Friday, February 10, 2006

The communication fallacy in modern Bible translation

Dynamic equivalence

Eugene Nida a Bible translator devised the theory of dynamic equivalence in the early 1960s. Since then he and his theory have been a domineering presence in the American Bible Society, the United Bible Societies, and Wycliffe Bible Translators - in short, influencing almost completely the structures and institutions of modern evangelical Bible translation. Dr. Anthony H. Nichols completed a PhD thesis on this very issue, he observes that the "literature on Bible translation in particular over the last half century is dominated by Eugene A. Nida and his proteges in the United Bible Societies (UBS) and Wycliffe Bible Translators".

The dynamic equivalence (sometimes called "functional equivalence") philosophy of translation undergirds many/most modern Bible versions (exceptions to a fair extent are the ESV, RSV, ASV/NASV and NKJV). The goal and method of dynamic equivalence is to produce an effect in the modern-day reader that is exactly equivalent to that registered by the very first readers in their culture. The translator must have the same "empathetic" spirit of the author and the ability to impersonate the author's demeanor, speech, and ways with the "utmost verisimilitude". All of this intuition is required in order to express by a telepathic process, the thoughts of the author as he himself would have, had he been writing in the language and culture into which the translator is translating.

Thus, translation becomes equated with revelation, and the finished product every bit as much the Word of God as the original Greek and Hebrew, since it is the thoughts and not the words that count. Nida believes that: "God's revelation involved limitations...Biblical revelation is not absolute and all divine revelation is essentially incarnational...Even if a truth is given only in words, it has no real validity until it has been translated into life...The words are in a sense nothing in and of themselves...the word is void unless related to experience". It needs no emphasising surely, that this is entirely heterodox. Revelation is not when God has spoken but when man has received, this is presumably what makes it relative.

Modern translators of the Bible have made the rendering of its "spirit" rather than "letter" their basic assumption, and this assumption is rarely questioned even though it is decidedly untenable. An abstract distinction is drawn between the form of the Scriptures (the words used) and their content (meaning of the phrases). Nida (following the Saphir-Whorf linguistic hypothesis) continually speaks of the "essence" or "spirit" of the text as though the words were mere labels.

The distinction is fundamentally flawed, however, since as Henry Zylstra noted, "separation of truth from statement, of content from form, of idea from style, is a false and fatal separation. The form is essential to the meaning, to the understanding of it and to the communication of it". Discarding form in favour of content is the basic principle of the philosophy of dynamic equivalence, but clearly it radically "underestimates the intricate relationship between form and meaning in language" (Anthony Nichols, p.159). To "translate meaning while ignoring the way that meaning has been articulated is no translation at all but merely replacement - murdering the original instead of recreating it" (Gerald Hammond).This crudely mechanical idea "has led to a simplistic view of text, in which a particular sequence of meaning is couched in a particular linguistic form, according to the 'stylistic'preference (or, at worst, whim) of a given writer". In terms of the Bible this would mean the view (defective in its doctrine of inspiration) that the individual authors of Scripture and their mode of expression was irrelevant, accidental, or simply whimsical.

Historically, however, translation has always been understood as subordinate to the originals and dependent upon them, in the same way that streams are dependent upon their source. According to Reformed theologians such as Francis Turretin, the authority of the things/substance/content of Scripture (authoritas rerum) may be conveyed by means of accurate translation as well as in the original languages. The authority of the words of Scripture (authoritas verborum), however, may be maintained only in the words of the original languages. It is important to note that Nida's theory not only diminishes the authority of Scriptures by dismissing any significance in their original phrasing or form, it also degrades material authority. This is because material authority may be endangered by what is lost (inflections of meaning) through paraphrase and because with the original words obscured only one interpretation of them (which may be rarely true and never adequate) is instituted. Nida maintains that doctrines are in a sense culturally relative, that where substitutionary atonement has no communicable value it should be replaced by a doctrine of the atonement as simply reconciliation. It is alarmingly clear that material authority has only a tenuous existence when dynamic equivalence is rigorously applied. Material authority is destroyed when Nida tells us that part of the necessity of the translation process requires that ideas must be "modified". (On Translation, quoted Prickett, p.31).

One linguistics scholar has little time for Nida's idea of "equivalent effect": "The principle of "'equivalent effect'...involves us in areas of speculation and at times can lead to very dubious conclusions". Dr. Anthony Nichol's recent doctoral research concludes frankly that "equivalence defined in terms of receptor's response is impossible to measure". In some versions Western principles and thought forms seem to dominate making the Scriptures in effect Westernised a opposed to reflective of biblical language and culture. Dr. Nichols' highly important research investigates the influence of dynamic equivalence in several Far Eastern translations. The results are alarming: " what emerged was the immense influence of the GNB [Good News Bible] on three important non-western versions". It was concluded that "the renderings of the more traditional 'formal-correspondence' Indonesian versions were regularly more culturally appropriate [in comparison with the dynamic equivalent versions]".

