The 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.