Battle of the Translations

This week students in History 111 read a number of Biblical passages to illustrate ancient Hebrew history. Of course, if we were all proper scholars, we would be reading them in the original Hebrew, but no one (including me) would be able to handle that, so we are reduced to using a translation into a “language understood by the people,” as Protestant Reformers recommended.

But what translation? You can translate texts in more than one way, of course, and with something as important as the Bible, translation becomes a serious issue. Martin Luther himself, I understand, translated the Bible in certain ways in order to justify his own theology – and one of the reasons why he dropped several books of the Old Testament, bringing the Bible into conformity with Jewish usage, is because such books as Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, and Esdras did not support his interpretation of Christianity (thus their current designation as “apocryphal”).

The translation that I have used in my classes is the New International Version, simply on account of its readability. Of course, a lot of people don’t think the Bible should be “readable” – or rather, they think the prose should be elevated, like the Authorized Version sponsored by King James (r. 1603-1625). According to Adam Nicolson in God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (2003), even in the early seventeenth century the dialect of this bible was artificial – self-consciously created in order to bestow majesty on its subject and its sponsor, and hopefully to bind the Church of England together, divided as it was between Puritans and High Church Anglicans. Here is the KJV’s famous rendering of 1 Corinthians 13:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

And if prose like this sounded grand back in the seventeenth century, how much more grand does it sound now! This is what people love about it – so much so that there exists a King James Only movement, whose adherents hold that the Authorized Version is the ne plus ultra of English translations – that it is even divinely inspired. Somehow it exists above and beyond the politics of the Church of England in 1611.

Now, I have no problem with people who prefer a majestic bible! And given the influence of the KJB on the history of the English language, everyone should read it anyway for the sake of cultural literacy. But given that in HIS 111 we’re reading the bible, not for spiritual edification, nor as a primary source for the seventeenth century, but to discover something about the ancient Hebrews, we should probably try to avoid elevated prose, in favor of current American Standard English, to help us understand the meaning of the original text as much as possible.

As far as I can ascertain the translators of the New International Version did not have a particular agenda beyond clarity. They do seem to have been from evangelical Protestant backgrounds but it does not seem to me that they skewed their translation accordingly (they certainly resisted inserting marginal explanatory notes, as did the Puritans who composed the sixteenth-century Geneva Bible). All this is prefatory to a forum post by a student, who doesn’t much care for the NIV:

I see on the back the NIV was used for these translations. The NIV has removed 40 verses and over 64,000 words. Verses such as Matthew 18:11 – “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.” Mark 11:26 – “But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses.” So the question is, why was this version decided upon when so much was taken out?

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:” -2 Timothy 3:16 KJV

I confess that I was unaware of this issue, and I assure my readers that censorship was not my intention! However, I cannot imagine the translators of the NIV acting as a sort of sinister cabal, removing verses at will in order to further a certain agenda. Instead, they were simply using the best original manuscripts they could come up with. Unfortunately, the Bible, in its early days, was rather like a Wikipedia article, which people felt free to edit according to their taste. (Forget tendentious translation, this is monkeying with the text itself! Nowadays there are taboos against this sort of thing.) This then raises the question, what did the original text look like? How shall we go about establishing it? In the sixteenth century, the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus set himself the task of publishing a Greek New Testament, to which end he collected as many manuscripts of it as he could. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not all of these manuscripts agreed with each other, leaving Erasmus to make a few judgment calls. This effort has been ongoing since his time – and as more and more biblical manuscripts are uncovered, and our linguistic knowledge has grown more sophisticated, our sense of the original Greek text has sharpened – which means, unfortunately, that what we now realize are later textual additions must be excised, no matter how edifying we might find their sentiments. The Hebrew Masoretic Text (“𝕸”) and the Nestle-Aland Koine Greek New Testament, used by the translators of the NIV, are simply more accurate than the Hebrew and Greek sources that were available to the translators of the KJB (who themselves were constantly comparing their efforts to the Bishops’ Bible of 1602, i.e. the KJB isn’t entirely a fresh translation).

As for the NIV’s lack of Matthew 18:11: Bible Gateway says, in a footnote, “Some manuscripts include here the words of Luke 19:10.” For Mark 11:26, it says “Some manuscripts include here words similar to Matt. 6:15.” So it seems that the compilers are willing to acknowledge the editorial decisions they’ve made – and these particular verses appear elsewhere in the bible anyway.

2 thoughts on “Battle of the Translations

  1. Good reflection, Jonathan. I liked the personal, dialogical tone. The image at the top goes well with the topic. You have also identified an important issue and illustrated it, have involved your students, and have personalized from an instructional perspective.

    To make “the Battle of Translations” even more “intense” (LOL), the following framework might help the readers frame some of your good, initial ideas:

    1. First of all, as you well know, all translations are based on a preconceived understanding of linguistics, formally or informally.

    2. Despite this, translations are not consistent with the translator’s philosophy of translations.

    3. Philosophies on what language is and how it works vary from time to time.

    4. Languages and cultures change as well. Therefore, translations cannot be fixed or final.

    5. Many times translations say more about the presuppositions or even the biases of the translators than what the texts say. The translated text, in a way, becomes a mirror where the translators project themselves, although the projection in not explicit. Thus, a method to elicit this is necessary. This is not a new issue. There is plenty of evidence in the Septuagint.

    6. Having access to the original language is no guarantee that the translation is going to be “accurate.” There are many variables in the process of which we have to be aware so there is a holistic understanding of it.

    7. Finally, translations are limited, conventional, and practical; no translation is perfect. Many times the nuances of certain words get lost in translation; the host language might not have an equivalent term. Thus, strictly speaking, there is such a thing as a literal translation. Ancient scholars knew this. Take, for example, the preface of Ben Sirach.

    I hope the above comment make sense.

    Thanks 
    Aquiles

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