It becomes readily apparent that Eugene Nida's idea of translation is one that obliterates the distinction between translation and exegesis, the latter is to be absorbed into the responsibility of translation. Nida proceeds to redefine exegesis as (the) "interpretation of a passage in terms of relevance to the present-day world, not to the biblical culture" (On Translation). In anyone else's book, however, this is hermeneutics and exegesis is the basic process of a historical-grammatical understanding of the text. Nida has simply switched the labels in pursuit of transforming the missionary and evangelist into a translator and vice versa. Dr. AH Nichols speaks of the way that Nida's notion of "equivalence" 'blurs the distinction between "translation" and "communication"'. Many versions like to promote this idea e.g. God's Word (1995) the translation published by World Bible Publishers who claim preposterously, "Now no interpretation needed. The Bible: the all-time best-seller but hardly the best understood. God's Word the revolutionary new translation that allows you to immediately understand exactly what the original writers meant".

Preaching and communication

No doubt, historically, the Bible has been widely distributed and every encouragement given that it be read. Never before, however, has its contents been tailored so brutally upon the Procrustean bed of communication. Historically, the preaching of the gospel - the personal and direct God-appointed means - has always been the primary means by which it is proclaimed. New Testament evangelism did not centre around making endless copies of Scripture portions or apostolic tracts. In our own day printed communication is not necessarily as perfect a means as we may assume. There is the problem of information-saturation and overkill through junk mail and the constant background noise of communication in our society.

It might be objected that the Bible says that it is the Word of God that produces faith. The reference is to Romans 10:17, "Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God", and it is that word "hearing" that makes us look again at the whole passage. "For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call upon him whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!" (verses 13-15, my emphasis). Why did the apostles preach? Not surely because of the pragmatic choice that the cultural situation entailed, but simply because they were "sent" and commanded by the "wisdom of God" (Luke 11:49). They were the herald and witnesses of Christ, speaking as ambassadors on his behalf: "As though God did beseech you by us", says Paul, "we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20). Often in fact the apostle's preaching is spoken of as Christ himself preaching (Eph. 2:17 and 4:20-21, I Pet. 4:11).

In Scripture we find that God always deals and speaks personally, that at least always speaks through authorised representatives (Exodus 7:1). The incident of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is instructive in the midst of these issues. Reading Isaiah 53 in his chariot, he is asked "understandest thou what thou readest?" This line is happily quoted for a joke by peddlers of the modern versions in their adverts, but perhaps they might take the trouble to understand the issues that the passage presents. The eunuch was probably reading a 300 year old Greek translation but his main concern was to have someone to guide him. The literal meaning of the word that he uses, hodogetos, refers to a guide, one who shows the way. The desire is not for an exegete but a hodogete. God is gracious to provide not only a map but a guide also, as it were. A dynamically equivalent translation would not have answered the burning question, "of whom speaketh the prophet this?" Even a study bible with its peremptory explanation in the study notes would still be very far from:

"Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus" (emphasis mine).

Bible and literature distribution has been greatly blessed in the conversion of many, and the work of the Gideons is crucially significant. In general, however, we would want to be able to present the gospel personally also. While many have the ability to read, that is not at all the same thing as having either the desire or the time to do so. Handing someone a Bible does not fulfill our evangelistic responsibility towards them, it only marks its beginning. An oral presentation deals upon personal terms - the way in which God Himself always deals, seeking to confront the sinner with a personal Christ as well as a personal frame of reference.

The apostle Paul saw no problem in reaching pagans by making use of a three-hundred year old Bible translation that was written in a form of the common language that no-one spoke. Paul also wrote in this dialect and used much terminology and many Old Testament analogies that were even more culturally alien.

The apostles correctly maintained a distinction between the covenant document that God has given to the church and the church's proclamation of the good news to unbelievers. Martin Luther understood this distinction well and expressed it memorably when he spoke of the 'synagogue' as the 'book house' but the 'Church' as the 'mouth-house'. The Westminster Divines placed a similar emphasis upon preaching in the means that are effectual for salvation. Question 89 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism reads 'How is the Word made effectual to salvation?' The answer is given: 'The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation'. Modern evangelicals need a higher view of both preaching and the Scriptures. The Reformed view of translations was that preaching supplied the inadequacies of translation, J. W. Beardslee III sums up the Reformed position as believing that preaching "continues the work of Bible translation; hence the importance of an educated ministry".

