Our Babel of Bibles
Scripture, Translation & the Possibility of Spiritual Understanding
by David Lyle Jeffrey
From the perspective of one who values freedom of choice, individualism, and the market, the proliferation of new translations and paraphrases of the Bible must seem, on the whole, a good thing. From a perspective that places a greater value on theological probity, spiritual understanding in the laity, and coherence in the witness of the Church, however, the plethora of English translations and the Babel-like confusion of tongues they create is arguably a calamity. While every new translation is evidently a “market opportunity” and may express in some way the particular slant or voice of individual denominations on certain doctrines, the dissonance and “white noise” of competing Bibles tends to confuse rather than clarify discussion across denominational boundaries. In fact, the “Babel effect” intensifies the confusion.
In addition to new translations, we now have a plethora of “niche” editions, like the “Revolve” magazine-format Bibles, aimed at pre-pubescent girls, whichincludes marginal tips on how to put on makeup and deal with two admiring boys at the same time, or The Veggie Tales Full Text NIV Bible, the NIV Faithgirlz Backpack Bible (in periwinkle blue with a green flower!), the NIV Bible for Busy Dads (or perhaps for dads who aren’t quite busy enough), the Holman CSB Sportsman’s Bible (in camouflage, natch). If you are tired of your mother’s old Bible, which printed the words of Jesus in red, you can choose a more trendy Green Bible, with all the eco-sensitive passages printed in green ink. If you are a feisty woman unfazed by possibly misdirected allusions, then maybe you would like the Woman Thou art Loosed edition of the NKJV. If perchance you should be a high-end of the TV-channel charismatic, there are “prophecy Bibles” coded in several colors to justify your eschatology of choice. If you are a devotee of the U.S. Constitution (the document, not the ship), Tolle Lege Press offers the 1599 Geneva Bible, Patriot’s Edition, complete with a frontispiece portrait of George Washington, a prayer by him, and facsimile reproductions of the Magna Carta, the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution of the United States of America (with the Amendments), and finally, a tract on Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior by George Washington.
All of these makeovers of Holy Scripture are—at least in part—market driven. It is clear that most of them make money, but it is much less clear that they serve to enrich, let alone unify, the Christian Church. Even less is it clear that they assist even the most forbearing reader in seeing in what sense the Scriptures are given as “one Word of God,” pointing to Christ and not to us, or, as St. Paul puts it to Timothy, “given by inspiration of God, and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Many of the niche editionsseem rather to be packaged in such a way as to justify, in some measure, current fashions and practices of the sub-groups to which they are directed. This makes them profitable for the publishers, but not so “profitable,” at least in the sense intended by the Apostle, for the Church.
Of what underlying condition, we should ask, are these Christian market wares a symptom? Clearly, the cascade of “contemporary” biblical translations over the last six decades has a stronger whiff of mammon about it than the odor of sanctity. But not only that: in execution of the translations themselves, I would suggest, we see a symptom of an increasingly materialist rather than spiritual understanding of Scripture itself. Here, then, is one sign among many of the pervasive coloration of our secular age.
Some of the impetus in recent translation projectsis transparently political; a recent example is designed to accommodate the demands of Muslims that Jesus not be referred to as the “Son of God,”1 but political motives are evident in other, more radically bowdlerized Bibles that have appeared since the Reformation. Though Luther was unsuccessful in removing books such as James and the other Catholic epistles from the canon, his “frenemy” Henry VIII was undeterred from attempting an edited version of hisown: Henry published a Latin Bible that conveniently omitted such passages as the prophet Nathan’s exposé by parable of King David’s adultery.2 Thomas Jefferson famously produced a Bible which excluded elements from the Gospel accounts about Jesus, such as miracles and the casting out of demons, because they offended his deistical sensibilities. Jefferson could approve only a safer, more humanistic Jesus.3
In historical perspective, it is rather easy to see how selective editing of what all Christians regard as in some sense divinely authorized text can be done for the sake of redefining critical biblical concepts and, in the process, occluding the transcendent-to-immanent polarity of Scripture as the revealed Word of God. Succinctly, it is evident that many instances of what scholars might agree to identify as “bad” or “bowdlerized” translation are actually symptoms of a much more general, indeed systemic, modernist predisposition to elide both in Scripture and liturgy the vertical or transcendent axis. These efforts, even if they leave the canon intact, are a species of immanentizing, in the name of “humanizing,” biblical language, effectively making the reader the primary locus of meaning rather than Scripture itself.
