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Saturday, December 31, 2005

E.V. Rieu & J.B. Phillips

Many essays on Bible translation today focus on the contrast between a formal and dynamic equivalence approach. However, that is only one aspect of translation. Here is a classic 1955 conversation to uplift our hearts. (Sorry Wayne, let me rephrase that as "to cheer us up") Throughout the dialogue one can see the two participants coming to a greater understanding of each other's translation method. Their mutual respect and openness impressed me.

A Discussion Between Dr. E.V. Rieu and the Rev. J.B. Phillips reprinted on the Bible Research Site.


Now, my personal reason for doing this was my own intense desire to satisfy myself as to the authenticity and the spiritual content of the Gospels and, if I received any new light by an intensive study of the Greek originals, to pass it on to others. I approached them in the same spirit as I would have approached them had they been presented to me as recently discovered Greek manuscripts, rather like the Old Testament manuscripts which a year or two ago were found in that cave in Palestine. That is the spirit in which I undertook my task, to find out new things.


My story goes back to the days of the blitz when I was in London and in charge of a fairly large youth group. I'd always found the Epistles particularly inspiring and full of spiritual help, but these young people quite plainly couldn't make head or tail of them in the Authorized Version; these were not for the most part church young people at all. And when during the blackout I attempted to while the time [152] away by reading to them from the Authorized Version, quite honestly they couldn't make any sense of it at all.

So in a very small and amateur sort of way I began to translate them from the Greek, simply in order that they might understand them. I think I began with Colossians. And then I had a bit of luck, because something prompted me to send a copy of Colossians to C.S. Lewis, whose works I at that time was greatly admiring. And he wrote back these most encouraging words: "It's like seeing an old picture that's been cleaned. Why don't you go on and do the lot?" Well, I took his advice, and I did eventually translate all the Epistles, and they were published as "Letters to Young Churches." ...

I do so agree, if I may put it in here, with what Doctor Rieu has said about disabusing one's mind of the Authorized Version or any other version that one has in mind. I also tried to forget about everything I'd ever read in the way of translating, or indeed of interpretation, and to read the Greek documents on their own merits, let them strike me with their impact, if they had any impact, as something I'd never seen before. Of course, one can't altogether succeed in this, but I did try to do it. Well, that very briefly is how it started with me
Rieu comments here on the use of the term 'paraphrase'.

The word is much misused, by the way; it is often used as a term of abuse for very good translation. I should put it in this way, that it is permissible only where literal translation is liable to obscure the original meaning. I would go further and say that on such occasions it is not only permissible, but it is imperative, and therefore it becomes good translation, and the word 'paraphrase' should disappear.


I sometimes wonder, Doctor Rieu, whether our critics realize what a very difficult task we set ourselves. They criticize this, that, and the other — but it means a good deal of headache for us, doesn't it? What I don't think some of them realize, you know, is that we have to come down on one side or the other. A critic or commentator may say this may mean A or B, or even C or D, but you and I have to come down one side or the other.

I would like to reiterate this point, i.e. that a translator, every translator, has to make a choice, a human choice, about how to translate the Greek text. There are no exceptions. A close reading of this discussion will show that these two men did make different translation choices, but they were able to talk amicably about these differences and come to a greater understanding of each other and the translation process.


At Sat Dec 31, 01:39:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Oh, that we might today work toward talking to each other about translation differences as these Christian scholars did several decades ago. The destructive criticism of Bible versions in the past few years harms the kingdom of God, IMO. It is far better to share our differences graciously as Rieu and Phillips did. There is no need to question spiritual or biblical commitment or motivations of Bible translators with whom we disagree.

Disagreements can be aired without resorting to boycotts and banning of sales of translations which we do not care for, and accusations made on so many radio programs when no opportunity is given for the other side to present evidence for its translation decisions.

At Sat Dec 31, 04:51:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Suzanne, I have just read through this whole article and I thank you for posting a reference to it. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I wonder if I could ask you translators to comment on this particular passage from Rieu:

'...when I talk of the Gospels as "supreme works of literary art," I am thinking rather of the skill with which their very miscellaneous contents were put together: that I think is a work of consummate art. Then again we have to consider whom they were written for. I came to the conclusion very soon that they were written, not for the man in the street, whose existence I do not really believe in, but for the man in the congregation, and that we must not write down to him, that he will not thank us for writing down to him. There is good reason for thinking that the original audience of the Gospels found them just as difficult as we do; and if therefore we paraphrase or lower our standard of English in order to make things crystal clear to the so-called man in the street, we're going beyond our jobs as translators'.

What do you think?

Tim (Chesterton)

At Sat Dec 31, 09:36:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Hi Tim,

First, this comment reflects some of the tension between Phillips and Rieu. Rieu didn't want to reduce the reading level of the text, Phillips did. Here is a link about Bible Translation Reading Levels.

As an aside I should mention that any reading level indicator is only a relative measure. What actual grade level the text is and by how much it is more difficult than the next text is highly debatable. However, the relative reading levels should be reliable. For comparison sake the John Grisham novel that I read a few days ago is rated at a grade 5 reading level. This in part reflects the difference between a teacher supported level and an independent level. Generally we want to at least have a Bible at the grade 5 - 6 level or lower and here is why.

This is from literature on readability and perseverance from the 1940's.

The Priniciples of Readability by William H. Dubay. 2004.

Donald Murphy (1947), the editor of Wallace’s Farmer, used a split run with an article written at the 9th-grade level on one run and on at the 6th-grade level on the other run. He found that increasing readability increased readership up of the article 18 percent.