We are sometimes told that the incarnation is analogous to the Bible, that just as Christ came in 1st Century clothing so the Word must be translated into modern everyday idiom. Historically, however, this has been understood rather differently, Richard Sibbes advises ministers in their preaching to "take heed that they hide not their meaning in dark speeches, speaking in the clouds". Speaking of Christ's preaching Sibbes says "Our blessed Saviour, as he took our nature upon him, so he took upon him our familiar manner of speech, which was part of his voluntary abasement". Preachers cannot be held to be evangelistically inert if they fail to use a modern rewriting of the Scriptures. Noone will quarrel with the assertion that evangelistic communication must be vital and intelligible.

Edwin H Palmer (one of the NIV translators) argues emotively that it is almost unethical and unchristian for preachers to use the AV. With excessively absurd imagery Palmer importunes: "Do not give them a loaf of bread covered with an inedible, impenetrable crust, fossilized by three and a half centuries. Give them the Word of God as fresh and warm as the Holy Spirit gave it to the authors of the Bible [note the influence of Nida here, we can have the original thoughts of the authors] "For any preacher or theologian who loves God's Word to allow that word to go on being misunderstood because of the veneration of an archaic, not understood version of four centuries ago [it was 3 ½ centuries above] is inexcusable and almost unconscionable". As Don Carson has remarked, the most manipulative arguments in some of these kinds of debate are the "spiritual" ones. Noel Weeks states the issues much more clearly in the following remarks:

"Why this emphasis on simplicity in translation? Is it not a result of the fact that the prime means of converting the unbeliever has changed from the preaching and teaching of the gospel to the distribution of literature, especially of Scripture portions? [however] if the unbeliever is unable to understand the Bible as easily as his pulp novel, the cause is not lost. Let us go back to preaching the gospel as our prime means of evangelism. I cannot be convinced by arguments that Scripture must read like any other book if it is to have force. The New Testament was written in Hebraized Greek. The AV with its literalism is Hebraized English. Rather than being passed by as unreadable the Authorised Version has shaped our whole language whether people read it will ultimately depend upon whether God gives us power to preach it with boldness and conviction, rather than upon its simplicity and lack of technical words."

street English or biblical English?

The main mantra of modern Bible production has been the "need to communicate" the Scriptures in a "modern" idiom. Clearly none of the vast array of available versions has achieved this since the stream of new improved "more contemporary than ever" versions continues to flow, rising to a deluge. Publishers tell us the Bible must be translated into an idiom that they term "street English". The history of biblical language has proved however, that the Bible has never been inscripturated in everyday idiom: the prevalent assumption that it ought to be contradicts God's own wisdom.

From the perspective of language study this obsession with "street English" is strange, since it is clear that different varieties of English do exist in different contexts. These 'varieties' are known as 'registers' and they vary according to the setting and purpose of the interaction, the relationship of those speaking together, and whether the language is spoken or written. Prof. WH Stevenson explains: "at any given time, there is more than one "English" in use. The language of the corner shop is not the language of the most "popular" journalist, and the language of the pulpit, even with the most modern of preachers installed, is different from either". Where can we find an agreed definition of "the language of today" that is spoken of so glibly in discussions about Bible versions? Rather than speak loosely about contemporary English we must be more specific in order to define the register of the English language that is in question.

The English of the Authorised Version, contrary to much misleading prejudice, is "clearly a form of Modern English" (WH Stevenson, p.38). Most of its language is still part of English as currently used; indeed the AV has shaped the language. Certainly, it is an early form of modern English but it is more removed from Medieval English (Chaucer and Wycliffe) than it is from 20th century English. It has not only shaped the English language as a whole, it is the most significant influence on "religious English", the register proper for the public worship of God. Linguists Crystal and Davy observe that: "The older versions [of religious English] are of greater linguistic significance within the speech community as a whole, having had more time to become part of its 'linguistic consciousness'". Translators must therefore, pay attention to the most significant and influential versions of religious English to appreciate the local or native tradition enough. The "whole recognizable past" (CH Sisson) of those registers must be in view.

A translation into the English language is simply, what the Westminster divines intended in the Westminster Confession of Faith stating that "they are to be translated into the language of every people unto which they come". In the Directory for Publick Worship the divines state that the Scriptures "shall be publickly read in the vulgar tongue, out of the best allowed translation". The divines have not changed their thinking. Contrary to the mistaken meaning that some have given to it, the term "vulgar" does not mean popular, common or low-standard. It means in the common sense of national vernacular languages (known as vulgar tongues) i.e. not Latin or other classical languages. The phrase means therefore, the local or native language. A translation must be a faithfully accurate rendering in the English language, the AV satisfies this criteria.

