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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

An outsider's view of a Bible controversy

It is somewhat unusual to find a view on a controversy related to Bible translations expressed by someone writes "I'm not a Christian", which goes beyond praise for the supposed literary excellence of the King James Version. Indeed that is just where Tim Footman starts his article in The Guardian, one of the UK's main left-leaning newspapers. What is interesting is the direction he takes it in.

The background for this is the work in progress on translating the Bible into Jamaican Patois, a language in which there is so far no Scripture although it is the mother tongue of five million people. Eddie Arthur reported several months ago on the controversy in Jamaica about this project, linked to a Christianity Today article, and then wrote a follow-up post. But it has taken until today for the Church Times (yes, and the contributors to this blog) to take any notice of this controversy. The new post at the Church Times blog is prompted by an article in the right-leaning Telegraph (actually not their first article about this) which quotes "Former Conservative Minister Ann Widdecombe, who left the Church of England to become a Roman Catholic" (she left because she could not accept ordination of women), who
said: "It's one thing to turn the Bible into modern vernacular, but to turn it into patois is utterly ridiculous. When you dumb down you take away any meaning it might have."

She said that she supported attempts to widen the readership of the Bible, but believes that this goes too far.

Well, Ms Widdecombe, do you actually realise that this is not "dumbing down" but translation into a foreign language, even if it is one which has some superficial resemblances to English?

It is to these comments, and similar ones from Prudence Dailey of the Prayer Book Society, that Tim Footman responds. After accepting, as a non-Christian, that his preference for the King James Version is purely aesthetic, he writes perceptively:
If I believed that people's only hope of avoiding hellfire was by accepting Jesus Christ as their saviour, then I'd want his message packaged in the most accessible shape or form. If sinners respond best to theological versions of chick lit and James Blunt, that's what the church should offer, ideally without jettisoning the old stuff entirely. It's bums on pews and souls in the right place that matter, not the Booker prize.
Yes, Tim, you are right. And since I do believe your premise (although I wouldn't primarily express my belief in terms of hellfire), I accept your conclusions, not so much about "bums on pews" but certainly about "souls in the right place". But, he continues,
Funnily enough, some people who profess to be Christians don't appear to think this way.
- and proceeds to quote Widdecombe and Dailey. Then he makes the following sensible comments (although I don't expect my American readers to understand the "MCC tie" reference!):
These are exactly the arguments that traditionalists used against the reforms of Vatican II, which led to the Catholic mass being said in a language that most of the congregation could actually understand; the same arguments, in fact, against translating the Bible itself into languages other than Latin in the first place.

The most significant aspects of their religion would appear to be the social and political, rather than the spiritual. They speak of a Christianity not of love and forgiveness and justice, but of order and tradition and control, a society frozen at some point in about 1860. Everyone knows his or her status: the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate; women content to polish the pews and make the tea; gay people utterly invisible. If Jamaicans wish to hear the word of God, it must be enunciated in cut-glass tones; Tunbridge Wells, not Trenchtown. God, after all, sports an MCC tie.

This whole attitude strikes me as being a tad un-Christian. But what do I know? I'm just a poor bloody heathen. And the more I hear from Widdecombe and Dailey and their ilk, the more likely I am to stay that way.

I wonder if Widdecombe and Dailey, and others who express similar views like Dr Leland Ryken, realise what kind of witness they are being to outsiders like Tim Footman. And if they did, would they care, or do they consider preservation of 17th century English literary style more important than saving the lost?


At Tue Oct 14, 02:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post.

They speak of a Christianity not of love and forgiveness and justice, but of order and tradition and control...


Mr. Footman is quite perceptive. And to bring in the Latin. It seems some of the reformers have come full circle, at least as far as having the Scriptures in one's native language.

Very good post indeed.

At Tue Oct 14, 03:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

brilliant stuff and you linked to my boss too whose blog I hadn't yet discovered...

At Tue Oct 14, 03:32:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

Did anyone else think of Isaiah 7:13-17?

That's where Isaiah prophesies of the Assyrians being used by God to judge a rebellious people. So, imagine that: a non-Christian rebuking professing Christians about the a most basic need of people in Jamaica.

The text is also the place where Emanuel is spoken of. "God with us." I think of Bible translation when I think of "God with us." Good translation is an incarnation type of event.

Well, is it a good day or a bad day when unbelievers tell believers the goal of Bible translation?

I guess that depends!

At Tue Oct 14, 03:38:00 PM, Blogger Dru said...

I agree with you Peter, but I'm not sure I agree totally with Tim Footman's explanation. Undoubtedly there's a flavour of superiority about much support for the AV, and even more so when it comes to the Prayer Book Society - though doubtless the blessed Anne wouldn't reckon much to them these days. But IMHO all this stuff about the rich man at his castle is a bit too obviously Guardian.

The other tremendous advantage of having the Bible or the Prayer Book in C16/17 English, is it can wash over you in an antique glow, and you don't actually have to listen to what it says.

If patois is your normal language, a Bible in standard English possibly has much the same de-immediate effect that a Bible in C17 has for most of us.

At Tue Oct 14, 03:40:00 PM, Blogger Naomisu Onamy said...


As an Aussie, my first acquaintance with an 'MCC tie' which contained a nugget of its social importance was an episode of the "DangerMouse" cartoon series. DangerMouse asks his sidekick, the very cute but always frightened hamster, Penfold: "Is that the Marylebone Cricket Club tie you are wearing?" Penfold replies with a quaky voice in his very plummy English accent : "No, it is the Metropolitan Congress of Cowards."

From when I first learnt New Testament Greek, I thought that what is called "the historic present" actually fits very well into an older Australian pub scene - before swear words completely took over. It reminds me of how stories were often related: "A man went into a pub and he goes up to the counter and . . ." I thought I might have had a go a translating several such passages from the New Testament into 'Aussie pub speak' but I think I may have missed my chance as Australian society has accepted the use of far more swear words that I can handle.

