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Language lovers--have a blast

Here is a wonderful, humorous, intensely British lambasting of modern Bible translations. I cannot possibly reproduce it, but if you love the English language, read it. You will be tempted, like me, to read it aloud to someone else. Here are a few samples, just so you'll want to go and read it:

We enjoyed a parish visit recently to St George’s Chapel, Windsor: the Queen’s Chapel. In there was a big sign saying, “Celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible”. I must say, it was a custom more honoured in the breach than in the observance. For at Choral Evensong, the lessons were both from some illiterate, godforsaken modern version. I knew we were in for trouble from the start when, in the Old Testament lesson, King Solomon addressed the Almighty as, “You God…” – as if the deity were some miscreant fourth-former in the back row. Of course it went from bad to worse.
The real Bible says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The NEB gives us instead, “The first step to find wisdom.” But that is only the way in which babyish primary school teachers speak to their charges. The first step to find wisdom – and then, if you are ever so good little children, I’ll show you the second step.
The King James Version says, “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord …” In the New Jerusalem Bible this degenerates into tasteless obscurantism: “If you live in the shelter of Elyon and make your home in the shadow of Shaddai, you can say to Yahweh …” The Revised Standard Version (RSV) loves to parade the translators’ acquaintance with the slightest nuances in the ancient languages but their utter ignorance of what will go into ordinary English. It renders the “giants” of Genesis as “nephilim” – to the confusion, one supposes, of elderly ladies everywhere.
The KJV translates Psalm 139: 16--a beautiful poem in which the Psalmist declares that God knew him "while he was yet in his mother's womb--as thine eyes did see my substance yet being unperfect." This is allusive, evocative, tender. Unbelievably, the NJB gives us instead, "Your eyes could see my embryo"--as if God were a member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

Okay, okay, I'll stop. Just go read it.


Comments (21)

I've criticized modern translations myself on the same grounds, but lately when tempted to do so I'm reminded of the words of St Augustine in his Confessions, book 3, chapter 5: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/augustine/confessions.vi.html

I don't think anything St. Augustine says (about the dangers of rhetoric perhaps?) could undermine the legitimacy of criticizing modern translations. As the author of the linked article says, these matters are relevant to meaning and understanding.

For example (out of thousands): "My embryo"?? As though the embryo isn't _the embodied person_.

Perhaps we are right to bemoan the loss of literacy in the postmoderns for whom these paraphrases and translations are designed. Surely not just any translation will do, but evangelists have always sought a translation appropriate to their mission. I hate to say it, but the KJV is not appropriate for most English-speaking audiences today. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole KJV, and lose his own soul?

We've gone from dynamic equivalency to postmodern equivalency - approaching the Tower of Babel.

I prefer the King James Version rendering of Luke 19:13: "...Occupy til I come." lol

I'm not a hard-core KJV only, and I even have my preferences amongst modern translations--the NASB, for example. And there are worse things than ugly language even in translation--an overt political agenda, for example.

But I think there are several mistakes we can make in these areas:

1) Blanketly dismiss the KJV for modern audiences as entirely inappropriate because "too hard." I have known people who are barely literate who understand the KJV. I think what is most needed is good expository preaching, teaching, and discipleship.

2) Downplay the importance of the kinds of considerations raised in this article as "merely aesthetic" and hence dispensable in the name of "reaching people." They are not merely aesthetic. They include things like respect for God, for example, and even wisdom and understanding. The infantilisation discussed in the article is no small matter. We should _want_ people to understand that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" *instead of* that "the first step to find wisdom" is the fear of the Lord. We should not want people to think that God speaks to them like some annoying kindergarten teacher. The continual transliteration of "Yahweh" in some versions is undoubtedly indebted to an attempt to bring German higher criticism into translation and thus appear learned. And so on.

These things have ramifications. They will make a difference to the furniture of people's minds, to their assumptions, to their culture. And as far as I can see, those differences are not good ones.