A century after it was published, the AV was almost as out-of-date in its English as at any time afterwards. It was still readily understandable, however, as the translation in the vulgar tongue. At the time Jonathan Swift explained, the significant role that it exercised, "if it were not for the Bible and Common Prayer Book in the vulgar tongue, we should hardly be able to understand anything that was written among us an hundred years ago for those books being perpetually read in churches, have proved a kind of standard for the language, especially to the common people. I am persuaded that the translators of the Bible were masters of an English style much fitter for that work, than any we see in our present writings, which I take to be owing to the simplicity that runs through the whole". According to Swift, the secret of the influence borne by the AV is in the simplicity of its language.

There is wide recognition that the English language is now in decline, but there is little impetus to arrest the decline. Translators, do not appreciate the possibility of enriching the language through the contact with other languages that translation brings about. Bible translators and modern-minded Christians simply throw up their hands and say "what can we do?", "we can only work with the language as it is spoken in street idiom". There is a short-termism that seems blind to the idea of exerting influence and only understands how to be shaped by the state of the language whatever the result. One of the principal translators of the New English Bible, Prof. Kenneth Grayston eptomised this attitude: "Modern English, it seems to me, is slack instead of taut, verbose and not concise, infested with this month’s cliché it seems to me a repository for the bad habits of foreigners speaking English. This is how we must speak if people are to listen and grasp what we say". According to popular evangelical thinking, the church must move the Scriptures along with the times even if that is a downward spiral. At the same time the influence of modern idiom is thought to be a Midas touch that will transform the Church entirely and guarantee evangelistic success.

More and more we are cut off from the past, from the rich spiritual heritage of literature that previous generations have bequeathed to us. This is because the translators have sought to wrest religious English away from the influence of the AV. It is easy to see the effect of this on the output of modern evangelicalism whether the short-lived jingles or the badly written paperbacks and their equally brief shelf-life. As J G Vos , commented: "Secularism is like a chlorine bleach. It takes the real colour out of everything". In restricting itself to current fashionable jargon in everything (including Bible translation) aping secularist forms and language, evangelicalism has become culturally anaemic - the colour has gone from its language.

biblical language

Modern-minded Bible translators have not only cut themselves off from four centuries of the AV and English speaking Christians; they have also cut themselves off from the entire history of the Church’s (including the Old Testament Church) approach to the language of God’s written Word. It seems clear that the language of the Old Testament differs from the more colloquial Mishnaic Hebrew, that of rabbinic oral teaching. The language of the Old Testament stood above and apart from Israelite tribal dialect as a formal language, the product of a literary tradition centuries old. There was no attempt to retranslate for individual dialects or to update the biblical text as the dialects and colloquial aspect of the language evolved. The LORD continued also to deliver God-breathed Scripture by means of this formal language. The Scriptures witness a distinct style and terminology, as one would expect given their unique subject matter. Despite past theories amongst scholars, it is clear that Hebrew survived in Israel as a robustly vernacular language through to the time of Christ, when it coexisted with Greek and Aramaic. Christ himself seems to have spoken or understood all three. In Luke chapter 4, he simply reads the scroll and then expounds the passage, there is no indication of translation into another language. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes gathers the conclusions that may be drawn concerning first-century Hebrew, particularly making use of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

"In evaluating the evidence from Qumran, Chaim Rabin, another Jerusalem scholar, declares that the Scrolls show that "the ordinary, run-of-the-mill sectarian must have understood Biblical Hebrew, much as the uneducated Arab of today understands a sermon preached in Literary Arabic" - or, one might also suggest, much as in the English-speaking world the King James Version of the Bible is still comprehensible to the average person, though future historians may decide otherwise in view of the current clamor for new translations! As James Barr has said regarding the situation in first-century Palestine, "One has to allow for the possibility that the 'common people' might be able to understand levels of discourse which they could not themselves freely produce".

In the third and second century BC the Old Testament was translated into Greek for Jews who were now Greek-speaking and resident in other parts of the world, this translation is usually referred to as the Septuagaint or LXX. This was a very important development for New Testament times because it stimulated the interest of Gentiles who might then become proselytes, or "God-fearers" as the New Testament invariably refers to them. This translation also helped the spread of the Christian message and the apostles appealed to it accordingly, so that many (but by no means all) of the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament are taken from this translation. Not only is it inevitably in a literary, that is to say written rather than spoken Greek, but its language and style are also stamped with the rhythms and thought forms of the literary Hebrew that it translates. This is because the translators reshaped Greek so that it could adapt itself to Hebrew idiom, and in fact it is this type of Hebraic-Greek that the New Testament was written in. It was by no means the "street language" of the known world but rather a minority and ethnic style of a literary language. Biblical Greek is not in fact identical with the secular papyri, rather it "is a unique language with a unity and character of its own" (Nigel Turner). "This language, like the Hebrew of the OT which moulded it, was a language apart from the beginning; biblical Greek is a peculiar language, the language of a peculiar people" (Matthew Black). Nigel Turner draws the patent conclusion in developing the issue of a "Holy Ghost language" that "we now have to concede that not only is the subject matter of the Scriptures unique but so also is the language in which they came to be written".

