Translating the Word

translationsThe science of translation is only partially scientific. It is also an art—with the insight into intuiting the intent of the original author a critical dimension of good translating.

First, of course, the translator must possess a sound grasp of the original language. Second, he or she must know the language into which they are translating the work equally well. With this knowledge, the translator can do an adequate job.

Only with that indefinable intuition mentioned above, is a translator empowered to do justice to a writer’s work when recreating it in a different language.

All translation work is demanding, but those entrusted with transferring documents of faith into new languages face an additional burden. The adherents of various religions typically regard this literature as “inspired,” and therefore to be approached with only the most serious and respectful of intentions.

This is certainly true for Christianity. Transferring the Scriptures from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek into Latin, German and English involved devout theologians who approached the task with reverence as well as skill.

That balance remains a constant these many centuries after the earliest translation efforts. Today the Christian Bible is still being translated into languages where it has never been available before. The Wycliffe Bible Translators community is the largest organization working toward this end, although there are many others, such as the Lutheran Bible Translators, who are laboring in noncompetitive venues.

Wycliffe estimates that 350 million people do not yet have the Bible available in their native language. They have been instrumental in putting God’s Word into 700 different tongues, and with various other organizations are committed to continuing their vital work.

Some of the targeted language groups actually speak dialects of more common tongues. For example, De Nyew Testament is now available for speakers of Gullah. Spoken by the descendants of slaves residing in the South Carolina and Georgia coastlines. It is an English-based creole language featuring numerous African contributions. A comparison of a sample verse will illustrate the differences. The first verse of the Gospel according to John reads:

Fo God mek de wol, de Wod been dey. De Wod been dey wid God, an de Wod been God. Fo God mek de wol, de Wod been dey wid God. Shru dat Wod, God mek ebryting. Ain nottin een de whole wol wa God mek dat been done dout de Wod. (Gullah New Testament).

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. (King James Version).

At the beginning God expressed himself. That personal expression, that word, was with God, and was God, and he existed with God from the beginning. All creation took place through him, and none took place without him. (J.B. Phillips’ New Testament).

Why, you may wonder, have I included the relatively unknown translation by Phillips? Because none other than the brilliant and devout scholar, C.S. Lewis, regarded it highly. Lewis recognized that the archaic usage of the Authorized (King James) Version impeded its use by many people. In fact, in a 1961 letter he wrote: “A modern translation is for most purposes far more useful than the Authorised Version.”

Lewis was one of the readers of Phillips’ initial translation of the Pauline epistles who encouraged him to proceed with the task of translating the entire New Testament. Lewis, in fact, was key in encouraging Geoffrey Bies to publish the new version. Technically, though, calling this text a “translation” is a bit misleading; in many ways it is more honestly labeled a “paraphrase.” Still, it did make the Scriptures more accessible to many younger readers.

Phillips’ New Testament in Modern English is available online at the Christian Classics Library.

C.S. Lewis wrote an entire essay on the subject of translating God’s revelation. It is entitled “Modern Translations of the Bible,” and included in the God in the Dock collection. The following wisdom comes from that source.

The only kind of sanctity that Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernized is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the Eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety. In it we see Greek used by people who have no real feeling for Greek words because Greek words are not the words they spoke when they were children. It is a sort of “basic” Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language.

Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion.

15 thoughts on “Translating the Word

  1. CalebAnderson

    I agree, the Authorized Version is a bit hard for merely trying to understand the Bible, but for sheer language and reading pleasure it is an unsurpassed translation.

    1. There are many, many people who will agree with you. I’m curious, though, about the feelings of adults who come to the Authorized Version later in life regard it, after having been established in their faith while reading more recent translations.

  2. Translation is a tricky situation – few are honestly completely bilingual/multilingual and totally grounded in both languages. Very rare. (worked with Span-Eng-Span translations – and it’s a nightmare to fine the dialect “acceptable” to the target population – and Spanish is fortunate that the Academy has strict guidelines – still so much discussion on which wording..)
    I prefer King James not only did I grow up with it and a distant ancestor worked on it – the language is so rich beautiful: different from daily life’s. It does sing.
    Like a giant cathedral with jewel like windows – the words help shift gears to more spiritual thought?
    As far as the translation, if you are taught that man translated it – and man has failings and isn’t perfect – the changes and multiple interpretations don’t really bother you all that much.
    Give me a bit of beauty – to glorify God.

    1. The King James version certainly is musical and elegant… and familiar to those of us raised with it. “A distant ancestor…” — I’d like to hear more about that!

      Yes, in terms of inspiration most evangelical scholars agree that the original documents were inerrant. Only after texts were recopied (and translated) did minor errors occur. I emphasize “minor,” because no significant Christian doctrine is affected by those small deviations.

  3. Having spent 13 1/2 years in French-speaking countries, I appreciate your thoughts on translation. I also have a Blogger blog, and I put a translation widget on it for my readers in other countries. Then I asked some of my French friends to try it out. The translation from English into French was literal–and ludicrous!

    I’ve just finished transcribing two legal pads of my father-in-law’s Cavalry memoirs that he wrote by hand, as well as almost 50 letters, mostly written by him to his first wife when they were separated during the war. “Intuition” is the perfect word to describe how sometimes I was able to figure out what he wrote when it was completely illegible to my husband, who was more familiar with his father’s handwriting. I also did a fair amount of Googling words to decipher some that were historic in context. I was so absorbed in Dad & Barbara’s story that when I would come up for air to eat, etc., I felt like I had just been transported from 1945 into a strange world! I have lots of sympathy for translators and their herculean task.

  4. Lewis was right. The Greek of the New Testament was the everyday language the common man used and understood; the vernacular. Tyndale and Moffat understood that.

    I recently finished reading Eugene Peterson’s “Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading.” I don’t think it’s anywhere near his best work, but he includes two chapters on translation that were worth the price of the book. One is an overview of the process and general history of Scripture translation and the other deals specifically with his work on “The Message.”

    Peterson definitely sides with Tyndale, Moffat and Phillips. As do I. Make sure the people understand the Word of God. Besides, how can you not like Tyndale’s translation of Gen. 39:2?

    “The Lord was with Joseph and he was a luckie felawe.”


  5. Kristen

    I thoroughly enjoyed this posting.
    Now I’m thinking about various Bible translations, lots of good things to ponder.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. Pingback: Christianity: an incurably irreverent religion. | John 20:21

  7. I have a problem with paraphrases, such as The Living Bible, which I bought shortly after I became a Christian many years ago. My favorites are the NIV and the NASB. I also like the old King James Version, but not the New King James Version as much. I guess that goes back to the beauty of the KJV’s language.

    1. I loved the NIV until they “revised” it. Use the ESV because it’s the standard for my denomination. Actually treasured the NASB when I was a college study studying the Word with little background.

  8. Pingback: C.S. Lewis’ School of Translation « Mere Inkling

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