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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Should Bibles be majestic and magnificent, as well as clear?

This point, which I originally made well down the comment thread on Luke 17:3 -- TNIV singular "they", deserves the greater exposure of its own posting.

Steven wrote of Bible translation:
This requires a voice that transcends mere street gabble and current best-seller status. The language must be deliberate, nuanced, clear, and yes, when possible, even majestic.
Yes, I think I would largely agree, although not with "majestic" in places where there was nothing majestic about the original. There is a place for best-seller style Bibles like The Message, but probably not as main church or study Bibles. But the word "clear" used here certainly needs to be stressed. There is no place for Bibles which, in the name of majestic or elevated style, use words and constructions which are not clear and clearly understood by the target audiences.

Steven continued:
I don't demand that translators enshrine the King James Version as the apotheosis of translations, but a good translator, in great humility could learn a great deal from the philosophy that underlay the magnificence of that translation of the Bible.
Maybe, although they should not learn from many of the attitudes and actions of the KJV translators, or of its royal sponsor. But, I wonder, how much of the currently perceived "magnificence" of that translation stems from the translators' philosophy, and how much from the natural human tendency to set up anything old and well known as a model of beauty or "magnificence"?


At Sat Mar 18, 05:13:00 AM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

You might be interested in reading this article written by Cleland Boyd McAfee:

And quoted from "The Authorized Version, or King James Version, quickly became the standard for English-speaking Protestants. Its flowing language and prose rhythm has had a profound influence on the literature of the past 300 years."

Have a good day,

At Sat Mar 18, 07:46:00 AM, Blogger Talmida said...

According to Adam Nicolson's God's Secretaries, the KJV did not always use the dialect of the time - its translators consciously chose the English of a previous age, archaic expressions, so as to sound more "Godly".

If I think for a minute about what that means, it seems to imply that God is someone who is not present in my own time, who is not aware of my life.

It implies age - God is old, has he any relevance in my life.

The other disturbing factor, as Peter mentions, is the attitude of those translators: they wanted a majestic sounding Bible because the were supporting their own majesty: King James.

"There is no desire to please here; only a belief in the enormous and overwhelming divine authority, of which royal authority, 'the powers that be' as they translated the words of St Paul, was an adjuct and extension. [King] James once told parliament that he had about him 'sparkles of the divinity'. The Translators of the Bible clearly believed that and the majesty of their translation stems from its loyal belief in that divine-cum-regal authority."

Even we Canadians are beyond the Divine Right of Kings. It is simply no longer a part of our consciousness. Majestic language is a metaphor which has lost its meaning.

I don't think the Bible was intended to sound majestic in all places. What struck me most about looking at Genesis 1 this week was the sing song repetitious quality of much of it. As if it had been orally transmitted for years with regular choruses: "And so it happened", "And God saw that it was good". These were a people's oral history, their folk tales. They were not majestic, they were intimate. They were stories about their own personal ancestors.

Not that there might not be certain places in the Bible where majestic language suits, but each book needs to be looked at separately, and have its own voice, IMO.

At Sat Mar 18, 08:17:00 AM, Blogger KAT said...

Poetic? Yes (when called for). Majestic? I don't think so (Besides, I'm not even sure what that means).

To tie this in with another previous article posted here awhile back: Translation is best when it reflects and symbolizes the incarnation of the Son of God. It's a good rule of thumb, I think. Jesus was incarnated in the most human, humble, and down-to-earth way possible. So should Bible translation be.

Jesus didn't come to us like, for example, Krishna (the Hindu incarnation of the "Atman" i.e. an expression of Brahma). Which is to say, he didn't appear and speak to us in some kind of detached, otherworldly manner. He didn't have blue skin (as Krishna did). He came as a human being (albeit a perfect one). He came as one of us.

At Sat Mar 18, 08:54:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thank you, Talmida and Straylight. Your thinking is obviously similar to mine.