Charles Taylor’s “Immanent Frame” certainly applies to this issue. I think Taylor is warranted in saying that postmoderns of all sorts tend to operate in a “discourse derived from Protestantism,” but also that this discourse is not less evident now in Catholic environments. Further, even in the language of biblical translation, both Protestant and Catholic, we may readily trace that contemporary secularist reflex which has tacitly assumed that, in Taylor’s phrase, “the human good is in its very essence sensual, earthly.”4
The spindrift of religious aspiration back downward to earth has actually been going on for some time: Hans Boersma pertinently reiterates Taylor’s observation when he says that “the Protestant Reformation was part of a shift that had been in the making for centuries, and of which the de-sacramentalizing of the cosmos was the most significant feature.”5 Yet the reach of this de-sacramentalizing impulse into the very language of the Church itself has recently accelerated; however counter-intuitively, much contemporary biblical translation is fully implicated in a more general and fundamental drift away from transcendence.
Realities Beyond Our Ken
Laymen as well as liturgists have long debated visual analogues to such verbal redefinition of transcendent to immanent relationships. One familiar example would be twentieth-century debates among Catholics and Anglicans as to whether the priest should stand facing the altar or the congregation as he offers prayers on their behalf. Is the priest interceding with God on behalf of the congregation, or is he addressing the group that ultimately pays his salary? At stake here, as Matthew Levering has suggested, is whether the special office of the priest is conducive to unity in the body of the faithful, since it seems to some perspectives, from the sons of Korah to our own time, not sufficiently egalitarian.6 The most recent English translation of the Catholic liturgy has occasioned analogous controversy precisely because it seems to reverse the democratization espoused in the Novus Ordo used by North American Catholics for the last half-century.
It strikes me as telling that one flash-point of offense on the part of some critics of the new translation seems to be its more accurate translation of original Latin terms such as visibilium omnium et invisibilium in the Nicene Creed. Discomfort with the more accurate translation, “all things visible and invisible,” has been expressed largely by theologians trained in the 1960s and 1970s,who prefer “seen and unseen” (now you see it, now you don’t). This makes sense if one wants to project an immanentized, sociological understanding of the Creed. When we say that “God the Father Almighty” is maker of all things “visible” and “invisible,” we are presumably acknowledging something far more profound than any limit concerning our personal vision; indeed, we are confessing together, in the fashion of Scripture everywhere (cf. Job, Rom. 1:20), that there are spiritual realties beyond our ken altogether and that’s that. It isn’t just that we don’t see them; we don’t understand them either—at least not in any comprehensive way.
All such spiritual realities or invisibilia the creedal Christian acknowledges by faith; this acknowledgment alone renders coherent the rest of what we affirm in our public confession concerning the Creation; Christ’s Incarnation, Resurrection, and return in judgment; and the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Everything of substance (in Aquinas’s sense) in the Creed requires a spiritual rather than merely historical referent; or to put it another way, it requires a vertical as well as horizontal reference for understanding. If we reduce our Creed (or confession) to a mere social construct or human agreement, tacitly or explicitly, we risk making baffle-gab of the words and a mere political or social construct of the Church itself, rather than something instituted by Christ. (Can we really imagine Jesus saying, “On the results of this latest survey I will build my church”?)
The Reduction of Sacral Language
Now, to raise these issues may seem like bringing coals to Newcastle. Why labor the obvious? Well, because mistranslation calculated to obscure transcendent reference has, deliberately or otherwise, become a serious problem not only for doctrinal understanding in the laity generally, but for theological understanding (spiritual interpretation) specifically. Leaving aside the cultic translations of fringe groups, or even the gender-inclusive issues that have corrupted the sense and perhaps even distorted the Christology of such translations as the NRSV, NIV, and New Jerusalem Bible, we ought to look more comprehensively at contemporary mainstream translation.
