Deeply Confused HuffPo Writer…

illustrates the fact that you should always take off 50 IQ points whenever the MSM deals with religion. To wit:

With several new English-language Bible translations that have been published in recent years — including ones that use gender-neutral and conversational language — it might be said that Americans are tired of reading the King James-style Bible of yore. But a survey of Bible readers released Friday says that Americans largely prefer literal translations of the books’ original Greek and Hebrew texts as opposed to ones that try to convey the intent of the original words.

Where to begin? Where to begin? Does the author even know what “literal” means? I *think* what he means is something like “word-for-word” rather than “paraphrase”. It’s the “as opposed to” that really communicates illiteracy though, since it is a highly dubious proposition that rendering “Son of Man” as “Human Person” really communicates what the intent of the author. Quite obviously, what it is doing is communicating what a Corrector wishes he meant. Likewise, gender neutralizing Scripture can have all sorts of deleterious effects, particularly with the Psalms, which the Church has always read as prophetically referring to Christ.

However, at a more human level, I think what the renderers of Scripture into “common speech” are missing is that these are liturgical documents and that they are deliberately written to elevate the mind and heart with, if you will, artificial speech. Don’t be put off by the word “artificial” which is rooted in the highly artistic word “artifice”.

In short, as Orwell pointed out long ago, only a fool thinks that ordinary people would feel better and find it “easier to relate” to Scripture when a translator takes a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes 9:11:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to all of them.

… and then re-writes the passage with its life blood drained away and replaced by the embalming fluid of modern English:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

To be sure, “common English” Bible translators aren’t typically that tin-eared (though gender neutralizers can be pretty bloody awful sometimes). But they do suffer from a ruthless set of assumptions that “ordinary people” (meaning “people they imagine to be less intelligent than they are”) are clamoring for a dumbed-down Bible with all that fancy talk taken out of it.

The problem is: we aren’t. Nor were the Biblical authors interested in pandering to, if you will pardon the pun, Philistines. They wrote poetry, for cryin’ out loud! Half the Bible is filled with poetry. And not just any poetry, but some of the most exalted and beautiful poetry in the world. Running it through the meat grinder of “common English” translation is like imagining you have “improved” Hamlet and made it more “accessible” by having the Gloomy Dane say, “Should I kill myself or not? Tough call! Should I put up with all the crap life throws at me or just stab myself? Man, I wish God hadn’t made suicide a no no. And I might do it if I wasn’t so scared of what might happen after I kack myself.”

In short, the biblical authors wrote to lift our minds to God and the *way* they wrote was as important as *what* they wrote. And us schmoos in the pews *like* that it’s elevated and artificial for much the same reason we like celebrating a Mass in a beautiful sanctuary and not in a bare concrete room.

Dorothy Day once remarked to some Lefty who longed for the day that Churches could be stripped bare and the gorgeousness sold off “for the poor” that Churches were the only place the poor could go to experience beauty–for free!
Biblical language is much the same. Our whole culture has aggressively stripped the beauty and poetry out of all speech. Poetry is exclusively the province of dilettantes when it used to be the common bread and butter of ordinary normal people. The last thing we need is to dumb down Scripture because some condescending scholar thinks he is patting Homer Simpson on the head.

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  • For a “literal translation”, see Knoch’s Concordant Literal version. It is literal to the point of unreadability, and follows eccentricities like rendering imperfect tenses as present, since past should ONLY be used for the aorist. Funny how this has not been popular among all those people who prefer “literal translations”.
    Less annoying is Swedenborg’s Latin version (which I believe is only available in fragmentary form through his own quotations of it), which preserves lots of Hebrew idioms ignored by nearly all other translators. (“Abraham fell on his faces”?)
    What she SEEMS to mean is that people prefer “Formal Equivalence” to “Dynamic Equivalence”.

  • Heather F

    I agree with you partly on this. I am thrilled that we are getting a more dignified translation of the Mass, and certainly the translations of the Bible used for liturgy should also be “elevating” as you put it. That said, I do think there is a place for a range of different translation styles. I actually work in a Bible store, and I find that different people really do have different needs.

    Certainly, within a population of well-educated, well-catechized adults, there ought to be a preference for more “scholarly” word-for-word style translation, especially in the context of something like a Bible study class.

    But what about younger kids, or adults learning English as a second language or otherwise having reading difficulties, or even just an average adult completely unfamiliar with the Bible who has bought into the cultural distrust of beautiful and poetic speech? I think it’s great that we have translations that use simpler vocabulary and sentence structure, not because we condescendingly assume that the uneducated masses can never aspire to anything better, but so that they can have a stepping stone towards more sophisticated versions. Translations with training wheels, so to speak.