The Hebrew scholar Robert Alter speaks of the ‘extraordinary concreteness of Biblical Hebrew’ (p.xii). Modern English versions, however, fail to acknowledge this important feature, Alter complains that they ‘have placed readers at a grotesque distance from the distinctive literary experience of the Bible in its original language’. We ought to The philosophy of dynamic equivalence entailing as it does the subjection of Scripture to its readers, provides for this since as Anthony H Nichols concludes, ‘the determinative role given to receptor response constantly jeopardises the historical "otherness" of the biblical text’ (p.159). The depreciation of form in translation, through the rejection of formal equivalence, is doubly strange in that Bible scholars have begun to see, to a greater extent than previously, that the books of the Bible are highly structured and that a close understanding of the form (particularly literary form) of a passage is crucial to exegesis and interpretation. Questing for total unambiguity the modern translators must iron out anything concrete or enigmatic, with the general result that they ‘reduce, simplify, and denature the Bible’ (Alter, pxi). ‘The modern translators and the Bible Society, confident of understanding "correctly the meaning of the original" text, have in fact shown very little interest in the literal sense of the Bible with its attendant complexity and resonances, and have instead chosen quite blatantly, interpretative paraphrases which, it appears, they feel are more culturally acceptable to modern sensibilities’. There is another more shocking aspect to this treatment of the Bible, Robert Alter calls attention to it in the following words: ‘The unacknowledged heresy underlying most modern English versions of the Bible is the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible instead of representing it in another language, and in the most egregious instances this amounts to explaining away the Bible’ (p.xi).

Apparently we need continually to insist upon what should be self-evident, that the Scriptures are different to anything else: they have an "otherness" through their historical character but even more so through their divinely inspired character. The world of biblical language is "another world, not ours, and our unaltered language won’t do insofar as it reflects our world only" (Michael Black). In translation one must come as close to the source language as possible. As has been discussed above, most modern English versions are denying and destroying the "otherness" of the Scriptures (and therefore their authority) in a highly alarming way. Without access to the original languages, how can the average English-speaking reader appreciate the unique qualities of the Scriptures and the language that they use? They are not without hope, however, since "the Authorised Version has the kind of transparency which makes it possible for the reader to see the original more clearly. It lacks the narrow interpretative bias of modern versions, and is the stronger for it" (Gerald Hammond). The latter versions decide for the reader what a verse means and inscribe their own interpretation in the biblical text during the process of "translation" to the exclusion of all other available possibilities. In the modern versions the translator stands between the reader and the original, but "through its transparency the reader of the Authorised Version not only sees the original but learns how to read it" (Hammond). In other words - the English of the AV is Biblical English. As J Gresham Machen expressed it;

"The marvel is that the truly English beauty of the King James Version is attained without any of that freedom - not to say licence - which modern translators pronounce necessary. The original in this version is followed with admirable closeness; paraphrase is eschewed; and yet the result is an English masterpiece. The fortieth chapter of Isaiah in the Authorised Version is a masterpiece not because it is a new work - as some of our recent alleged translations of the Bible really are - but because it has reproduced faithfully both letter and spirit of the majestic original".

thees and thous

For many evangelicals, securing a contemporary English Bible will mean very simply that it avoids like the plague words such as thou/thee/thy/thine. According to popular misbelief these are "archaic and Elizabethan". In fact the English spoken in 1611 used the term "you" as the normal form of address. In this respect and every other, the AV is distinct from the speech and literature of its time (even in comparison with its Preface, "The Translators to the Reader"). Contemporary writers such as Shakespeare, Francis Bacon and Ben Jonson are decidedly more challenging in terms of obsolete words and idiom (yet Shakespeare’s works in particular remain very popular). The fact is that the AV uses a biblical English found nowhere else.

The question of thees and thous is slightly strange though, because it is assumed that simply because this is not contemporary conversational English that it is illegitimate and will not be understood. This is highly questionable since these forms do appear in conversational English from time to time in the form of quotations such as "holier than thou", or "thou shalt not..." etc as well as dialect. They can also be used similarly in written English without any danger of misunderstanding, it is in fact well known what these words mean. Granted, such words may not have a ring of up-to-the-minute newness, but that is no great problem. In their discussion of the question of updated alterations to traditional hymns, the compilers of the recent New English Hymnal stated, "we have made no attempt to alter into the ‘you’ form hymns which use the second person singular [thou] in addressing God. As far as we are aware, congregations experience no difficulty in understanding and using the traditional form in which most hymns have been written". The ostensible motive for updating lanaguage is apparently to remove barriers to understanding, but part of the real motivation is surely a pathological fear of appearing "unfashionable".

