August 17, 2010

Uniform Dreariness

Category: Bible :: Permalink

After commenting that part of his work in writing the history of the Bible in English entails “the switching-off of special lighting, to reveal an illusion for what it is” — by which he means reducing the “King James Version”  from the “near-divine status” it has sometimes been given — David Daniell writes this:

In the later twentieth-century work of translating the Bible into English from Greek and Hebrew, mundane lighting became the fashion.  From the 1980s, the trend to issue the English Bible in “the language we use today” went a long way further into reducing the Bible’s magnificence, and magnificent variety, to a uniform dreariness (The Bible in English, xv).

It will take me another 700 pages or so to get to Daniell’s chapter on the twentieth-century, in which I expect him to illustrate and defend this claim.  But I think he’s right.  Compare, for instance, the KJV translation of 1 Samuel 25:22, 34 with any other modern translation (which you can do here) and you’ll see one obvious example where the KJV translates accurately and vividly and the others — out of squeamishness? — don’t.

Now why is that the case (assuming that Daniell is right)?  One answer might be that we don’t like anything to sound strange in church today.  Go to a baseball game for the first time and you expect to have to learn a lot of new vocabulary.  Pick up woodworking as a hobby and you expect to have to master new terms.  But we think — we, not the unbelievers I’m about to mention — we think that if an unbeliever goes to church for the first time nothing ought to sound strange to him at all.  How odd is that?  And so we want a Bible translation that sounds like contemporary English, with short, easy-to-understand sentences, no strange words — and no work for the hearer to do.

And that relates to another culprit, namely our own laziness.  We want the translator to do the work of interpretation for us, to remove the ambiguities, to change “flesh” to “sinful nature” if that’s what he thinks it means in a particular passage (yes, I’m thinking of the NIV here).  And so we lose the striking images and metaphors and strong language of Scripture in the interests of ease.

But there’s at least one other culprit, which we find even in Daniell’s own book.  He writes:

The New Testament was written in the ordinary Greek of everyday literature, biographies, historical writings or fictions: in other words, the contemporary “hellenistic” Greek.  Only the first four verses of St Luke’s Gospel are in the stylised “classical” Greek of historiography, though the prologues to some of the Epistles follow classical Greek styles (3).

There you have the scholarly justification for the modern approach to translation: The New Testament was written in contemporary, ordinary, everyday Greek (for which the technical term is koine) and so it ought to be translated, not into the heightened language that the translators of the KJV chose to use, but rather in contemporary, ordinary, everyday English.

But is Daniell correct?  I don’t think so.  Sure, there are lots of similarities between New Testament Greek and koine.  But there are also a lot of differences, which are largely due to the NT writers being heavily influenced by the Scriptures in Hebrew.  What we have in the NT is not just ordinary Greek; it’s Greek strongly under the influence of biblical Hebrew.

It’s also frequently heightened language, though we might not know it from our modern translations.  Again and again in his letter to the Philippians, for instance, Paul affixes the prefix sum (which is roughly equivalent to our co-) to words (e.g., “co-partners”, 1:7; “co-struggling,” 1:27; “co-souled,” 2:2; “co-rejoice,” 2:17, 18; “co-worker,” 2:25; “co-soldier,” 2:25; “co-imitators,” 3:17; “co-yokebearer,” 3:3; “co-struggled,” 3:3).  Some of those may have been common terms, but others?  I bet Paul made them up.  He uses them — coins them even, perhaps — precisely to drive home one of the themes of the letter, namely, the unity of the church.  The heightened language is not accidental, nor does it get in the way of the message (as if it would have been better for Paul to speak in ordinary language); it’s deliberate and it communicates the message.

When modern translations opt for “uniform dreariness,” it seems to me, we’re not just losing some of the beauty of Scripture.  We’re also at least in danger of losing some of the message, too.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:52 pm | Discuss (2)

2 Responses to “Uniform Dreariness”

  1. John Says:

    There’s a wonderful book by Adam Nicolson God’s Secretaries: the making of the King James Bible (2003). (I wrote a review of it in Clarion in 2003… but I can’t find a digital copy of it. Hmmm). He suggests that the language of the KJV seemed 60 or 70 years out of date at its inception, but that its language had actually never been spoken ever.

    Anyways he writes this about the NEB (which was an early attempt at doing what the NIV has done – bring the English text of the Bible into contemporary language.)

    “The committee got itself lost. Dr C.H. Dodd, the general director of translation… had asked for “timeless” prose, in which archaism and “hallowed associations” were to be avoided, and “a sense of reality” sought. But aiming for plain accessibility, the NEB ended up as nothing much to anyone. Wanting timelessness, they achieved the language of a memo. Avoiding archaism, they embraced the banal. Looking for reality, they lost all feeling for the extraordinary and overpowering strangeness of the Bible, its governing sense of the metaphysical somehow squeezed, dragged and stretched, like Christ himself, into the world of men. They had somehow forgotten that ordinariness is not the Bible’s subject.”

    He writes in an other spot…
    “Turn to the 20th century attempt [NEB] at this passage and it becomes clear enough what has been lost. Every right decision by the Renaissance Translators is abandoned, every wrong for taken.

    Or this assessment of the passage of Christ on the beach at the end of John’s gospel in the NEB

    “This is dead; there is not immediacy to it, nothing vibrant… it is a description of an inert normality, mundane, tensionless, and mystery free. The atmosphere is of a 1930’s bathing party.”

    Later he writes:

    “It is impossible now to experience in an English church the enveloping amalgam of tradition, intelligence, beauty, clarity of purpose, intensity of conviction and plangent, heart-gripping godliness which is the experience of page after page of the King James Bible. Nothing in our culture can match its breadth, depth and universality, unless, curiously enough, it is something that was written at exactly the same time and in almost exactly the same place: the great tragedies of Shakespeare.”

    Get the book: it’s a great read!


  2. David A Booth Says:


    Part of the “uniform dreariness” of modern translations flows from a marketing decision. Publishers want to claim that anyone who reads at an 8th grade level can read “their” translation. Yet, anyone who reads Hebrew and Greek knows that Micah and 2 Peter are much more difficult to translate than Genesis and 1 John.

    I don’t know if there is a “market” for a translation that is both more variagated and elevated than most modern translations – but I do have a dream of producing such a translation if the Lord grants me enough years.


Leave a Reply