There is no need in this context to conjure with secondary manifestations of secularity in the churches, such as the colorful marketing strategies of the “emergent church,” the attempted disarming of the doctrine of the Trinity in books such as The Shack, the abolition of hell in Rob Bell’s Love Wins, or, for that matter, the abolition of heaven in Timothy Jackson’s The Priority of Love, though all of these are consistent, immanentist phenomena. Our topic is more fundamental, namely, the widespread tendency in English-speaking Christendom to redefine the language of canonical Scripture itself, often in such a way as to undermine the spiritual character of critical theological concepts at the source. The editors of the 21st Century King James Bible claim in their introduction that “only in the late twentieth century does one find the use of secular English in Bible translations.” They may be pretty much right on this point, for intentionally or not, the reduction of inherently spiritual or sacral language to its material affect is now in fact widespread in modern translations of Holy Scripture. From there it infects liturgy, preaching, and catechesis more readily.
Let me, for the sake of brevity, offer just a few contemporary examples in which distinctively sacral language in Holy Scripture is misrepresented, and then move on to some suggestions about how we might begin to think constructively about this problem—only a problem, of course, if we believe that a contemporary rewriting of Scripture so as to reconfigure it to the presuppositions of our secular age is in some respect transgressive of its claim to be divine revelation (cf. Boersma, 94–95). But that is precisely the point at issue: sacral acts and terms, as given in Scripture, are often offered explicitly as a divine gift, a naming of signs and things by the Lord himself.
The Giftedness of a Wise Heart
About half of the Book of Exodus is devoted to God’s instructions to Moses concerning the erection and furnishing of a place for worship. The sanctuary, or “tent of meeting” as it is later called, will contain the Holy of Holies, the reserved inner sanctum, as we say, wherein God promises to reside—to be present—in a distinctive and mysterious way. The presence of the most holy God, clearly something invisible, was nevertheless to be signified and framed by visible signs of his holiness, visible signals of the invisible God. God tells Moses that he will need the services of an artist to render the tabernacle, in all of its furniture and adornments, suitably holy in this sense.
The association of beauty with holiness (later made explicit in 1 Chr. 16:28–9; Ps. 29:2) begins right here. Not just anybody can craft the altar, or the ark. Moses is told to call on “Bezalel, son of Uri,” who is said to be “wise-hearted” (chokma-lev: Ex. 31:6). Bezalel’s name, as so often is the case in Hebrew, foreshadows the overall spiritual significance of the passage (it means “in the shadow of God”). God goes on to tell Moses that Bezalel has been called by God, and has been filled “with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works” (3–4). Moreover, God continues, “in the hearts of all those that are wise-hearted I have put wisdom” (6). This charism of giftedness is present in Bezalel’s chosen assistants as well: “all the women that were wise-hearted did spin with their hands” (35:25); indeed also “every wise-hearted man, in whom the Lord put wisdom and understanding” (36:1–2).
I have been quoting here, as my reader may have guessed, from the KJV, which has translated the unusual term chokma-lev (for which there is no precise English equivalent) in a characteristically literal way. To make the heart the seat of wisdom is, of course, very Hebraic. But to distinguish in this way chokma-lev, “wise-hearted” from chokma, “wisdom” simpliciter is, in the Hebrew, to draw attention to spiritual giftedness and vocation; those chosen to create the art of the tabernacle are deemed worthy not because they are known to be crafty, but because they have been Spirit-filled, gifted by God himself for artistic work fitted to the beauty of holiness.
Now let us consider what happens to chokma-lev in representative modern translations. The NIV, NAB and NASB render chokma-lev as “skill,” the ESV has “ability,” the New Living Translation has “expertise,” The Message has “aptitude for crafts.” In all these cases, what has been lost in translation is nothing less than the main point—the sacral, sacramental element of divine giftedness, which in this passage is presented as intrinsically necessary to a holy work and worship. In the Hebrew text, Bezalel, Aholiab, and their colleagues are chosen to build and adorn the tabernacle precisely because they have been granted the prerequisite spiritual gift. Any reduction of chokma-lev to a term of mere material affect muffles the spiritual significance of this special artistry in a particularly dismal way. If we may shift to Greek to say so, what we have left on the page of most modern translations is all techné and no logos.
Interestingly, the only other text in the Hebrew Scriptures that makes use of chokma-lev is 1 Kings 3:12, in which God honors Solomon’s wise request for the gift of wisdom (chokma) by granting him something greater, a lev chakam, a wise heart. Solomon, too, we should note, has been chosen to build a sanctuary for the Lord.