When Martin Buber’s Ich und Du was translated from the German into English, the translators found that the singular person pronoun "thou" was necessary and also supplied the vital added connotations of intimacy and respect in addition, it was crucial to what the whole book was trying to say. This aspect of significance and association marries well with careful accuracy in Bible translation as well and ought not to be neglected. (This is not a recommendation of Buber's book itself, simply an illustration).

The question of accuracy is of course, paramount; these pronouns are a more accurate translation of what is there in the words that God has inspired. Dr Ammanuel Mikre-Selassie, a present day Bible translator and linguist makes this very clear in an important article, "Problems in Translating Pronouns from English Versions", “The Bible Translator", vol. 39 (April 1988, pp.230-37). 'Translators, and especially those in common language projects, may find it strange and surprising to hear a consultant recommending use of the King James Version for translation...The archaic English pronouns of the KJV distinguish number in the second person pronoun in all cases...Thus the KJV can certainly render an important service to those translators who do not have any knowledge of the source languages of the Bible and therefore work only from an English base, in easily distinguishing between "you singular" and "you plural".' The uniform translation "you" is in fact confusing because it fails to distinguish between the singular and plural, this invites misinterpretation: the term "you" ought only to be used for the plural. There are at least two dozen passages of Scripture that when compared between modern version and the AV reveal the necessity of thees and thous.

We cannot be blasé about what we do with God’s Word, and how we treat the way in which God has represented Himself. God has revealed Himself as nothing else than singular, referred to in the second person singular "thou", and through careful reverence and faithful accuracy we must respect this. The Shorter Catechism reminds us that: "The third commandment requireth the holy and reverent use of God’s names, titles, attributes, ordinances, Word, and works" and "forbiddeth all profaning or abusing of anything whereby God maketh Himself known". This is the ethical requirement of translation: that the translator does not violently twist and force the words that he translates in the wrong direction. If this is true in general translation, it is surely much more true in translating God’s Word. The translator must not impose himself and his culture arbitrarily upon the text, greater sensitivity and versatility is required. This is the ethical requirement of translation: that the translator does not "traduce" his author, twisting and forcing his words violently in the wrong direction. If this is true in general translation, it is surely much more true in translating God’s Word. The translator must not impose himself and his culture arbitrarily upon the text, greater sensitivity is required - in the words of the translators of the AV: "we cannot follow a better pattern for elocution than God himself". The urgent necessity for translation of the Scriptures is not street English but Biblical English.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

the cult of the modern in contemporary bible translation

Evangelicalism is dominated by the cult of the modern. The term 'modern' is not about history or time so much as quality, everything must be new, and simply because it is new it is immediately original, different and transcends all that was previous. Modernity tears itself from tradition and history and so is forever engaged in repeating itself. The cult of the modern produces a society of the spectacle because the craving for endless novelty is the same as the craving for the spectacular. In this evangelicalism simply mirrors and apes the corrupt mindset of western society.

When we understand what evangelicalism has done with the Bible in the light of this, it is clear that modern bible versions carry the labels 'new', 'contemporary' and 'modern' with very good reason. The fashion for speciality (consumer group pinpointed) Bibles, inclusive language Bibles or tabloid editions (that borrow the format and language of newspapers such as The Daily Mirror or The Sun) is an obvious demonstration of this. Slang paraphrases such as The Message also participate in this, especially in its replacing of New Testament terms and phrases with particularly New Age sounding vocabulary (Life-Light, God-Colors, God-Expression, true selves, child-of-God selves).

The cult of the modern runs much deeper, however. Since the cult of the modern rejects all that is previous, modern-minded translators have thrown out the principle of conservative progress. Robert Rollock, the Scottish Reformer, emphasised this principle in stating that, once a translation has been made into a language, no new translation needs to be made thereafter, only revisions: "the whole translation needs no renewing, but some words which haply [perhaps] are become obsolete and out of use". The translators of the Authorised Version saw themselves in the role of simply making previous English translations better, thus they retained an overwhelming identity with William Tyndale's translation. They said: "we never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one but to make a good one better". In line with the principle of conservative progress there have also been modest, minor revisions of the Authorised Version since it was first translated.

