There’s a conversation running right now on the relative value of certain Bible translations.
Depending on who’s talking and for what purpose, it might strike some as tedious. I happen to enjoy the discussion, and I think there’s one strain that’s worthy of consideration for those interested in how language might affect their spirituality.
In discussing the recent republication of the Knox Bible, a mid-twentieth century translation, Michael Brendan Dougherty mentions one “fatal” flaw, the use of sacral language, such as thee’s and thou’s. Apparently, translator Ronald Knox felt stuck using it in his day, but why not change that for the contemporary edition, asks Dougherty?
My answer is less about the Knox Bible than it is about the general loss of sacral language in our culture. It’s stodgy, we’re told, and nobody talks that way, right?
Yep. But we should be wary about losing it nonetheless.
Why? For starters, while the Bible may speak to our moment, it speaks across millennia. There are perhaps good reasons to favor contemporary English in some settings, but the overall loss of sacral language has, as Leroy Huizenga puts it, “accommodat[ed] the language of the Scripture to the barbarism of contemporary culture.” Instead of allowing the Bible its natural transcendence, sacrificing the sacral sensibility limits the scripture’s ability to correct our current perspectives because it’s too heavily reshaped by them.
Next, translating a text involves more than rendering one language into another. It involves rendering a mindset, rendering certain patterns of thought. This is sometimes lost in oversimplified conversations about thought-for-thought translations vs. word-for-word translations. To properly render the thought, attention to vocabulary, phrasing, and flow is essential. A flatfooted rendering of the Psalms, for instance, robs them of their power.
George Weigel addresses this issue relative to the new Roman Missal. While some object to its foreign-sounding phrases, Weigel explains, “The language of the liturgy is . . . meant to elevate us, to lift us out of the quotidian and the ordinary.” It’s not the patois of the parking lot. Rather, it’s “our privileged participation in the liturgy of saints and angels around the Throne of Grace, and the way we address the Lord, and each other, in those circumstances ought to reflect the awesome character of our baptismal dignity.” Importantly, even when the masses spoke Latin, the mass wasn’t everyday Latin.
Weigel’s observation applies to the scripture as well. Even in its day, King James English was dated. David Teems, author of Majestie and Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice, says that the translators chose the archaic style to intentionally elevate the experience of its hearers. It was supposed to smack of sacredness, hint at the holy in its very phrases and turns.
This is true of the original text of the Bible itself. While Paul’s letters may sometimes sound common and direct, much of the Bible is cast in more sacral tones. As Robert Alter notes in the introduction to his translation of the Pentateuch,
[T]he language of the biblical narrative in its own time was stylized, decorous, dignified, and readily identified by it audience as . . . distinct from the language of quotidian reality.
And as he says introducing his translation of 1 and 2 Samuel,
If one keeps in mind the strong element of stylization of the ancient language even in its own time, there is no good reason to render the biblical Hebrew as contemporary English, either lexically or syntactically.
I don’t accept that there is no good reason, but neither do I disagree with Alter’s main point. To encounter the scripture is to encounter the holy, and therefore its translators should honor the intent of its writers. The text of scripture communicates the grace of God to us. The language doesn’t have to be off-putting and alien, but it must be up that essential task.
I have no trouble believing that modern translations have done a lot of good. I work at a Bible publisher that publishes several different translations and see the value every day. But I do worry that we are increasingly unable to meet God on the scripture’s own terms. The text should enable the relationship, not handicap it.
Too often we want a plug-and-play Bible, but to recapture that sense of the holy, to experience the elevation possible in word and phrase, perhaps we need to spend time with a translation that lifts us out of ordinary life, instead of doubling as an echo chamber for it.