The Tonality of Holiness
Some loss of meaning in contemporary translations can seem almost innocuous: when, for example, a translation chooses “sanctification” (NASB) as a substitute for “holiness” (KJV, RSV) in translating hagiasmon—as in “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14, KJV); we may not notice that the substitution of the latinate word “sanctification” subtly invokes a particular doctrinal elaboration in place of the simplicity of qodesh (“being completely set apart for God”), the Old Testament term reasonably translated by the Greek hagiasmon. Here, adopting the doctrinal, process term “sanctification” more easily confuses than clarifies the biblical author’s evident meaning: the whole of the argument in Hebrews is about consecration, “holiness to the Lord,” made possible only through the singular holiness of Christ, and so a necessary condition of our salvation. In the more literal translation of the KJV, a reader’s recollection of the pervasive Hebrew concept of holiness as it so centrally appears in Exodus, Leviticus, and the Psalms (e.g., Ps. 15, Ps. 24) is almost unavoidable.
It is not too much to add that an aura of holiness, of being set apart, is intrinsic to the tonality of biblical language with regard to worship in general. When we “hear” it—and it seems to me that we hear it more readily in the KJV and RSV than in most of the more recent English translations, we know that we are being called to something higher.
My purpose in these remarks is not, as some may imagine, to “defend” the KJV; there have been so many advances in our possession and understanding of the Greek text of the New Testament especially that we could not in conscience limit ourselves to it. My point, occasioned by the 400-year anniversary, is rather to ask what we may learn from this longstanding version in relation to the task of obtaining a sound translation for lay readership and worship now. In the KJV examples I have just given, a literal rendering of the Hebrew term for a spiritual quality preserves its plainest sense, which is essential to preserving spiritual understanding; getting that right helps us see that spiritual interpretation is in fact the objective purpose of the entire text of this particular book of the Bible.
But this sort of distinction (in which, as the medieval exegetes would say, the spiritual sense is the literal sense of the text) is hardly unique to the book of Hebrews or Exodus. It is accordingly problematic that insensitivity to the spiritual register is pervasive in a wide range of modern translations.
Attunement to the Spiritual Sense
Strikingly, tone-deafness to the spiritual register of sacral terms can appear even in an otherwise excellent translator. In a recent talk celebrating the 400th anniversary of the KJV, Robert Alter described as an unwarranted interpolation the “spiritualization” or “exaltation” of the KJV in translating the phrase from Psalm 19:4, “in them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun,” when the Hebrew word translated “tabernacle” is merely ‘ohel, “tent.”7 Now, among the KJV translators were some superlative Hebraists, so we should ask, why did they ignore the literal sense in this case, when they had stuck to it in the Exodus passage we have just considered? The answer, I think, is context and precedent.
The context of which our psalm is an echo is first found in Exodus and in Numbers, where the “tent of meeting” (‘ohel mo’ed) is frequently called also mishkan, translated appropriately as “tabernacle” in both the KJV and RSV. The KJV accordingly follows the Greek LXX in Psalm 19, rendering ‘ohel here as “tabernacle” (skene and skenoma in the LXX). In short, the subject matter of Psalm 19 is the divine kavod—the glory of God revealed in various manifestations.
I do not mean to suggest that these seventeenth-century translators always got it right: if they were thinking ahead to John 1:14, and the astonishing term eskenosen, “tabernacled,” as a verb for the presence of the Incarnate Lord, they do not show it—oddly settling in that instance for “dwelt among us” instead. In the prologue of John’s Gospel, I would accordingly suggest, the KJV translators missed the mark.
But not in Psalm 19:4; here the KJV Hebraists almost certainly knew that the Ugaritic cognates to the Hebrew ‘ohel and mishkan are likewise used of divine dwelling places. Anywhere else the word “tent” is posited in connection with the divine kavod, the glory of God, we may expect to see this spiritual understanding rendered explicit by the King James translators, simply because that is a context in which, to put it simply, a tent is more than a tent. Alter’s “made a tent for the sun” is acceptable literal Hebrew, but here a literalistic rendering is entirely inadequate to the transcendent focus of the poem, and so misses the spiritual register in a way the KJV translators did not.
Reduction to the literal or material misses the poetic context, which in Psalm 19 is clearly an allusion to pagan allegory: the Psalmist has borrowed a widespread ancient Near-Eastern (ANE) version of the Phebus/Apollo myth of the sun-god to suggest that poetic language, like the natural language of creation, may also reveal the kavod, the glory of God. Arguably, this was more obvious to the KJV than to some modern translators—not only because they read the passage as borrowed ANE poetry, but also and especially because they allowed spiritual interpretation of the Psalms (as well as of the Pentateuch, from Augustine and Gregory through to the Glossa Ordinaria) to guide them toward a canonical, hence spiritual, sense of ‘ohel when it occurs in conjunction with kavod.