As for your comments, Nathan, I am of course aware of "The Influence of the King James Version on English Literature" and how great this has been. But in a way this proves my point. This work, whatever its original merits, has been set up as a model of literary style and has been this for centuries. I am not sure why it was originally chosen as such. McAfee mentions the Jacobean authors; perhaps it was not so much Shakespeare, for whom KJV came too late to be a major influence, as the slightly later royalist poets such as Donne and Herbert, and then a bit later still Milton and Bunyan who although not royalists did use KJV. Anyway, at that time KJV was set up as a model, and since then it has been held as such by a self-perpetuating tradition - for if the standard of measurement has KJV as the ideal, it is impossible to judge KJV as literature as anything other than perfect.

At Sat Mar 18, 10:22:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Doesn't this discussion bring us back to our (much) earlier discussion of the fact that no English translation seems to reflect the widely differing registers and styles of different sections of the Bible. The racy stories in Judges need a different style of English from the quasi-poetry of the prophets. Some parts use lots of hapax legomena presumably indicating a wider than usual vocabulary...

We need a translation that does NOT try for evenness. Not merely not always "majestic" but not always "deliberate" think Judges or "nuanced", think Amos lashing out at injustice - and possibly (e.g. Qohelet) not even always "clear"! Rather we need a translation that seeks to reflect all the lovely variety of voices, tones and registers of the original.

At Sat Mar 18, 10:26:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

PS, in response to Talmida: I hadn't thought of the language of Gen 1 as having a singsong intimacy, I've always been more struck by the polished smooth feel, like a pebble in a stream, and the cadenced solemnity of the opening words… I’ll have to explore more your feeling that the words are intimate.

At Sat Mar 18, 10:58:00 AM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

The King James Version had to struggle against the Geneva Bible, with its lavish annotations, and the Bishops' Bible, the previous official text, already available in churches. Its victory may have been a matter of publishing practice and politics as much as anything else. Even economics -- the full Geneva Bible circulate in expensive editions without losing most of its attractive features. It really becomes the primary source of Biblical quotations and allusions in the Restoration period, with a lot of carry-over from competitors. (Milton seems to have used every available "modern" translation in several languages, including Catholic ones, besides the Greek and Hebrew texts, and the Vulgate -- but he was a grand exceptionl)

As for the "majestic" nature of the Biblical text, a quick look at C.S. Lewis on "The Literary Influence of the Authorized Version" (1950; included in "Selected Literary Essays," 1969) should introduce the curious to how educated readers in other times and places found the language of the Septuagint and the Vulgate disturbingly "low," and went looking for allegorical meanings concealed by the "dross." Of course, some of these same critics felt the same way about Homer; both were always talking about people doing real, physical things, drawing analogies from everyday life, and showing kings as fallible human beings. So undignfied!

(I think Lewis underestimates the power of the Bible for readers not so completely caught up in the literary cultures of their own times as those he quotes; but the piece as a whole is quite illuminating.)

At Sat Mar 18, 11:19:00 AM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Perhaps the KJV translators, in purposefully using a a more formal style, were attempting to make their translation sound older, thus implying something traditional and permanent and artificially giving a seeming authority to their work.

From an entirely practical standpoint, I have used the KJV for funerals and weddings for that very reason--it's formal sounding enough for a formal occasion. Oh, and I recently used it when speaking in a nursing home because I knew that it was the translation that most residents would identify with. But I can't imagine using it for any other reasons, especially not speaking to a general audience.

Of course there are general audiences at weddings and funerals, obviously; but the occasion seems to call for that "majestic" (to use the word already mentioned in this blog entry) style. I never thought about this until an associate pastor read the 23rd Psalm from the REB at my aunt's funeral. Although the REB is recognized for it's literary quality, too, it still felt out of place when quoting such a familiar passage at such a formal occasion.

At Sat Mar 18, 12:13:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I discussed this with Dr. Packer and he mentioned that the KJV wasn't brisk, it was weighty and had gravity, specifically for the expression 'with child'. That sounds much better in English than 'in the belly'.

So definitely the KJV dressed up the language. The other main difference is that rhythm trumped clarity in the KJV. God moved over the 'face of the deep' rather than over the 'surface'. The stress pattern demanded either monosyllabic words or weak/strong stress pattern over strong/weak, i.e.'void' over 'empty' and 'upon' over 'on'.