One way of approaching the matter would be to use the KJV in pew Bibles and for reading in services and to have a good, respectful and respectable modern translation such as the NASB available *in addition* to the KJV for activities like church Bible studies. Yes, this would mean more outlay for the churches over the long haul, but I think it is more than worth considering.

Anyone who studies literature needs to know the KJV. My very modern, not-all-that-well-educated students are perfectly capable of learning to understand its language, just as they learn to understand Shakespeare's language; it's merely a matter of instruction and immersion. Like Lydia, I appreciate some of the modern translations, too (the NASB in particular) and have no objection to them as long as they are accurate. But there is no reason for us to simply ignore, because it is "old," a translation that has influenced the English language for centuries -- it has given us specific vocabulary and cadences which, if we recognize them, enhance our understanding and appreciation of so much literature, both British and American.

Thanks for the link, Lydia -- love it! I have no trouble with amusing exposes of foolish use of language.

Yeah, re the comment above, that's like saying "Well some kids will ONLY listen to rap music, so let's not bash Toby Mac."

The Elephant

Peter Mullen politely skewers, with deadly accuracy, the liturgical and other miscellaneous follies of the Church of England. He writes a regular column in the quarterly magazine Salisbury Review - which is described as a "journal of conservative thought and politics".

I'm a traditional Catholic, so I use the Douay-Rheims instead of the KJV. I find that nearly all of the modern Catholic translations of the Bible to be wanting in literary value. The NAB and other modern translations also have footnotes that are steeped in modernistic liberal theology, just like the RSV and other modernistic Protestant translations. Both Protestants and Catholics are better off staying with versions that are old and proven, rather than to use versions that have the stilted so-called up to date langauge and liberal footnotes.

Some modern versions are extremely bad. Eugene Peterson's The Message is probably the one I dislike the most. Here is how it renders the most loved verse in all of Scripture:

"This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. "

"A whole and lasting life" is all well and good but it is rather a downgrade from the "everlasting life" promised in the original Greek and the trusty old Authorized Version.

I came to appreciate the Authorized or King James Version over all other English translations of the Bible in high school and that appreciation was only intensified when I studied New Testament Greek in college. It became apparent just how inadequate the most popular modern translations are, although there are some, like the NASB as Lydia has said, which are far better than others.

I expressed my thoughts on the Authorized Bible in full earlier this year: http://thronealtarliberty.blogspot.com/2011/05/400-year-old-version.html

Here are the first five lines of Psalm 2 in an avant-garde version. I cannot bear to quote the entire psalm:

Why are the nations up in arms, and men drawn into insane dreams?
The world's rulers are in accord - against God and the Lord's Anointed:
'Old God's authority is at an end - long live the Revolution!'
The Lord in heaven is laughing; to him their threats are a joke.
But one day his top will blow, and his fury flow like lava.

This excerpt is taken from The Lincoln Psalter which was concocted by Gordon Jackson.

It's Rob Bell translates the Bible! How fresh and exciting. [gag]

The Elephant

tm19: "I hate to say it, but the KJV is not appropriate for most English-speaking audiences today."

I notice that people claim this, but I've never seen anyone even try to demonstrate it.

Sometimes people say that young people (that is, the next generation) won't go for the KJV. But the first time I really read the KJV was as a freshman in college (which wasn't all that long ago) and I fell in love with it. When I taught at a Christian school (very recently), I noticed some high schoolers mocking The Message (which some adults were pushing on them) and praising the KJV.

Back in the 90s a rapper wrote a song that begins, "As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death" (Ps. 23:4 KJV), not "Even when I walk through the darkest valley" (New Living Translation) or "I may walk through valleys as dark as death" (Contemporary English Version) or whatever. I think that his audience was able to handle it.

"I love the KJV" isn't really a rebuttal to "The KJV doesn't appeal to most people today". A statistical argument requires a statistical response.