In these examples I hope it will be clear that I am neither promoting nor slighting the literal sense universally, but rather suggesting that achieving the “spiritual sense” of Scripture in a target language is a task requiring both spiritual attunement and a rich canonical sense of Scripture in the original languages. I am also suggesting that many contemporary translations in English are not doing as well in these respects as the supposedly“outdated” KJV.
But there is more. A faithful translator must discern when the literal sense of the words in a passage intends a spiritual interpretation. Discernment—philological, theological, and spiritual—seems to me to be necessary at every step. Some translations labor to get the spiritual dimension right; others almost seem to ignore it. Let me briefly offer two or three further examples of serious mistranslation of the sort which I take to imperil spiritual understanding of the biblical text.
Banality & Babble
Although it is not my principal concern in this essay, it should be apparent that stylistic distortion is itself a species of mistranslation. Banality and bathos in the place of probity and pathos is widespread in contemporary English translations. Examples abound: When the New Jerusalem Bible puts “Acclaim Yahweh” for the memorable, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” we have in more than one way lost the music. Peter Mullen has made the pertinent point in regard to the New English Bible, namely, that “the NEB . . . cannot tell the difference between speech that is poetic and metaphorical and speech that is literal and descriptive. That is why for ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ we are given instead the pantomime howler, ‘men dressed up as sheep.’”
In a similar vein, Anthony Esolen has recently clobbered the NAB for its clunky, bureaucratic “Nabbish” and its reductive form-critical notes.8 He, too, includes an array of dreadful examples of that sort of banality that can unfailingly turn a silk purse back into a pig’sear. Esolen’s complaint about a “bumping, boxcar” kind of language in the NAB is that, while it carries some of the freight, it does so in a particularly ugly way. Neither he nor anyone else with an ear for good English is likely to find the brand-new Common English Bible much better in this regard. Take the familiar text, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the House of the Lord” (Ps. 122:1). When this is rendered in the CEB as “Let’s go to the Lord’s house,” the locution may be lexically equivalent, as indeed would be “Let’s go to God’s house,” but it is also verges on a grotesque secularism at the level of “Let’s go to Joe’s place—he has the biggest TV.”
Yet there are far too many instances where a supposed literal accuracy, pressed into the service of mere historicism, kills more than elegant diction. The CEB, an ecumenical effort of about 120 translators (twelve of whom are Catholics), at first seemed promising, and there are some virtuous passages in this version. But sadly, here too, the dominance of the language of social construction has led to slanted colloquialisms: “alien” becomes “immigrant,” “angels” become “messengers” (pleasing, perhaps, to those who wish to add an Islamic overture, but nonetheless a literal equivalent that kills a crucial spiritual distinction in the original).
In this version, neither John the Baptist nor Jesus calls on people to “repent,” but, less judgmentally, to “change your heart.” Generic language such as the inclusive use of “man” or “mankind” is studiously avoided; Adam becomes simply “the human”—even though, predictably, Eve is still “a woman.” The translators retain “son of Adam” in the genealogy of Christ as it is found in Luke 3, but the CEB reader will have lost the linkage with the name in Genesis, where pre-fallen “Adam” has been erased.
Far more seriously, Messianic titles for Jesus also go out the window; Jesus is no longer “the Son of Man,” but “the Human One.” At this point, theological misrepresentation disqualifies the translation for those who regard “Son of Man” as a messianic title. Even for those who don’t, the locution has the odd effect of making Jesus seem like a character in an episode of Star Trek, with the narrator sounding like a Klingon, or at least someone from another galaxy: “the Human One must suffer many things and be rejected” (Luke 9:22); “the Human One is Lord of the Sabbath” (6:5); and “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Human One” (17:26). Meanwhile, the translators have no trouble with retaining “Be’ezalel” (11:18–19) and “Satan” (10:18).
