledged the beauty of the King James Version:

“It is the most beautiful of all translations of the Bible; indeed it is probably the most beautiful piece of writing in all the literature of the world.” -H. L. Mencken11

“The translation was extraordinarily well done because to the translators what they were translating was not merely a curious collection of ancient books written by different authors in different stages of culture, but the Word of God divinely revealed through His chosen and expressly inspired scribes. In this conviction they carried out their work with boundless reverence and care and achieved a beautifully artistic result.” –George Bernard Shaw12

"It is written in the noblest and purest English, and abounds in exquisite beauties of mere literary form." -Aldous Huxley13

One can also simply read the preface of almost any translation of the Bible in English, and read acknowledgements of the King James Versions beauty.

So one might ask why it is that King James Version is almost universally acknowledged to a beautiful translation, and yet no other translation has been able to produce a translation that comes close to it? I think there are two primary reasons for this:

1). The scholars that translated the King James Version lived at a time when scholars were still expected to be a masters of all learning, and so these scholars were not only the brightest minds of their day in terms of the original texts and ancient translations of the Scriptures, but they were also masters of their own language. In our time, one might find a scholar who is a master of one area or the other, but it is very rare to encounter a scholar who is a scholar of both Scripture and English literature.

2). Because the goal of the King James Version was to produce a translation that was appointed to be read aloud in Church, its translators paid particular attention to how the text would sound when read aloud. There were of course concerned with producing an accurate translation, but they were also concerned with producing a reverent and beautiful translation that was pleasing to the ear.14

Now it must be conceded that the King James Version has some significant problems in terms of its liturgical use today. There are passages in the KJV that are hard to understand for most contemporary English speakers, and there are passages that are even misleading now, due to changes in the meaning of certain words over time. This being the case, there is in fact a need for some revision to the text, and there are editions of the King James Version that make such revisions… but the question is how much of the text needs to be revised, and on that there is not unanimity. Also, some attempts at correcting the King James text have been poorly done… but “I run before my horse to market.” I will go into more detail about the various options available today in the conclusion.
11 The Third Millennium Bible, (Gary, South Dakota: Deuel Enterprises, 1998), p. xiii.

12 G. S. Paine, The Men Behind the King James Version, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1959) p. 182f

13 History of the King James Version, Sept 4, 2006, <http://www.bible-researcher.com/kjvhist.html>.

14 Nicolson, p. 209f.