Modern-minded translators, have, however, pretended that the Bible was never before translated into English, or that any attempt to connect with the heritage of translation into English is worthless. Thus they have consciously cut themselves adrift from this heritage. Gerald Hammond (former Professor of English Literature at the University of Manchester) surveying this from expert understanding of Renaissance Bible translation, finds the arrogance of modern-minded Bible translators breathtaking, in that they have "unmade a Bible which took ninety years to make, and which held the imaginations and emotions of its readers for three hundred and fifty years" (The Making of the English Bible, p.13). The modern-minded translator pursues the goal of making the Bible to speak as much in modern idiom as if your next door neighbour had written it. This not only rejects the importance of history, but also any kind of English idiom other than that which can be called 'new' or 'modern'. Such supposedly contemporary idiom is actually artificial. It is manuafactured and constrained by the dominance of journalism and the popular media with their 'dumbing down' of the language through a preponderance of clichés (see Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death - Public Discourse in an Age of Showbusiness). In our day "the main source of popular superstition is radio and TV both using for the most part a language debased beyond anything publicly available in the past" (CH Sisson, Backgrounds for the Bible, p.91). These media are characterised by the cult of the instant; everything must be immediately available and accessible and no demands must be made upon the audience.

In their haste to force the Bible to speak in this idiom, modern-minded translators have forgotten that "the Bible is not a pulp novel but the Word of the living God. Unlike the modern newspaper, the Bible was never meant to yield the fullness of its message to those who are only willing to expend the absolute minimum of effort necessary" (Robert P. Martin). The 'dynamic-equivalence' philosophy of translation which lies behind almost every modern version seeks to reproduce (what the translator believes to be) the original thought of the writer in modern idiom rather than seeking words that correspond directly to those that the author has used. Prof. Gerald Hammond contends that in rejecting the unfamiliar and replacing it with the familiar, modern versions have forfeited the right to be regarded as translations: "to translate meaning while ignoring the way that meaning has been articulated is no translation at all but merely replacement - murdering the original instead of recreating it". "While the Renaissance Bible translator saw half of his task as reshaping English so that it could adapt itself to Hebraic idiom, the modern translator wants to make no demands on the language he translates into".

The assumption with modern-minded translators is that "a modern Bible should aim not to tax its readers’ linguistic or interpretative abilities one bit. If this aim is to be achieved then it seems likely that a new Bible will have to be produced for every generation - each one probably moving us further away from the original text, now that the initial break has been made" (Hammond). Indeed this is the estimation of publishers of the modern versions, that translation will need to be revised in the light of modern language every 25-50 years. The cult of the modern ensures this. The current climate of thought and attitude that involves a rejection of authority, absolutes and history - generally summarised under the term 'postmodernism' may bear its influence in ways that we have failed to observe. "Nothing is more damaging to the authority of Scripture than for readers to think, "it is only a translation, tomorrow there will be a new one" (Jakob van Bruggen). As the sea of modern Bible versions continues to fill the versions compete with each other to achieve 'street-language'. The truth is that they are competing to go the furthest from the biblical text. The tide shows no signs of returning.

Is it really such a good thing to have as many translations as possible? Perhaps we ought to ask a different question in order to answer this. Why were the Scriptures given in writing? The puritan John Flavel answers this: "that the church to the end of the world might have a sure, known, standing -rule, to try and judge all things by, and not be left to the uncertainty of traditions, John 5:39". The Westminster Confession gives similar reasons: "for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world". Does the multiplication of widely varying translations increase or diminish uncertainty and the preservation of the truth?

In the present climate of consumer group pinpointed Bible versions, tradition governs the Word. These speciality Bibles are really commodity Bibles, to be bought simply because they look nice and appealing. They are targeted to men or women, couples or youth. For instance there is the "NIV Boys Bible: Your Ultimate Manual by Rick Osborne, At last-a Bible designed just for 8 to 12 year old boys! Special Features: Focusing on Luke 2:52, study tracks help young men grow 'Deeper, Smarter, Stronger, and Cooler' in the Lord etc. etc." Commercially, speciality Bibles are ideal since one product, the Bible, can have endless makeovers. It does not concern the publishers whether Bibles are more bought than read or whether saturation point is anything more than a marketing problem. That the authority of God's Word is weakened and cheapened is irrelevant to them. Few Christians indeed seem scandalised by such blasphemy as quoted above.

Clearly, publishers have everything to gain by commissioning a new English translation of the Bible. It is their royal road to getting a slice of the market for 'the world's best seller' and their only real way of impacting the market through a copyright monopoly on one particular version. "In the twentieth century our highest praise is to call the Bible 'The World's Best Seller'. And it has become more and more difficult to say whether we think it is a best seller because it is great, or vice versa" (Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image, or Whatever Happened to the American Dream, New York: Atheneum, 1962, p.121-122). The need to make the Bible breathlessly pursue whatever direction contemporary idiom is believed to have taken, or the perceived need to communicate, seems to have a happy and convenient marriage with the need (financially) to accumulate. Truth is up for grabs in the pluralist market of consumer choice.

