On translations of the Bible

December 8, 2019

I’ve written elsewhere about what I like reading in the Bible and what I avoid or find tiresome. This post is by way of reflecting on the question of translations, and I will start by emphasising that I am no expert in any area of the field of biblical studies or translation, just that I have read the Bible through several times, and that I read a lot of literature in translation.

Raised a Catholic, the version available to us was the Douay-Rheims version of the late 16th/ early 17 century, pre-King James. I recall it being a bit wooden and styleless in the reading, and later discovered that what I had been reading was in fact an 18th century revision. I gather that the original translation was made to counter the very Protestant Geneva Bible, which was the one that Shakespeare would have been familiar with.

As Catholics we were obviously discouraged form reading the 1611 King James or Authorised Version – in fact, in those long-ago days it might actually have been forbidden! However, in my later years I have grown to like and appreciate its literary beauty. A good deal of this classic version was in fact lifted from William Tyndale’s much earlier translation, for which the poor fellow ended up being burned at the stake. Equally, some parts are indebted to the Catholic translation I mentioned earlier; certainly James I’s committee of translators had it to hand.

If we wanted something in accessible language, we had the one-man translation produced by Ronald Knox earlier in the twentieth century; I remember it read well. It has now been almost completely forgotten, but what an achievement, to have produced it by oneself. Still, Luther, St Jerome and others can also claim to have done that.

I recall from my schooldays the enormous publicity given to the publication of the New English Bible in the late 1960s, and remember large displays of it in the largest bookshop in the centre of Nottingham: you could have the version with or without the Apocrypha included. That was always a difficult point for Catholics, in that non-Catholic Bibles almost always had various books Protestants deemed non-canonical removed. Apparently this decision happened early in the 19th century with the growth of the British and Foreign Bible Society, responsible for translations into so many foreign languages as part of the Empire’s missionary work. Surely economics had something to do with it…

The weird thing about the New English Bible, as I discovered when I read the New Testament, is that, although it’s a good, modern translation that read and flowed easily, especially aloud, the translators had decided to retain old-fashioned ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s in certain places, particularly when prayers were translated. Very quickly that came to jar, and was one of the things that were changed when the version was updated as the Revised English Bible. I wouldn’t say that the NEB has vanished without trace, but its popularity was short-lived, although it has recently been reprinted.

The most interesting development for Catholics was the appearance of the Jerusalem Bible in the mid-1960s, an English version of La Bible de Jerusalem produced by the renowned Ecole Biblique de Jerusalem. It was, however, a translation from the French, and the New Jerusalem Bible twenty years later was a much more thorough and careful rendering into English referencing the original texts, and very quickly become respected by Catholics and non-Catholics equally, for its readability, scholarship and the quality of the detailed notes in the full version. Both versions were unusual in adopting ‘Yahweh’ as the word for ‘the Lord’, an attempt at replicating the unspoken Name in Hebrew. However, Benedict XIV disapproved of this, and the recent further revision – the Revised New Jerusalem Bible – has removed it, along with much of the very useful contextual annotation, and at the moment it appears that it’s the New Jerusalem version which will remain the gold standard. It’s the one I have grown to use and appreciate over time for many different reasons and the one I shall stick with, although there are times when it’s the traditional King James version that does it for me.

What makes a good translation? You get an artificial sense of reverence through the archaisms of the King James Bible, with its echoes of Shakespeare’s language (and no, there is no evidence of his having been involved in the translation) and a sense of tradition. On the other hand, it’s difficult for many people to follow nowadays. A modern translation needs to be readable, yet to avoid slang, colloquialisms and other modernisms which would detract from its quality as a ‘holy book’, a scripture. It needs not to be rooted too much in the English of a particular decade or it will date very quickly and sound awkward (perhaps the failing of the NEB) so translators are aiming for a certain timeless quality as well as enduring accessibility. And it also needs to read aloud well. All in all there are a lot of criteria to address. And this is perhaps why there have been so many attempts in recent decades, with no single version standing out far above the competition.

It is interesting that a single Catholic and a single Protestant English version lasted though three centuries, and that only in the twentieth century have there been so many different attempts to ‘modernise’, to ‘update’, to ‘make more accessible’. Some of there have been gimmicky, some crass, some appalling. I can see arguments for being able to read the Christian scriptures in a more modern English – and then I realise that nobody has advanced a similar argument for Shakespeare’s plays. But I also accept that that is a ridiculous comparison.

Have you a preference? For which translation, and why?

One Response to “On translations of the Bible”

  1. I’m a huge admirer of Tynedale and am glad I was brought up on the Authorised Version. I was never much of a believer as a child but went to a school that largely followed Church of England in its daily readings, hymns and prayers. Today I do believe and still like the authorised version. I have yet to find a modern translation that suits my tastes. My admiration for Shakespeare has never wavered.

    Liked by 1 person

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