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Thursday, May 19, 2005

Latinization of the English Bible

Throughout the history of mankind there has been a tension between two competing forces when it comes to spiritual knowledge. On the one hand, humans often like to keep some spiritual things mysterious. Many cultures even specify that only certain individuals are entrusted with spiritual knowledge. Often these individuals communicate with the deities in a special language and with special rituals unknown to the rest of the society. This is the sacred. In contrast to the sacred is the "profane," the ordinary. In societies which have special people who are the guardians of spiritual knowledge, there is often a significant gap between what is considered to be spiritually known by the "medicine men" (or spiritual men, prophets, clergy, whatever the role is called in a particular society) and what is known by ordinary people (the laity).

On the other hand, a competing force is that humans want to know what is sacred. We want to understand what is required of us spiritually. We crave something beyond ourselves. While we recognize that we may not fully understand spiritual things, we have, deep within us, a desire to understand something about them, enough so that our lives can be better. This desire to know, to understand, competes with the desire to keep spiritual knowledge sacred, mystical, and, yes, even to some extent, unknown. We are human paradoxes, aren't we?!

The God (Yahweh) of the ancient Hebrews broke into human history and revealed himself to humans, using the languages which were spoken by humans. He did not require humans to learn a special sacred language in order for them to communicate with him. God promised that he would send someone who would rescue people and for centuries Israel looked forward to the coming of this Messiah.

Christians believe that the Messiah came in the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnated Logos (Word) made flesh. And what language did Jesus speak to communicate to the people of his time? He spoke their language. He did not speak heavenly languages, which the people would have to learn, in order for them to understand what Jesus taught them.

Over time what God had revealed was written down, in the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic languages for the Hebrew Bible, and in Hellenistic (Koine) Greek for the New Testament. Each of these languages was spoken and understood by the people for whom the written revelation was intended.

However, humans being so human, came to ritualize the sacred languages of revelation of the Hebrews and of Greek speakers. In time only an elite group of spiritual teachers could understand the languages of revelation. And then, history tells us, spiritual renewal would come when someone would make the effort to translate the sacred languages of the Bible into the "vulgar" ("profane") language of the people. St. Jerome did this for those who no longer spoke Greek, when he translated the Bible into Latin. For many years his Latin Vulgate was used to reveal God's words to mankind.

But the cycle continued, and, eventually, language changed, and there were other people groups, speaking other languages, who the church wanted to evangelize. Latin didn't communicate as it originally had, to those who did not speak Latin. Yet the church persisted in using Latin as the sacred language.

But not everyone agreed that only those who kept the keys to the sacred language should have access to the written Word of God. Brave people, some of whom were martyred for their conviction, believed that the Bible should, once again, be in the vulgar language, the language of the people, the language spoken by all segments of society. Church history holds up the example of Luther for German speakers, and Tyndale and Wycliff for the English speaking world, and others for other languages, men who tirelessly labored to translate the Bible so that it would be understood by all speakers of a language, not just those who could speak the "classical" or "sacred" languages.

And the historical cycle continued, around and around it would go, whenever there would be language change that made literature written in a previous stage of a language no longer adequately understandable to people, or whenever the church would reach out to a new group of people into whose language the Bible had never been translated.

Often, however, powerful forces would resist the translation of the Bible into the vulgar (common) language. Spiritual leaders would teach that only a previous sacred language was adequate for communicating God's truth. Some would teach that the laity were incapable of understanding the complex teaching of the Bible, even if it was in the language of the people. They would teach that only the religiously educated could understand divine truths and so they must be the ones to translate revealed truth from the old sacred languages into the current language of parishioners.

I know something about this in my own family. My father's first language was Russian. Not much more than 1,000 years ago, Christianity came to Russia and millions of people converted to Christianity. The Bible was translated into a language of that time, which is now called Old Church Slavonic. My father grew up hearing the liturgy read from the Old Church Slavonic Bible. Even though 19th century Russian, spoken by my father and his relatives who attended their church, was related to Old Church Slavonic, the relationship had become so distant that my father could undersand very little of what was read from the Bible in the liturgy.

Around and around the cycle has continued. In 1611 A.D. a beautiful translation of the Bible was commmissioned by King James. Some resisted using that Authorized Version (King James Version), because they wished to continue using previous English versions of the Bible. But in time the KJV became the standard Bible of the English-speaking world. And it remained so for many, many years. I grew up on it in the church my family attended from the time I was a baby. Yet, after 400 years of widespread use and amazing spiritual blessing to millions through the KJV, it no longer spoke the language of the people, because the people no longer spoke English as it had been spoken in 1611. Some spiritual leaders resisted any further translation of the Bible into the current vernacular. Some still do. Others felt it would benefit English speakers greatly if the Bible were written in English as it was spoken and written by current generations. The tension continued between those who felt that the classical Bible was better for the people, that it had expressions which were of greater literary excellence, and those who felt that the Bible could better communicate to people if it had wordings closer to how people today spoke and wrote.

Eventually there would be so many different translations of the Bible in English that it is nearly impossible for any one individual to name them all. They come in all sorts of varieties of English, including many which are not written in a form of English which anyone has ever spoken or written.

