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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Lewis on translating into the vernacular

C.S. Lewis wrote:
In both [England and America] an essential part of the ordination exam ought to be a passage from some recognized theological work set for translation into vulgar English—just like doing Latin prose. Failure on this exam should mean failure on the whole exam. It is absolutely disgraceful that we expect missionaries to the Bantus to learn Bantu but never ask whether our missionaries to the Americans or English can speak American or English. Any fool can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test. If you can’t turn your faith into it, then either you don’t understand it or you don’t believe it.
(Published in The Christian Century, 31 December 1958, pp. 1006-1007.)

I wonder if Lewis would have said the same thing about the Bible being in vernacular "American or English"? I would hope so. Lewis was a good author. It's his kind of English and that used by a number of other good English (and "American") authors that I would like to see in English Bibles. We find it in J.B. Phillips' translation. We find it sometimes in passages in other English Bible versions. It would be wonderful to see it much more.

It's that kind of natural, vernacular translation that I keep crusading for on this blog. It results in better Bibles. Vernacular translation does not mean the end of good literary English in the Bible. On the contrary, some of the best literary English can appear in English Bibles. We just need to commit ourselves to pay as much attention to the quality of English in our translations as we do to the biblical languages we try to understand to translate them.

HT: Bradford Mercer via Adrian Warnock


At Wed Feb 07, 11:44:00 PM, Blogger John said...

I concur on the need for natural, vernacular translations. When I was 13 and 14 years old, before reading widely and deeply in English literature, the only translation that spoke to me was the Good News Bible. I am grateful for that kind of translation, and I know that many people's degree of literacy is at that level no matter what their age.

But I also think there is room for at least three other kinds of translations. It's a both/and kind of thing. In a previous parish, I remember receiving a memorial gift designated for the purchase of pew Bibles. The question to decide: what translation to buy. I gave the worship committee a choice of three translations: the NRSV, the NIV, and the ESV. The choice was easy for them: the ESV. Of course. They were raised on the RSV, and were, generally speaking, very well-read people. The NRSV and NIV did not resonate with them like the ESV does.

In the same congregation, I had one person who I would sometimes ask to read Scripture before my sermon. She is an English professor and an author in her own right. She would read from the KJV, and it worked beautifully. She could make that translation sing, and enunciate it in such a way that we caught its nuances. A rare gift, to be sure.

Finally, there is a place for paraphrases like Peterson's The Message. They defamiliarize the text for us, and thus allow it to speak to us afresh.

I'm cross-posting this over at

At Thu Feb 08, 01:35:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Thu Feb 08, 07:01:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

We don't need to speculate, since C.S. Lewis explained exactly that he preferred the Knox translation (May 28 1949 letter to Rhonda Bodle, Collected Letters, vol. 2 -- I don't actually have this translation in front of me at the moment, but I pulled up the letter from Amazon's book search). An alternative was Moffatt's translation, which he discounts as not being as "literary" as Knox.

You'll certainly be aware that the Knox translation is a Catholic translation from the Vulgate (Knox converted from Anglicanism to Rome). Lewis's second preference is for Chesterton's The Eternal Man, a solidly Catholic retelling of the gospels, that he used as his spiritual compass. Lewis elsewhere recommends Mauriac's Vie de Jesus, another solidly Catholic retelling.

The omission of Goodspeed from his list is particularly telling.

One concludes that Lewis didn't really care for translations in anything like the contemporary sense, he preferred the story to be retold by a writer who help views close to his own Anglo-Catholic perspective.

At Thu Feb 08, 10:57:00 AM, Blogger John said...

Anonymous makes some helpful observations. Why Lewis would prefer the Knox translation, however, is more than a question of adherence to an anglo-Catholic point of view.

It's a question of wanting to slake one's thirst from the same river of tradition the church has depended on for thousands of years. For a mediavalist, it's a question of wanting to read from the same Bible as did those of that golden age.

For an analogy, in Jewish tradition, the traditional way to study the Bible is from the original (in Hebrew), in the "canonical" Aramaic translation (= Vulgate), and through the eyes of Rashi, ibn Ezra, and so on (in Hebrew).
Nowadays, an English translation is also used, often the one listed as "Tanakh" on this site (NJPSV).

At Thu Feb 08, 11:12:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

In speculating on what translation Lewis might have liked, it is worth remembering that in 1949 his choice was very limited. He preferred Knox to Moffatt, but I doubt if he had any mainline translations to compare them with apart from KJV and English RV, and perhaps also Weymouth. American translations like Goodspeed and even ASV would have been only marginally accessible in the UK at that period. I wonder if there is any record of what he thought of RSV, or of the NEB New Testament, both published in his lifetime but not in 1949. Well, the RSV New Testament was published in New York in 1946, but I suspect it was not well known the UK until some time later.

At Fri Feb 09, 03:56:00 PM, Blogger Joe said...

"We just need to commit ourselves to pay as much attention to the quality of English in our translations as we do to the biblical languages we try to understand to translate them."

A very signigicant statement!


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