    Also, in terms of poetry, translating in a slavishly word-for-word style doesn’t preserve the beauty of the original languages either. Puns, wordplay, figures of speech, and all sorts of literary devices still get lost. Translations on the far “formal equivalence” end of the scale are as clunky as those on the far “functional equivalence” end, just for different reasons. They are useful for study, but probably aren’t a great choice for personal devotional reading because they don’t exactly flow very well off the tongue.

    I don’t know how many times people come in looking for X or Y translation, telling me that they never really felt the Word of God speaking to them until they read it in that version. And it’s always different translations. And that’s really the point. There’s no such thing as a perfect translation, ever. But the “best” Bible version is the one that a given person, personally, is going to enjoy reading.

    • Rachel K

      This. I don’t think Mark is arguing for needlessly difficult translations in this post, but I’ve seen a lot of people lamenting when Biblical translations are below a high school reading level. Well, the problem is that most ADULTS are below a high school reading level. Not even people who speak English as a second language, but just people who aren’t good readers. They deserve the Gospel, too.

      • enness

        And there they will remain if they never encounter anything that stretches their limits…one can argue that the Bible may not be the thing to start with, but still…

  • SDG

    The distinction between “literal translations” and “ones that try to convey the intent of the original words” seems to be the author’s imprecise way of invoking the translational philosophies of formal correspondence versus dynamic equivalence. Of course, all translations are “trying to convey the intent of the original words,” but some are trying to do it through formal correspondence and others through dynamic equivalence. Of course it is really a spectrum, not a hard and fast distinction, but I tend to prefer translations at the formal correspondence end of the spectrum, so it’s good to hear that most Americans feel the same way.

  • Chris-2-4

    I agree with Steve (SDG). I lean towards the “formal correspondence” but somewhere between the two extremes on the spectrum. My one firm rule would be that if it rhymed in the original and it still rhymes in the English translation, you’ve probably deviated to much.

  • One has to be long of nose when reading MSM articles on biblical interpretation.

    • Rachel K

      This made my day.

  • Mark S (not for Shea)

    Anyone who speaks a second language knows that very often there is NO SUCH THING as a “literal translation.” Concepts, terms, understand, and culture are all reflected in langauge, and they do not always have a 1 for 1 equivalent.

    Which is why it’s nice to be able to rely on the Holy Spirit and the Church to guide us into all Truth.

    • Yes, nice. Just like it’s nice we have air to breath and the Sun to warm us.

      Nice doesn’t quite capture it does it? Maybe essential would be a better word.

      • Mark S (not for Shea)

        Heh. Semantic point taken. Well stated!

  • Martin T

    Esolen: The translator, I believe, must adopt as his motto the words of St. John the Baptist, referring to Jesus: “He must increase, and I must decrease.” It wasn’t my job, when I was translating Dante, to intrude my personality into the poem. It was rather my job to bring out Dante’s personality, his concerns, his acerbic wit, his devotion, his passions.
    Now if this is true of what Dante called his “sacred poem,” [then] it is all the more true of the liturgy. Here, we must consider the words of the Mass not simply as the work of excellent human poets, but as a gift of God, mediated through the Church, to his people. At all costs, then, the translator must wish to render the words of the Mass with precision and power, respecting the literal and figurative meaning, the poetic and rhetorical form, and the beauty of the original. For instance, it is not the job of the translator to omit words simply because they strike him as too redolent of the Church rather than of the street corner [Do I hear an “Amen!”?] — to translate words such as “sacratissimam” and “sancte” and “venerabiles” as simply nothing. [cf. Roman Canon.] It is a sin against the whole community, thus to impose one’s individual taste.

  • While it’s dangerous to generalize, it’s still true that too much emphasis on “infotainment” is placed on the “entertainment” side of the equation and not enough on the “information” side. A lot of journalists no longer follow the example of journalists and correspondents like Ernie Pyle and Jules Bergman, who immersed themselves as much as possible in the areas they reported on before going out to report on it; they get as much as they can as quick as they can from a handful of sources then slam out their pieces so they can move on to the next story. And this is without considering the effects of cognitive bias, which can render any datum irrelevant that doesn’t “spin” the story the right way, and turn otherwise good journalists like NYT’s Laurie Goodstein into sock puppets for people with agendas. Call it the Age of Misinformation, the Age of Disinformation, or the Age of Lies, Half-Truths and Wild-A** Guesses … but don’t call it the Information Age.

  • Martial Artist



    Keith Töpfer