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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Literary Non-excellence?

Phil Wade at the Collected Miscellany blog refers to a debate among literary critics about whether an author can maintain literary excellence if they publish too many books in too short a time span.

I think that similar debates would occur over the claims of some English Bible versions to have "literary excellence" if more literary critics reviewed them. I don't know whether or not I would qualify as a literary critic but I was the feature editor of our college student newspaper and later I worked as copyeditor for an academic (linguistics) publisher. I have functioned as an English editor for many years. I love good English. I think there is great literary excellence in Shakespeare. I am wowed by the opening lines of "Tale of Two Cities," by Charles Dickens.

But, to be honest, I don't find literary excellence in some English Bible versions, such as the ESV, whose translation team, including its chief literary stylist, highly promote its "literary excellence." This may be another case, as that referred to by Phil Wade, where literary critics simply disagree. It may be that some of us operate with difference definitions of "literary excellence." Could it be that some of the praise for literary excellence in the ESV is more direction to the medium than the message. That is, the ESV continues the great literary tradition of the Tyndale and KJV Bibles, which were great literature for their time and their audiences, and can continue to be studied as older great literature even today. So the ESV sounds good to the ears of those who like it. But perhaps when we actually get into the details of the message--I'm a detail man--and find so many examples of obscure and unnatural wordings, the evaluation may change.

I, for one, am put off by writing which is obscure and which does not follow the grammatical, rhetorical, and semantic rules of English as it is spoken and written by English authors widely recognized to produce great literature (e.g. Hemingway, Steinbeck, Angelou, Dickens). I have been reading the ESV and it is full of wordings which do not reflect quality English. I think the RSV, from which the ESV is only lightly revised in terms of literary quality, did not reflect quality English either. Both translations use obscure wordings, many of which are not part of the English lexicon.

It is only fair that I give a few examples here to support my literary evaluation of the ESV, and there are more examples in the ESV section of this blog, and I have even more examples in the pipeline:

I recognize that my assessment is not shared by the increasing number of Bible readers who seem to genuinely love the literary style of the ESV. Note Jake's enthusiastic review of the ESV, referred to in today's blog post on the ESV blog for a long, extremely positive review of the ESV, including high praise for its literary quality. And Jake is an undergraduate English major, surely not one who would lightly praise the literary quality of something unless he truly felt it to be of high quality. At this point, the best I can say, as was said in Phil Wade's blog entry, is that we differ in our assessments of the ESV. I respect Jake's evaluation and would like to learn more from him. I would like to sit down with him and examine specific passages in the ESV and ask him if they reflect literary excellence.

I would like to see more reviews of the ESV done by English professors and literary who are sensitive to the qualities that make for great literature in contemporary English. After reading such reviews, I may find out that I have a minority opinion about the ESV. I hope so, because I like to see English Bible versions highly valued and well used, meeting the needs of current English speakers.

I didn't want to write so forthrightly about the ESV this early in my posts on this blog. I prefer a strong inductive and empirical approach to analysis, where I build up a large database of examples which, to my mind, anyway, help support an analysis. There is a good start for this database in the ESV section of this blog, but there are a large number of other examples which have not yet been posted to the ESV section.

What do you think about the literary quality of the ESV? Have you heard differing literary critique about the ESV? Or has most of what you have heard been very positive about the literary quality of the ESV? How many of the literary critiques that you have about the ESV have been written by experienced critics of good quality English? The floor is now open to you; just click on the "comments" link directly below this post.



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