At Sat Mar 18, 06:00:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Sat Mar 18, 10:54:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

I think sometimes is it difficult to actually know how "majestic" or "high" something like the KJV was to the
normal person back when it was first published. I don't know much of history - but I do wonder how a person who could read felt about the translation. For us now, it definitely has that "high" feeling. And I'm sure they did use language older than the tiems, but maybe not so much as to make it sound "high" as you have stated, but because of tradition and words that were normally used in the church at that time (there are things like that in our newer Bibles, for instance, John 3:16).

But this passage sticks out in my mind: "And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen."
(2 Peter 3:15-18) [bold added]

So if someone dumbs a translation down so far so as to make Paul, "easy to understand", to me, they have gone too far.

Peter, you said: "I am not sure why it was originally chosen as such."

Perhaps it was chosen as such because it was written as English should have been written at the time - maybe because it was an "English" translation rather than a "majestic" translation.
I don't know, but it's just a thought.


At Sun Mar 19, 10:00:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thank you, Nathan. You may well be right on the last point - although of course the tremendous prestige of the translation as having royal and church authority behind it played its part as well.

As for "So if someone dumbs a translation down so far so as to make Paul, "easy to understand", to me, they have gone too far.": I really don't see how it is possible to translate Paul's letters so that they are "easy to understand" - if the translation is reasonably accurate. For what is "hard to understand" about Paul's letters, in the original, is not their language but the complex theological concepts in them. Of course these concepts become even harder to understand if in a translation they are dressed up in archaic language and borrowed Greek syntax. Our task as translators is to render the language as clear as reasonably possible, except perhaps in rare places where the language in the original seems to be deliberately obscure, so that the hard theological concepts are made as plain as they can be. This is not dumbing down, I certainly don't mean that Paul's concepts should be simplified. But just as Paul's intention was to set forth the truth he taught plainly so that all could understand it (2 Corinthians 4:2, cf TNIV), so translators should seek to make his teachings as clear as they can be to their target audiences.

At Sun Mar 19, 05:36:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Sun Mar 19, 05:40:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Hi Peter,

I am sorry if I was being harsh - in reading my post again it seems as if it was.

I guess the reason for my posts was this: speaking about the motives of others is highly subjective, especially when those others are dead. In the guidelines of this site it is stated: "Please do not question the spirituality or motives of anyone, including Bible translation teams." but I felt you had questioned the spirituality and motives of the KJV translation team - it just seemed like anyone could have their own opinion without ever coming to a conclusion based on fact.

Again, that was only my impression - and looking back at it now - I doubt that was your intention.

I really do enjoy reading your posts - finding this site has really been a good thing for me. How exciting it is to know that so many are desiring good translation for the Word of God!

That being said I will comment on this:

You said, "I really don't see how it is possible to translate Paul's letters so that they are 'easy to understand'"

This is an extreme example and I don't think it is a normal thing but I just used it to make a point regarding translation.

From the God's Word Translation: "God saved you through faith as an act of kindness. You had nothing to do with it. Being saved is a gift from God. It's not the result of anything you've done, so no one can brag about it."
(Ephesians 2:8-9)

The word translated here as "kindness" is χάρις (charis) - now, the word kindness is very well understood by English speakers and therefore I don't think they would have any problem understanding these two verses even if they had never been exposed to Christianese.

But - is "kindness" really all that is going on in this verse? Sure, everyone understands it - but is it what the Author had in mind when He wrote it?

In English, I can be "kind" to someone because they did something good to me, or because they were "kind" to me before. But that totally misses the meaning of what most translations translate χάρις as in this case, being the word "grace".

Here I believe the translation has been so "dumbed down" that it loses it's meaning in the target language.

Sure, it's a very clear translation, but maybe "clear" in this sense is not a good thing. Maybe someone who has never been exposed to Christianity should have to wonder what the word, "grace" means and then ask someone (or look it up in a dictionary) in order that they have a right understanding of what God has done for us.

What do you think?

At Mon Mar 20, 02:34:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Nathan, thank you for your further comments.

