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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

How Bible found a popular language

This recent article in the Boston Globe on the history of and tensions over translating the Bible into the vernacular is interesting.

Rich Barlow, the journalist, begins:
As old as faith is humanity's craving for faith expressed in the local tongue. We want to praise the incomprehensible divine in comprehensible language.
He ends:
Is the vernacular an unalloyed good? For those traditionalist Catholics in the 1960s, the fact that they might not have understood Latin only added to the mysterious allure of the Mass, a fitting tribute to the majesty of their God.

Hill feels sympathy for the sentiment. But more important to worship than sound or ritual, she argued, is meaning. The people of God should understand what they're saying to God.
For those who are not traditionalist Catholics, but who prefer traditionalist Bible translations, we could paraphrase:
the fact that they might not have understood the Church English only added to the mysterious allure of traditionalist Bible versions, a fitting tribute to the majesty of their God.
I think that there is a sincere desire among many to honor the majesty of God using non-vernacular language. Obscure, mysterious, outdated, non-standard language helps give them a feeling of sacredness and majesty. I, on the other hand, am a language populist. I prefer the approach of Jerome, Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Luther to use the vernacular (i.e. common language) for Bible translations. I find majesty in the power of the biblical message expressed in standard dialects of English spoken today.

20 Comments:

At Wed Aug 30, 03:14:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

I agree with your desire to have the Bible in contemporary (meaning current) and standard dialects. However, I have to admit that I do love a good sounding classic translation, or one in which a formal level of language is observed as well.

I see a place for both, based on the needs of the reader.

 
At Wed Aug 30, 08:16:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I see a place for both, based on the needs of the reader.

I do, too, Matthew. I just think we need to be open about what we want. For instance, I think it is inappropriate for some to decry the use of the vernacular for English versions. It is inappropriate for the same reasons that decrying use of the vernacular for the Bible always has been. I think that's the point of the Boston Globe article.

There is a place for nostalgia and perceived literary beauty in older style English. I don't knock it. But I do desire that people who prefer the vernacular would be allowed to do so without being considered less educated or things like that.

I grew up on the KJV. I still have its lines running through my brain. It is the version I use to locate familiar passages in my computer Bible programs. Does the KJV speak to my mind as well as my soul as well as Bibles written in the current vernacular? No, not to me. Perhaps it does to some, and if it does, I am glad for them.

 
At Wed Aug 30, 10:39:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

Wayne commented, "...allowed to do so without being considered less educated or things like that.

This is a serious problem that I have seen on a frequent basis. Many times people assume that someone is incompetent simply by seeing what translation they prefer. The unfortunate fact for these "assumers", is that I have known quite a few rather intelligent (and even some brilliant) individuals who do in fact prefer an "easier" translation.

Anon said, "A translation which conveys the directness, humor, poetry, divinity, obscurity, and intensity of the original is the most faithful."

The unfortunate part about this is that translations are terribly really stupendously inconsistent on what they do render. What I mean is, sometimes irony or sarcasm just doesn't come through in a translation (whether it be literal or functional), while in another translation they pull it off beautifully.

I have found that literal and functional translations are very hit and miss at bringing out features such as this during the translation process. Obviously, some are better than others.

 
At Thu Aug 31, 02:43:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

"Over a score of generations grew up with the KJV" - this may be good rhetoric, but it is not literally true. Even with a minimum generation span of 20 years, "over a score" is at least 21 so this requires a minimum of 420 years, but KJV has not yet been published for 400.

 
At Thu Aug 31, 08:15:00 AM, Blogger Dave Spaun said...

One thing to perhaps consider, although many of you may already be aware of this:

If I'm reading the original preface to the KJV correctly, it seems as though the translators of what many now consider to be an 'archaic' or 'formal' or 'non-vernacular' Bible was in fact intended to be a Bible for the common person in their language.

Here is a link, note especially pages 4, 6, and 7:
http://www.ccel.org/bible/kjv/preface/pref1.htm

Note that, ironically enough, the preface I linked to is in updated English!

At any rate, it seems as though the 'keep it formal, keep it safe' contingent has been aroung a long time, indeed (note especially the 'anti-KJV' arguments being anticipated/responded to on p. 7).

Anyway, food for thought, perhaps.

 
At Thu Aug 31, 08:37:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

The truth is, however, that the Greek and Hebrew Bibles are themselves obscure and contain archaisms. Native residents of Greece or Israel cannot read the Bible in the original without special training.

And this, of course, is because there has been so much language change between when the originals were written and what people speak and read today. Again, I think that it is helpful to have translations in the vernacular for current speakers.

This does not mean that there is not value in older translations. They do have value and some people have the motivation, energy, and minds that can access older translations and gain from what they offer.

 
At Thu Aug 31, 08:40:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Put another way, I think people should be allowed to read sophisticated translations without being considered as ungodly or snobbish or loving mystery or things like that.

I agree. Prejudice of any kind toward any reading preferences are inappropriate. I intended no prejudice in my post, but I do apologize if my post communicated any.

 
At Thu Aug 31, 09:02:00 AM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

Anon said, "And yet, I do think we have a responsibility to push and stretch students..."

I strongly agree with you here. This begs the age old question: Do we bring Shakespeare down to the reader, or the reader up to Shakespeare? I for one, and it appears you as well, am of the opinion that we should do our best to bring the student/reader up. Now, I understand that there will always be cases where this is impractical or impossible; but it stands to reason that, on the whole, most can be brought up.

