Epistles of Thomas

August 8, 2009

Two translation paradigms for English Bibles

Filed under: Translation — Thomas @ 18:40
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There are two approaches that those undertaking a new translation of the Bible can follow. Perhaps I should say there are two ends to a continuum and translators need to place themselves on that continuum. The question is whether they will take into account previous English translations or instead create something “entirely new.” Given the variety and quantity of English translations today it will not be possible to create a new translation that does not show some similarity with previous measures but the spirit can be there. In just the last few days I have read two prominent English “J. B.” scholars who have followed these two divergent approaches.

First is Bishop J. B. Lightfoot the famous churchman and scholar. Of English translations he wrote in 1857:

“If, then, the English of former times speaks more plainly to the heart than the English of the present day, and at least as plainly to the understanding, surely we should do well to retain it, only lopping off a very few archaisms, not because they are not a la mode, but because they would not be generally understood.” Journal of Philology. 4 (1857): 108. Quoted in Bishop Lightfoot. London: Macmillan and Co., 1894. 48-49.

This was the approach followed by the RV of the Bible as stated in its preface: “That in the above resolutions we do not contemplate any new translation of the Bible, or any alteration of the language, except where in the judgement of the most competent scholars such change is necessary.”Preface of Revised Version of the New Testament.” Quoted in Ibid., 49. Many subsequent English translations fall within a family of translations that take into account their forefathers. e.g. AV, RV, ASV, NASB, NRSV, ESV; NIV, NIrV, NIVI, TNIV.

On the other end of the spectrum are scholars who decide to start anew and forge their own way forward, not taking into account what has previously been established as the “proper translation form.” J. B. Philips is one such translator who writes of his translation of the gospels: “I could not, and did not try to, rival that wonderful translation of 1611. I simply ‘forgot’ as completely as I could familiar words and turns of phrase and translated the first century Greek into what I thought would be its modern equivalent in English.” Ring of Truth: A Translator’s Testimony. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1967. 55. Phillips still endeavoured to offer a translation of the Greek rather than a paraphrase such as Eugene Peterson’s The Message. He chose not to take into account the previous translations of which the KJV was the standard.

Which method is right? Both have their benefits and problems. The difficulty with the former method is over who decides which language is archaic and how much to change. What is archaic to one Christian community will be very different than another and generationally changes occur as well and are accelerating. The second method provides for a fresh English text but does not provide continuity with the past. Older generations will feel that it is not the Bible they are used to. It also makes it hard to memorise scripture because things keep changing. Just think what trouble we have reciting the Lord’s Prayer together these days. Usually we revert to the KJV because most people are familiar with it; we just have to decide whether they are trespasses or sins.

P.S. The book Bishop Lightfoot can be read in PDF format online.

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