In a second test, he took great care not to change anything except readability, keeping headlines, illustrations, subject matter and the position the same. He found readership increases of 45% for an article on nylon and 60% for an article on corn.

Wilbur Schramm (1947) showed that a readable style contributes to the readers’ perseverance, also called depth or persistence, the tendency to keep reading the text.

Charles E. Swanson (1948) showed that better readability increases reading perseverance as much as 80 percent. He developed an easy version of a story with 131 syllables per 100 words and a hard version with 173 syllables and distributed each to 125 families. A survey of readers taken 30 hours after distribution showed a gain in the easier version over the hard version of 93% of total paragraphs read, 83% in mean number of paragraphs read, and 82% in the number of correspondents reading every paragraph.

Bernard Feld (1948) grouped 101 stories from the Birmingham News into those with high Flesch scores, requiring 9th-grade education or more and those with low scores, requiring less than 9th-grade education. He found readership differences of 20 to 75 percent favoring the low-score versions. Feld’s findings indicated that even a small actual percentage gain for a large-circulation paper greatly increased the number of readers.

That is the kind of study that has influenced translators to reduce the reading level.

At Mon Jan 02, 06:11:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Tim quoted an interesting passage from E.V. Rieu, but one which (without further context) seems to me a bit confused. Is Rieu's contrast between "the man in the street" and "the man in the congregation" (which he probably meant in a gender generic sense, in 1955) intended to be one of educational levels or between churchgoers and the unchurched? Or is he simply assuming a correlation between education and churchgoing, one which is sadly quite strong even now in England, and especially in the Church of England? That is, churches are full of well educated people, but the less educated mostly stay away - quite different from the USA, I understand. Phillips also reflects this correlation in his comments on those who needed a translation with a lower reading level and "were not for the most part church young people at all".

If Rieu's primary point is about education and reading level, I am sure that he is wrong, at least concerning the gospels. The original audiences for the gospels were surely ordinary people, and so the gospels (with perhaps a few exceptions like Luke 1:1-4) were written in very ordinary and quite simple language so that anyone could understand them. When Phillips read the KJV aloud to his young people, they did not understand it, but I am sure that when the original gospels were read aloud in congregations they were understood even by people who had no formal education at all.

But if Rieu's point is in fact that the Bible is intended for believers in congregations, rather than for unchurched non-Christians, that is a quite different point. Again it is not one which I fully agree with. Maybe not all of the Bible is for non-believers, but surely the gospels are for them, as well as for the church. And I would certainly insist that the Bible is for new Christians, the vital food for them to grow. It should be made immediately accessible to new Christians, and to those who have not been regular churchgoers; therefore it should not be translated in language which can be understood only by long-term churchgoers who have been brought up to understand a particular style of language.

Here is an interesting quotation from Rieu's introduction to his translation The Four Gospels (Penguin Classics, 1952), p.x:

Dr C.S. Lewis has gone further. He roundly states that 'the New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art'. // I protest against these views...

Well, in rejecting some of Rieu's views, I stand with C.S. Lewis!

By the way, I knew E.V. Rieu's son C.H. Rieu, also a classical scholar, who translated the book of Acts as a companion volume for his father's Four Gospels - as part of the Penguin Classics series of which E.V. Rieu was the general editor. In later years C.H. Rieu was my headmaster.

At Mon Jan 02, 12:42:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Hi Peter,

That is very interesting. Did you read what Rieu said about his son in the interview?

I agree with you that the Greek is not so obscure as the traditional English translations, and have given the example of 'Gentiles' in English with 'ethné' in Greek.

Can you add to my comment about the practice of literacy in NT times?

At Mon Jan 02, 02:26:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Peter, I'm with you on the Bible needing to be intelligible to new Christians, but I'm wondering how, in the original setting of the first written gospels, non-Christians would have had any physical access to them? How precisely could they be for non-believers?

As for Lewis' comment, surely you're not denying that a book like 'Revelation' is a work of literary art, are you?

Tim C.

At Mon Jan 02, 04:44:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Tim, I wonder what you, and C.S. Lewis, mean by "a work of literary art". If the point is that it is written in very beautiful language etc, I would say that Revelation certainly is not. I'm not sure even that its literary structure is anything very special. Would someone who didn't believe a word of it still value it as literature, based on the original text only? I wonder. I think C.S. Lewis' answer to this was "No".

As for the gospels being made available to non-believers, that is an interesting question. I know very little about the market in books etc in the first century, but I suspect that copies could have been sold publicly - although of course at a price only the rich could afford. Luke's gospel was probably written for a rich patron who may well not have been a Christian, at least openly, and may well have had it read in his home, to his servants and his guests. John's gospel was written explicitly "that you may believe", although we are left to guess how it got into the hands of those who did not already believe.

At Mon Jan 02, 04:51:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Suzanne, thanks for pointing me to Rieu's comments about his son. The son, presumably my headmaster (but it could have been a brother), said: "It will be very interesting to see what Father makes of the Gospels. It'll be still more interesting to see what the Gospels make of Father." Well, it was interesting to see what Acts made of the son - certainly not a very conventional Christian, but a good headmaster although of course none of us schoolboys would have admitted it at the time. Interestingly, he introduced teaching Russian into the school (this was in the late 1960s), because he thought the Russians were coming, and probably rather hoped they were!

At Thu Jan 05, 10:41:00 PM, Blogger Neonlinux said...

Has anyone here ever read Cassirer's translation of the NT?

It happens to be one of my preferred translations to read.


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