I don't doubt that the KJV is poetically superior than the contemporary English version, but it is also harder to follow. That's just how poetry is. I've read Shakespeare, and it is difficult to follow at times.

I find it interesting that people never take the obvious next step. The KJV being superior to modern translations implies that KJV English is better than modern English, and therefore we should write today in KJV English. But no one ever goes there.

The sacred message of the scriptures gets attached to the elevated language used to communicate it, which is why people resist changes that would allow the same meaning to be expressed in the vernacular. Something numinous seems to get lost in the exchange.

In the preface to The Book of Common Prayer, the Church of England ascribes to itself an ideal moderate position : 'It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England, ever since the first compiling of her Publick Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and of too much ease in admitting, any variation from it'.

Y'know, Matt, I sat here and twitched my fingers and thought about answering your comment. But then I decided that the bit about doing all of one's writing in Elizabethan English was so puerile that I should just not bother. Work out the answer for yourself. Sometimes, answering blog comments really is a colossal waste of time.

"A statistical argument requires a statistical response."

I wasn't responding to a "statistical argument" but an unsubstantiated assertion. And the assertion was that young people won't go for the KJV (I should have said "can't," because that's what I usually hear people say), not that it does not currently appeal to most people generally.

"The KJV being superior to modern translations implies that KJV English is better than modern English"

Since the former proposition does not at all imply (in a logical sense) the latter, your proposed conclusion does not follow.

Oh, I don't think you have to write everything in KJV English, but surely something? Is it better or not? Why is it so strange to make such a judgement? Is it because it would call our tastes and habits into question?

But, if KJV English is no better than modern English (is it worse then?), I guess the conclusion is that modern translators just haven't tried hard enough.

Surely one does not need to provide some sort of hard evidence that the KJV is difficult for modern English speakers and is therefore not preferred? I'd say that's about as commonsense an observation as you can get. "I like the KJV" is no response at all.

Re: Alex at 12:29 pm

It is interesting with regards to the Book of Common Prayer to note that the scriptural readings within it come from a translation older than the 1611 Authorized Version, i.e., the Miles Coverdale. At least this is still true of the Book of Common Prayer in the edition we use in Canada - I'm assuming that it is still true of the editions used in the Church of England proper and in the United States as well.

Re: Matt at 3:50 pm

Without denying that the language of the Authorized Version would be more difficult for people in the 21st Century than in the 17th Century, I would like to make the observation that the most frequently cited example of this is a particularly poor one. In virtually every conversation I have had with people who prefer modern versions over the Authorized the first objection made is to the "thees and the thous".

Every time I hear this objection I think back to the 1st and 2nd grade when we were taught that in the most proper English the first person pronoun had singular and plural forms, all of which we express by the single word "you" in ordinary, everyday English. This was not in a private school, or a century ago, it was in an ordinary rural Canadian school in the early 1980s.

Granted that there are archaisms in the Authorized Version which are confusing, and potentially misleading ("prevent" meaning "go before" or "precede" in the 17th century, but now meaning "hinder" or "check")surely the vast majority of people know that "thee" and "thou" mean "you"?

Ironically, the Authorized Version's use of these pronouns was archaic in 1611. In Elizabethan English they were only used to address people who were your social inferiors or with whom you were intimately familiar. Hence the ironical use in some Shakespeare plays where a social equal or superior is addressed with these pronouns in order to insult them. The revival of the older usage of these in the Authorized Version created a completely different way of thinking about them that had never existed before. Now they became "the way God talks, and the proper way to address God".

The idea of trying to write in King James English is an interesting one. If a person really wants to master a foreign, classical, or Biblical language they must learn how to speak and write it - to think and express their own thoughts in it rather than just imitate others - rather than just learn how to read it. Presumably the same principle applies to our own language. Practicing writing in the English of previous centuries might actually improve our ability to communicate in contemporary English so long as we don't go too far and try to sound like Shakespeare every time we speak.

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