The risk to the ordinary reader in this tacit erasure of the messianic title is a kind of philologically induced Arianism.A genuinely theological problem thus outweighs the many other infelicities in this version, though they are legion. One wonders, for example, how “children of snakes” can be imagined as an improvement upon “brood of vipers.” But the greatest offense is theological, and sometimes the text of a particular passage shows it up with a clarity that one might think would have startled even the translators themselves: In Luke 9:26, the CEB reads, “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, the Human One will be ashamed of that person when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the Holy Angels.”
In the same vein, consider the NAB in Isaiah 7:14: “a young woman shall conceive and bear a son.” This is a reversion, of course, from the familiar “a virgin shall conceive” in the KJV, NEB, and others. Mercifully, the NAB citation of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23, following the LXX, retains “virgin” (parthenos). Yet even if the scruple of the NAB translators is with the Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 alone, in particular the term ‘alma, there is still an unjustified misrepresentation in this rendering.
The Greek translators of the Old Testament, who gave us parthenos for the Hebrew ‘alma in the LXX, properly saw in Isaiah 7:14 a rare term: ‘alma appears only seven times in the Old Testament. It means a pubescent girl and is never used for young women who are married. Bethula, another term for a young woman of marriageable age (it is closely approximated by the English “housewife”), does not in fact exclude sexual experience; bethula may also be used of a widow (Joel 1:8). All seven uses of ‘alma confirm that in the Old Testament this term is overwhelmingly associated with an unmarried state and the Jewish expectation of chastity before marriage. The Douai, KJV, and other translators (e.g., NIV, ESV, NKJV) thus had ample warrant for following the LXX and Vulgatein rendering ‘alma in Isaiah 7:14 as “virgin.”
This text, transparently cited in the New Testament to make the point that Jesus is not the natural offspring of Mary and Joseph, has always been regarded by Christians as a messianic portent. What has been lost by the supposedly “candid” literalism of the NAB translators in this instance, even at the level of denotative and material understanding, is a diminishment of that point, and accordingly, their translation is, if I may say so, far more damaging to “the glory of God” than Alter’s insistence upon “tent” for ‘ohel—if only because it is an obfuscation of the miraculous nature of the Incarnation. All too obviously, few readers of the NAB, or of any other English translation, now live in a culture in which sexual chastity in an unmarried teenager can normatively be
Piety Without Poetry
It is an irony that the Babel-effect of numerous competing translations replicates in some measure the conditions that created the need for the KJV in its own day. At a conference in Hampton Court in January 1604, Dr. John Reynolds, the President of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, one of only four Puritan leaders in the largely Anglican gathering, argued that dissonance between the Bishop’s Bible (standard in churches) and the Geneva Bible (most commonly read in families) was creating theological uncertainties among laypeople, and that this made the development of a common, authoritative translation desirable for the sake of Christian harmony. One could be forgiven for thinking that a similar case for a common Bible in English is far stronger now than it was then. Yet it should be evident that any such effort will face formidable obstacles.
Friedrich Schleiermacher, in his essay “On the Different Methods of Translation,” observed the tension with which all translators must wrestle: “Either the translator leaves the author in peace, as much as possible” he writes, “and moves the reader towards him; or, he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author towards him.”9 It will be obvious by now that I am among those who think that much of recent Bible translation has veered too far in the direction of leaving contemporary culture undisturbed.
It will be equally clear that I think this problem is not merely a matter of ungainly style, though Esolen is certainly right to think, as he puts it in his inimitable fashion, that a flat, “bland, Scripture-muffling, colorless, odorless, gaseous paraphrase,” may reasonably be suspected of calculatedly deleterious spiritual intent. I think, summarily, that where Holy Scripture is the text, we ought to resist the form/content dichotomy in translation altogether and, in particular, to resist the overweighting of a one-dimensional target language at the expense of a polysemous original, which often depends heavily on form (style, repetition, rhythm, parallelism, trope, etc.) to deliver transcendent spiritual meaning.
The late Eugene Nida, an arch-proponent of the notion of “dynamic equivalence,” was preoccupied with the historical sense to a fault; many of his disciples have produced tone-deaf translations where the spiritual sense is concerned. Paradoxically, it is in the sensuous physicality of the original Hebrew and Greek terms that the spiritual sense often becomes most available; abstract or incautiously chosen “functional equivalents” can deny to biblical language its sacramental power.
Clarity in the target language is desirable, but not a sufficient justification for word choice. There are innumerable failed attempts to be helpfully more literalistic among professional biblical exegetes, many of whom retranslate biblical texts so as provide practical clarity or to undergird their own interpretation.