Yes, you are right to point out that I may have transgressed the guidelines in my comments on the KJV translators, although I was thinking their actions and their publicly expressed attitudes rather than of their motives or their spirituality. Also I was not speculating; I was alluding to published material, specifically Adam Nicolson's God's Secretaries which Talmida also recommended. But I accept that this comment might have been out of place.

As for "kindness" as a rendering of χάρις charis, I would also be unsure whether this is appropriate. But I also see some sign of a fallacy here. Paul has taken quite a common Greek word, and in the teaching in his letters he has given a specifically Christian interpretation to this word. No one who had not been exposed to Christianity would have had to wonder what χάρις meant, although they would have had to learn Paul's teaching on how it applied to the Christian faith. No doubt Paul would have said that Christian χάρις differs from the χάρις of unbelievers, in much the same way as preachers today have to explain the difference between Christian love and worldly love. The fallacy comes when translators try to find a rendering of a word like χάρις which comes complete with all the correct Christian connotations in advance. Of course there is in general no such word - except perhaps for an otherwise obsolescent word like "grace" which is understood in the correct sense by some well taught Christians but by no one else. But if we start with a word which already incorporates Paul's full sense of the word, the interesting side-effect is that we nullify Paul's teaching on what grace is by turning it into tautology! No, instead we should do what Paul did, take a commonly used word which has roughly the correct meaning, and allow it to be filled with its full Christian meaning by the apostle's teaching. And "kindness" seems to be a reasonably suitable choice here.

Thus, in my opinion, rendering χάρις as "kindness" is not dumbing down Paul's teaching, it is rejecting the unwarranted "clevering up" (or whatever the opposite of "dumbing down" might be - this "clevering up" is not so much the responsibility of KJV or other older translators as of time leading to the near obsolescence of many senses of "grace") and returning it to the level of dumbness of the original.

At Mon Mar 20, 05:58:00 AM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Hi Peter, thanks for your reply.

I agree with you, "Paul has taken quite a common Greek word, and in the teaching in his letters he has given a specifically Christian interpretation to this word."

I hadn't really thought much about that - but I do believe it is a very, very difficult task to evaluate things in this sense. And to be honest, I am not sure how to apply it - but I will put it in my thoughts.

But as far as "kindness" being a good translation of χάρις I disagree (though you stated in beginning of your post that you, "would also be unsure whether this is appropriate." later in your post you said, "'kindness' seems to be a reasonably suitable choice here."

I think I disagree mainly because you run into a limited vocabulary by doing so (that might have to happen some, I know, but I don't think it is needed in this case). I believe there is another Greek word that is a lot closer to our word "kindness" being χρηστότης (chrēstotēs).

"so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus."
(Ephesians 2:7 ESV)

Here's how the God's Word Translation does it: "He did this through Christ Jesus out of his generosity to us in order to show his extremely rich kindness in the world to come." (Eph 2:7 GWT)

But later in Colossians 3:12, the God's Word Translation translates "χρηστότης" as "kind" - showing that they also feel that at least some times, the word denotes "kindness".

"As holy people whom God has chosen and loved, be sympathetic, kind, humble, gentle, and patient." (Col 3:12 GWT)

Thanks for interacting with me on this - it is good :)

Have a good day,

I just opened up my own blog regarding Bible translation in the Khmer language. I know you don't speak Khmer but if you are curious you can check it out here: It has English and Khmer (to view the Khmer you need the font which is explained on the page).

At Tue Mar 21, 03:14:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thank you, Nathan. As I said, I am unsure about "kindness" as a general translation of χάρις charis. It might be the best rendering in some places, for this Greek word has such a wide semantic range that it is unlikely to be translatable by just one English word. In general I would consider "favour" to be a more promising rendering in more places. I think it would work in Ephesians 2:8, but one would have to take care with a possible rendering like "as a favour" as that sounds a bit too trivial for God's charis.

At Wed Mar 22, 10:10:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

Peter et al,

I've posted on this subject from a slightly different angle on my blog, asking the question "How common was koine?"

I'd appreciate your input.


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