The entire subject is so... "subjective". I find it frustrating occasionally.

Let say this though. I have had people ask me what translation they should move too. Typically, they are currently using a "simple" translation. If I know them well enough, and know that they are intelligent I usually recommend a more formal translation. They usually respond, "Do you think I am smart enough?" or "Do you think I can handle that?" To which I usually quip, "Absolutely, you look smart enough to me!"

The point is this, some people have been led to believe that all they can understand are the simplified translations! When the truth is that most people are capable of much more. We have a culture/society where you feel you are either average, stupid or brilliant. The truth is that there are many gray areas, and the lines between average, stupid and brilliant are incredibly thin.

Just my thoughts, don't take them too seriously.

 
At Thu Aug 31, 10:07:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Greek and Hebrew Bibles are themselves obscure and contain archaisms.

I think we are going to have to establish that there are significant differences between the Greek and Hebrew scriptures. This is recognized in the most off hand way in any good book on literary hermeneutics. Hebrew falls closer to poetry, and is extremely difficult to translate with any kind of fidelity. But the Greek is truly not that hard. Yes, the interpretation is sometimes obscure but the language is truly not.

I would find the GNB, (I assume, Anon, you did not mean the GNT the Greek New Testament) an acceptable way of getting around a translation that uses Latinizations like justification, propitiation, etc. This is simply not acceptable or in any way equivalent to the effect of reading the NT in Greek.

I believe I am in good company with many other readers of Greek in finding that the GNB opens up the Greek in a way that the older translations do not.

And the KJV may be of ultimate importance in understanding English literature, akin to Shakespeare, but surely that is not what we are talking about.

Why didn't she choose a translation that would express the complexity and depth of Scripture -- one that would improve their ability in English -- one that would give them the confidence to tackle any English language translation?

Why indeed?!! Are you reducing scripture to the status of a tool in an English class? Are you trying to reinstate the generic 'he'? Or is this just the usual rant that high school teachers can expect from university profs, and high school teachers then pass on to elementary school teachers and they pass on to parents, and parents to their genes and so on.

I do concede that the Hebrew text has a lot more to it than the usual translation supplies, but I am not entirely sure what to do about that.

Put another way, I think people should be allowed to read sophisticated translations without being considered as ungodly or snobbish or loving mystery or things like that.

Absolutely!

In the meantime, you wouldn't happen to have an electronic copy of the Buber-Rosenzweig tr. would you? I can't find a copy of any kind at the moment and I am feeling a little ticked off at English for the moment.

 
At Thu Aug 31, 10:23:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Good News Translation (GNT) is now the publisher's official name for what was previously known as the Good News Bible (GNB) or Today's English Version (TEV). Confusing, I know.

 
At Thu Aug 31, 10:59:00 AM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

Suzanne said, "Are you trying to reinstate the generic 'he'? in relation to what Anon had said.

Paranoid much?

"Or is this just the usual rant that..."

And what was said is therefore useless? Because it appears, to you, "usual"?

Interesting.

 
At Thu Aug 31, 11:40:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

We have a culture/society where you feel you are either average, stupid or brilliant. The truth is that there are many gray areas, and the lines between average, stupid and brilliant are incredibly thin.

Gray areas or gray matter?!

:-)

 
At Thu Aug 31, 11:53:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Good News Translation (GNT) is now the publisher's official name for what was previously known as the Good News Bible (GNB) or Today's English Version (TEV). Confusing, I know.

Yes, I even remember now reading the reason for that switch.

 
At Thu Aug 31, 11:06:00 PM, Blogger G. D. Grubbs said...

Some of the comments have reminded me to ask where I would find the best information on which translations to use of classics by such as Homer and Dante. I prefer good English, but also prefer a true picture of the original (like my Bible preferences). I have read Richmond Lattimore's translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, but have to wonder if they are the best.

Can anyone point the way?

 
At Fri Sep 01, 02:41:00 PM, Blogger G. D. Grubbs said...

In discussing Homer in English, I should have mentioned Lombardo. If Fitzgerald can be compared with the RSV and Fagles with the REB and Wyatt with the NASB, then we could compare Lombardo with the NLT.

I love that comparison! So, which Bible translation would you compare Lattimore with?

 
At Fri Sep 01, 06:06:00 PM, Blogger G. D. Grubbs said...

Again, I appreciate your wonderful comments, Anon.

contemporary Bible translations are concerned with over-interpretation and simplification of the meaning of the translation with little thought at all to the form of Biblical language. We just as well could read Cliff's notes.

Amen!

 
At Sat Sep 02, 05:35:00 AM, Blogger G. D. Grubbs said...

How about Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle?

 
At Sat Sep 02, 06:10:00 AM, Blogger G. D. Grubbs said...

Also, Anon, forgot to ask, but if you have the 2006 HCSB, would you think it worth it to buy the 1993 one (at full price)?

 
At Sat Sep 02, 06:16:00 AM, Blogger G. D. Grubbs said...

Actually, not full price - just the usual Amazon type price ($26-27).

 
At Sat Sep 02, 05:58:00 PM, Blogger G. D. Grubbs said...

I only asked about the HCSB because some of your comparison left the impression that the newer one may in fact not be better at all (perhaps not as good as the older one).

Thanks for the information on the philosophers. I don't think I'll be reading through 23 volume sets anytime soon!

 

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