To take an apparently innocuous example, Grant R. Osborne, in his Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, renders “Give us this day our daily bread” as “Give us today our daily needs.” At one level, this elision can seem to capture a kind of “bottom line” understanding of Jesus’ words. But the spiritual sense is clearly jeopardized. What is lost is the rich, sacramental polysemeity of Jesus’ own language, in this prayer and elsewhere, in which “bread” (arton) may signify his body, his teaching, his person. The term for “bread” used by the gospel writers to translate the Hebrew of Jesus clearly intends “bread” in a more than merely physical way; this bread recalls the manna in the wilderness, the “bread of heaven” in prototype.We do not need to insist on the Douai’s overly theologized “super-substantial bread” (following Origen’s rendering of epiousion) to correct the flatness and one-dimensionality of “daily needs.” A sounder spiritual sense, evoked by the metaphorical register, is present already in the Pater noster as it has been prayed since apostolic times, and we should be extremely reluctant to depart from the poetry of it.
Piety without poetry can be dangerous to theological truth. We may imagine a range of “dynamic” or “functional” equivalents to the Hebrew phrasing of Isaiah 40; for example, we may concede that something like “all topographical variations shall be leveled” would be a functional equivalent of Isaiah 40:4a, but who would choose it over “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,” and what Handel would want to set the functional equivalent to music? Here it is the tone of joyous exaltation itself which conveys the theological truth about eschatological consolation.
Captive to the Zeitgeist
What would be required for a translation to be faithful to the author and yet accessible to the English reader? Here I agree wholeheartedly with Leland Ryken: A good translation is one in which “the author’s own words are reproduced, figurative language is retained rather than explained, and stylistic features and quirks of the author are allowed to stand as the author expressed them.”10 It is unfortunate that even some very pious modern biblical exegetes and translators too much resemble the average atheist in this respect: metaphor makes them nervous, and they would prefer to doaway with it. Yet it is very frequently metaphor that most clearly opens to us the transcendent in biblical texts.
Contrariwise, when the poetic language of Jesus, or of the Law and the Prophets, is reduced to some mere material affect or other, it is almost always at the risk of theological misprision. Such misrepresentation can easily come from an inept pursuit of “dynamic” and “functional” equivalents, simply by letting the culture of the target language over-determine the rendering of biblical language.11 Translators, as well as interpreters and preachers, can all too easily succumb to a kind of linguistic “Stockholm Syndrome,” inadvertently yielding to the spirit of this present age, which, to cite Taylor again, “identifies in a strongly transcendent version of Christianity a danger for the goods of the modern moral order” (546). Which goods must be served if one wants to make a splash—and money.
When translators are captive more to the Zeitgeist of the target language than to the spirit of the scriptural text, even the high purpose with which they began becomes muddled. Sometimes the results are just blatantly inept; one may think here of the modern Liberian translation in which “lead us not into temptation” comes across as “do not catch us when we sin.” We laugh—but the howler is not so dissimilar to other types of over-determination in our own language when these are made to reflect the one-dimensionality of our present culture at the expense of the intention evident in the biblical text itself.
It may well be, as C. L. Wrenn argued in response to the Good News Bible of the 1960s, that
What Wrenn meant, of course, is that the secularization of our consciousness extends its effects right into the very language by which we try to understand spiritual and sacramental concepts. Spiritual/theological words almost always imply more than the narrowly synchronous sense we tend to give them in a materialist age. They require recovery of their spiritual sense, their reference to things “invisible” (Rom. 1:20), to bear the authentic signature of theology or, in the sense Aquinas intends, their value as symbol.
The Example of Bede
What can be done about all this?It is frequently alleged that even though our colloquial language may be reductively materialistic, we have to use it, since it’s just the way we talk now. But if colloquial language of the sort I have instanced is our limit, then any discussion of spiritual interpretation will seem esoteric and antiquarian; it cannot be expected to bear fruit in preaching or personal devotion among those Christians whose diminished translations of Scripture just will not any longer bear the weight of philological and theological glory.To those who say, “Yes, our translations may be riddled with mistranslation, even outright misrepresentation of spiritual reality, but what can we do but accede to the norms of our culture and recalibrate the message?”, we should reply that recalibration to what the world wants to hear entails infidelity to the text whose own purpose is described as “a witness against us” (Josh. 22:27).