PS No I have not frequented Australian pubs, especially not as a child of a loving Methodist father but know of this unusual use of present and simple past combined from my reading and television watching. And Australian had for many years until recently only allowed men into the public bars of pubs and women and children were only allowed into what was termed a "beer garden". (Just a little view of another English speaking society.)

At Wed Oct 15, 05:49:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thanks for the comments. Mike, I thought of Isaiah 29:13. Naomisu, I thought you Aussies would recognise MCC ties from watching the Ashes.

Eddie Arthur has written yet more about this subject, including a link here. He has also linked to an article in today's Independent, another left-leaning newspaper, which has even stronger words in favour of the patois translation:

Anyone who proposes the suppression, or the non-beginning of a translation into a language or dialect is speaking out against learning and knowledge.

The author even appeals, if rather tongue in cheek, for funds for the project! Maybe the Bible Societies will actually get some help.

At Thu Oct 16, 12:00:00 PM, Blogger Glennsp said...

I'm just a little curious as to when Dr Ryken expressed the opinion that the Bible shouldn't be translated into another language, which I believe was supposed to be the subject under discussion.
Personally I am not aware of any such viewpoint being expressed by Dr Ryken.

At Thu Oct 16, 02:47:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Glenn, Dr Ryken has not suggested that the Bible should not be translated into any other language. But with regard to efforts "to turn the Bible into modern vernacular" (which incidentally Ann Widdecombe accepts, so Ryken's view is stronger) he has expressed sentiments similar to "When you dumb down you take away any meaning it might have", and rejected ones like "I'd want his message packaged in the most accessible shape or form."

At Thu Oct 16, 03:35:00 PM, Blogger Glennsp said...

Arrgh, "similar to" ummm, but what has he actually said as opposed to your approximations Peter?

At Thu Oct 16, 03:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pick up any of Ryken's books and you'll see what Peter is saying. Ryken is very upfront about it.

At Thu Oct 16, 05:34:00 PM, Blogger solarblogger said...

I find the idea intriguing that a Bible translation would likely regularize the language. Perhaps the main reason Patois ISN'T seen as a full language is the fact that it has not had its own Bible yet.

Rather than dumbing down the Bible, a translation like this might smarten up a language. I'm sure it already has its own genius. But several European languages have been raised through a similar process.

At Thu Oct 16, 07:08:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just reread Leland Ryken's chapter in Translating Truth to refresh my memory. It was worse than I thought.

In the final paragraph of the chapter (on page 76) he writes about "the current debate" between supporters of "essentially literal translation theory" and "devotees of dynamic equivalence". He concludes:

What is at stake is whether the Bible reading public will return to the real Bible or accept a substitute for it.

At Fri Oct 17, 10:21:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Glenn, thanks for your challenge. Stan has of course partly answered it. But I wanted to look for something more specific. So I tried looking through Ryken's book The Word of God in English. And I was a little surprised by what I found, for example this quotation (p.92):

Within the confines of accuracy to the original text, a translation should strive to achieve maximum readability by avoiding obsolete words and demonstrably archaic language ...

So, why did Ryken fail to meet this standard with ESV, of which he was the stylistic editor, a translation which is full of "obsolete words and demonstrably archaic language"? I guess that he would explain this in terms of the following (pp.92-93, his emphasis changed from italic to bold):

Readability in an English Bible translation should not be defined in terms of being the simplest English prose that we can produce. It should always be defined in terms of maximum readability within the parameters of the true nature of the biblical text as it stands in the original.

The problem here is that this principle can be used to justify syntactic and conceptual complexity, but it offers no justification for the lexical and syntactic archaism found in ESV.

So what might Ryken recommend to speakers of Jamaican Patois who, I presume, have some schooling in standard English? He tackles this in his "Fallacy #1: Contemporary Bible Readers Have Low Intellectual and Linguistic Abilities" (p.103ff). He clarifies this fallacy (p.104):

The fallacy is not that we need a Bible for readers of low ability. In a day of declining reading ability, we do, indeed, need simplified translations for some early readers en route to more accurate and more dignified translations as an ultimate goal. The fallacy addressed here is that of assuming impaired readers to be the norm for readers of the English Bible.

I suppose that he might accept that the Jamaicans I refer to are among his "some early readers", although his discussion seems to be entirely USA-centred.

Similarly, in his "Fallacy #2: The Bible Is Read Mainly by People
Unfamiliar with It" (p.108ff) he does allow that there is a place for missionary translations, which might include one in Patois.

So perhaps I am not being fair to Ryken in suggesting that he would reject the whole concept of a Bible in Jamaican Patois. But it seems clear that he would consider it to be some kind of second class "simplified translation" to be used only by "readers en route to more accurate and more dignified translations as an ultimate goal".

At Fri Oct 17, 04:31:00 PM, Blogger Glennsp said...

I would have thought it was clear from the quotes you have provided yourself that what Dr Ryken is talking about are "English translations" alone.
As such I would still maintain that your reference to Dr Ryken implying that he would be against a translation into a different language was not only wrong, but outside the reference of this particular post.
Your inclusion of his name in this context is inappropriate.
Now if you want to express your disagreement with him in a different post that actually deals with "English" translations alone then his inclusion would be, of course, appropriate.

At Sat Oct 18, 06:47:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Glenn, as I made clear in a previous comment, my complaint about Ryken is that he, unlike Ann Widdecombe, objects to "turn[ing] the Bible into modern vernacular".

I would be very interested to hear what Ryken might have to say about translation into Jamaican Patois, or into similar languages like Gullah and Hawaiian Pidgin.


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