In the last fifty or sixty years a great erosion of our English language heritage has taken place and at the heart of this loss lies the attempt to render the Holy Bible as well as church liturgies and hymns in a form of English that is supposedly modern and easier for ordinary people to understand.
The claims made in favor of modern translations of the Bible sound reasonable. After all, the desire to have the Bible and liturgy in the English tongue instead of in “A tongue not understanded of the people” (as the Book of Common Prayer puts it) was one of the powerful inspirations of the Reformation in England as it was for Luther in Germany and reformers throughout Christendom.
The fruits of that inspiration are clear for all who have eyes to see and ears to hear: Luther’s Bible in Germany, Tyndale’s Bible, the Geneva Bible and the King James Version, which were based substantially on Tyndale, but more elevated in style, in England have inspired generations of German and English speaking peoples for the last several hundred years. The idioms and poetry of those versions have become part of the warp and woof of the common, living, language of those peoples. Just as people often unknowingly quote Shakespeare, so they as often unknowingly quote the Prayer Book and the Authorized Version of the Bible – it is a sign of the times.
Ah but, goes the argument, the King James Version of the Bible was contemporary in its day and what is needed is a contemporary version for public use today, as if, in an age of universal education that was not available to our forefathers, suddenly, people have become too dumb to learn and understand the King James Version and their pastors have become too idle or incompetent, or too busy with other “more important” matters, to teach them.
Certainly, there are mistakes and difficult patches in the King James Version which with gentle and respectful handling can be edited, as for example in the King James Version of The New Scofield Study Bible, which removes obscure or inaccurate words to the margin and replaces them with words from current usage. The changes are indicated by bracketing the word between vertical lines. Thus the phrase “strange wives” in Ezra 10:11 is rendered “|foreign| wives” and “strange” placed in the margin. In this manner, the beauty and also the peculiarities of a text that is part of every English speaker’s heritage is preserved in full but clarity and ease of study is also promoted.
But to return to the point about “contemporary language”. This is one of the abiding fallacies of the modern translation movement, as modern scholarship has convincingly demonstrated. The idea that the King James Version was the contemporary language of the ordinary people of 1611 is false. The King James Version was deliberately translated in an elevated, somewhat archaic, rhetorically ornate language that sought at the same time a formal faithfulness to the original text. In that sense, the King James Version was never a time-servingly “contemporary” or “with it” translation. Yet, its rhythms and words entered into the heart of our language and were received and loved by educated and uneducated, such that its language became a common reference and source of inspiration for saint and sinner alike.
Behind the prevalent contemporary ideology that a translation must be “contemporary” is the supposition that this will make it “easy to understand”. But the desire to make the Bible “easy to understand” is not the same as the desire to produce a translation that is “understanded of the people”. Many passages of the Bible are simply NOT easy in any language and so to simplify is simply to distort,
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah, 55:9)
Thus, an elevated style more accurately conveys the glory and mystery of the Lord than anything written in the paltering jargon of a daily newspaper can achieve.
Ease of understanding is thought to involve a removal of the poetic – for today there is a remarkable prejudice against the poetic, even though it is there in the original and is a faithful conveyor of the biblical message.
Ease of understanding also requires a translation based not on a formal fidelity (as opposed to a literal translation) to the words of the sacred original, but on “dynamic equivalence” in which anything in the original that is strange or culturally remote from modern English speaking readers is to be replaced by material that is supposed to be more familiar and will not disturb the reader or provoke his curiosity in any way. The input of the translator is thus elevated at the expense of the translation. The translator is presumed to know what people will and will not understand and to act accordingly in including or excising it from the translated text.
The chief example of a translation made on the principles of “dynamic equivalence” in Britain was the New English Bible, the New Testament of which was published in 1961. One of the greatest poets of the English language alive at that time, T. S. Eliot, was provoked to comment that the New English Bible,
astonishes in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial and the pedantic.
In a culture in which meaty matter must be mashed up and made palatable to the people, not the people weaned and raised up to eat goodly meat, it is as if we have sold our birthright for several messes of god-forsaken pottage.
Further reading: Who Killed the Bible?: Last Words on Translating the Holy Scriptures, by Ian Robinson