In fact, the social determinist claim that we are definitively constrained by the character of our contemporary vernacular is just plain false. What we have also got is the language of Holy Scripture itself, responsibly Englished if we will use it, and the language of the liturgy and hymns passed down to us. Neither translator nor teacher is restricted to whatever limit seems to pertainin our colloquial argot.
Think about church history, e.g., the Venerable Bede, whose grandparents were pagan, and that entire generation of Benedictines. They translated into their native Anglo-Saxon both the Gospels and the Psalms. But there was a sorry inadequacy in this vigorous early form of our language where many biblical and liturgical terms were concerned. The earliest translators were not daunted, but promptly borrowed words from Latin to meet the need: alms, altar, angel, anthem, apostle, ark, canticle, chalice, creed, deacon, demon, disciple, epistle, hymn, manna, martyr, priest, prophet, psalm, Psalter, rule, Sabbath, shrift, temple. Later would come words like absolution, baptism, beatitude, charity, communion, confession, contrition, creator, crucifixion, devotion, faith, homily, mercy, miracle, obedience, passion, pastor, penance, religion, sacrament, saint, sanctuary, savior, temptation, theology, trinity, virgin, virtue—and on and on.13
What would have happened if someone had said, in that time and place, “We just have to find dynamic equivalents in Anglo-Saxon?” There weren’t any. Appropriately, the first translators were not intimidated by the prospect of teaching people the meaning of biblical and sacral terms not to be found anywhere in their everyday language. They gratefully borrowed the language of Scripture as they found it in another tongue. We may need to reclaim their honest practice.
As Psalm 19 is at pains to declare, every form of speech known to man is demonstrably inadequate to convey to us fully the glory of the Lord. Yet clearly some choices are better than others if it is really the glory of the Lord we wish to acknowledge.And just here is where we may look for a solution—in careful translation, in attunement to the sacred more than to the secular in liturgy, in catechesis, in the homilies preached upon the gospel. If the flat, secularized language of our culture no longer has the terms to convey spiritual content, we, too, can borrow words from our own English language—terms hallowed in another age and culture—and give back to them their fullness of meaning for understanding Scripture.
To Speak with Understanding
There is a solution, problematic as the secularized language of the surrounding materialist culture may be as an impediment. It is to become one of those who recover and learn to speak with understanding the language of Holy Scripture at the heart of the Church, striving to teach patiently, at every opportunity, its richness and truth. This can be done, if we wish to, by a principled inclusion of accurate definitions of sacred terms in every homily and catechetical context. I think we must, as J. R. R. Tolkien once said,14 engage in a willed act of recovery of sacral language if the sacred sources themselves are not to be elided by cheap philological and symbolic facsimiles.
Deuteronomy 4:2 and Revelation 22:18–19 do not forbid translation; the Great Apostolic Commission and the proclamation at Pentecost virtually require it. Moreover, the Gospels themselves are in Greek, already a translation. What is forbidden in those passages is excision and misrepresentation. That this puts every translator on notice seems to me to follow, and nowhere more especially, as I have suggested, than when we are dealing with sacral terms. Spiritual interpretation is not merely an option; for the translator as well as the theologian it is a necessity, enjoined by the text of Holy Scripture itself. But attempts to communicate such understanding for a laity whose sense of biblical language has been flattened and disfigured by ineffectual translation will be largely fruitless.
I do not mean to suggest that error in translation is avoidable. Though “the Law of the Lord is perfect,” as the Psalmist says (Ps. 19:7), it is necessary to recognize also that the reader is always subject to misprision: “who can understand his own errors?” (Ps. 19:12). But it is the job of the translator to ensure as much as possible that error is not added to error. We do not think it an intrusion to pray for holy fidelity in pastors and parents; we should perhaps as readily pray for scruple and discernment in teachers and translators—that the latter especially may leave metaphor and mystery undisturbed and resist materialist reduction at every turn. •
1. Collin Hansen, “Son and Crescent,” Christianity Today 55.2 (Feb. 2011): www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/february/soncrescent.html.
David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University and Guest Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Peking University. Among his recent books are Houses of the Interpreter (Baylor University Press) and a co-authored and co-edited volume, The Bible and the University (Paternoster Press/Zondervan). He and his wife have five children.
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“Our Babel of Bibles” first appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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