Many welcomed new translations which sounded like the way they themselves spoke and wrote. Others felt that it was improper for the Bible to be written in the vernacular. The common language, spoken and written by all levels of society, from the highly educated to those with little education was considered too "common" or "profane" to communicate God's revealed words to mankind. This common language was not a lowest common denominator kind of colloquial or "dumbed down" language, but good quality language understood by everyone. But some church leaders still resisted use of a Bible in the vernacular. The common human craving for mystery and the maintainence of the majesty and dignity of God (wonderful motives, but sometimes misapplied linguistically) was a powerful force resisting use of the Bible in language which could be understood by all fluent speakers.

And the tension continues today. It is a normal tension. It is part of our humanity, the desire to honor the sacred, to keep it from being profaned. There is also within us a desire for beauty and many view older forms of a language as being more beautiful than current forms of a language. Yet there is also a competing human desire to know God, to understand what he has revealed to mankind. I recall at least three stages of my own spiritual walk when I was exposed to a new translation which broke out of older linguistic patterns and were written in my language. My first such experience was with the Living Bible in the 1960s. I remember thinking that something written in such ordinary language could not possibly be the Bible. No one ever taught me that, as far as I know. It is, I think, just a normal part of our humanity to view something which sounds more linguistically "distant" as being more sacred, more spiritual, more accurate, closer to how God's Word should be written.

For a number of years some who have been concerned about English versions have felt that some English Bibles have missed something important. It was claimed (often correctly) that Bibles in the vernacular were not as accurate as they should be. And Bibles in the vernacular did not give people a feeling that they were hearing or reading something "sacred." Some newer Bibles did not "sound" like Bibles to those who felt pulled by the historical desire for the "sacred sound."

And so "corrective" measures have been taken. Newer versions were translated which could let people once again feel like they were using Bibles that sounded like a Bible. The motivation is thoroughly understandable. The Bible is a sacred book. It reveals to us critically important sacred truths. Our God is not our "buddy" who just looks the other way when we do wrong. No, he is holy. He is, in the classical words, "high and lifted up."

Sometimes, though, in the effort to create Bible versions which are more accurate and which sound more literary and sound more like we think a Bible should sound, we have returned to a mysterious language which is not really understood by those for whom we have translated the Bible, even though it is our best intention that they do so understand it. History has come full circle, once again, and it probably will cycle around many more times, unless our God brings human history to a close before too much longer. In our effort to return the Bible to a place of accuracy, dignity, majesty, and literary quality, we have put it in language which no English speaker has ever spoken or written. We, like the church leaders using the Latin Vulgate, when it was no longer understood by the people, have "Latinized" our English Bible.

It is important for us to think back upon these historical cycles involving the sacred and language, and the role of any sacred language, and try to learn from history. In our efforts to make "better" Bibles, let us be vigilant and wise that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. We must always keep in mind the old adage: "The only lesson we learn from history is that we do not learn from history." And "Let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater." In our efforts to make "better" Bibles, let us not make the Bible linguistically less accessible to English speakers today than the original biblical languages were to those who spoke those languages.

I, personally, believe it is possible to translate into English in a way that the translation will be fully accurate, true to the words and semantics and syntax of the original revealed Scripture, and also true to the words, semantics, and syntax of good quality literary English, as it is written by good authors today. I do not believe that it is necessary to translate in a way that the English in a translation does not follow the rules of English in order for it to sound literary or to be accurate. I will continue posting on this topic, since it is the focus of this blog. I would not have started this blog or posted as I do if I did not believe that there is a great need for English Bibles to be written in real English, the vernacular, or to use that obsolescent term "vulgar" English (and I don't mean including lots of swear words in a translation!!).

Does translation of the Bible into the vernacular mean that we expect everyone who reads that translation to understand all the concepts written? Of course not. But there is no reason why those who speak and write in the vernacular cannot understand the words and sentences of the translation. I don't understand Einstein's theory of relativity very well, but I can understand the words and sentences which describe it. It requires Bible teachers and pastors to help us go beyond linguistic understanding of the Bible, to greater conceptual understanding, and then, beyond that, to understanding how God's Word can be applied to our own lives.

The Bible can be written using words which can be understood and respected by all native speakers, from those who are highly educated to those who have little education, from those who are old to those who are younger. Writing in good quality literary English will not detract from its sacredness, nor from the accuracy that we all believe is required to communicate God's verbal revelation to us.

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At Fri May 20, 06:35:00 AM, Blogger Ron Conte said...

"I, personally, believe it is possible to translate into English in a way that the translation will be fully accurate, true to the words and semantics and syntax of the original revealed Scripture, and also true to the words, semantics, and syntax of good quality literary English, as it is written by good authors today."

I disagree that good translations merely express what the source text is expressing. Translations contribute to expressing written Divine Revelation by making clear in translation what may be obscure or only implicit in the source text. The sum total of all translations of the Bible contributes something irreplaceable to the expression of Divine truths. The Bible is translated into many languages to its great benefit, not to its detriment.


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