The spiritual consequences of the cult of the modern are very serious in that it means that we cut ourselves off from a rich heritage. "Most of the pieties that made up traditional Protestant piety are now meaningless to the contemporary Christian. The language and vocabulary of such piety have become empty and hollow" (Edward Farly). Thus the biblical language of Christian doctrine with words such as justification, propitiation etc. has been discarded. A translation such as the Contemporary English Version has thrown out such 'biblical jargon' with alacrity. A passage such as Romans 3:24 becomes completely rewritten from "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" to "God treats us much better than we deserve, and because of Christ Jesus, he freely accepts us and sets us free from our sins". Strangely the word and theme "redemption" are not even paraphrased here.

In an age that cuts down all authority the authority of the Scriptures undoubtedly is at stake. The danger of paraphrases that borrow modern idiom is that the Scriptures become shaped surreptitiously into false expressions conveying entirely inaccurate concepts. The controversy over gender-neutral versions has exposed something of this. If the language is perceived to be shifting (or more importantly if perceived shifts in language are deemed to be commercially successful) then the Word of God must shift too and be forced into politically correct-speak. It must be doomed moreover to the transience of contemporary fads and whims.

Previously it was noted that the profiteering saturation of the market with endless new and different 'translations' by modern publishers undermines that authority. Authority can be diminished through inaccurate rendering also. Remember the Living Bible "wives, try to fit in with your husbands plans" (I Peter 3:1 "ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands")? According to Oliver O'Donovan, "An something which, by virtue of its kind, constitutes an immediate and sufficient ground for acting". It is not difficult to see the way in which the immediate and sufficient ground for ethical action is undermined in this instance, or indeed in the recent revision "accept the authority of your husbands" (New Living Translation), which is still far removed from "be in subjection to". It is the note of passivity that we find in modern 'translations', 1 Thessalonians 4:11 ought for instance to be translated "do your own business" and not the passive and misleading (since it draws upon a colloquial English retort) "mind your own business" which is found in most modern translations and paraphrases. It is clear that it leads on to the injunction to work with one's own hands. The force is taken out and the meaning completed misrepresented.

These translations are leaching the authority and spirituality from the Scriptures by such manhandling of its language. It is no surprise then that authority and spirituality are the two vital but absent realities presently lacking within evangelicalism. These realities come together in Paul's description of an undeniably powerful service of worship, particularly powerful for the unbeliever that comes in and is met with the force of divine revealed truth: "falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth" (1 Corinthians 14:25). Somehow 'seeker-friendly' dogma doesn't seem to emphasise this.

Paraphrases that restate the scriptures in terms of the spirit of the age are not in fact anything new, Edward Harwood produced one such in the eighteenth century. Forthwith the Scriptures are made to speak in pretentious, rationalistic discourse tending towards Unitarian or Deist philosophy, so that the 'Lord of Hosts' becomes 'the great governor and parent of universal Nature' He paraphrased Matthew 6:28 in the following way: "survey with attention the lilies of the field, and learn from them how unbecoming it is for rational creatures to cherish a solicitous passion for gaiety and dress". If modern evangelicals paid any attention to history they might understand the dangers of perverting the Scriptures by accomodating them to the spirit and language of the age.

William Gurnall once said: "Bless God for the translation of the Scriptures. The Word is our sword; by being translated, the sword is drawn out of its scabbard". The sad truth of modern-minded translators is that they are reshaping that sword into an altogether different and more blunt instrument on the anvil of carnal preference.

Brief defence of Experimental Christianity

John Robbins' recent diatribe against the Puritans and experimental Christianity uses an essay by Douglas F. Kelley to launch an attack upon them as 'semi-Pagan' and 'antithetical to the gospel'. Perhaps Kelley has not made the case for an experimental emphasis in the best way and allowed some confusion in introducing the medieval angle, but Robbins dismisses the entire practical writings of the Puritans (a considerable body of work and all experimental) under this label with no more than a throwaway reference. If there is a case to build I am sure it could be constructed in a more reasoned way. Perhaps part of the difficulty is that Mr Robbins has misunderstood the emphasis of experimental Christianity. He focuses on the word 'experience', but this ought to be understood in the older sense of trying and proving (hence experimental) rather than as wholly subjective and personal. Experimental Christianity proves the reality and depth of a profession in relation to the Word of God. It desires that the truth of the Word should be wrought on men's hearts with power and reality by the gracious working of the Spirit and to stimulate greater godliness and devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. It fears a mere 'form of godliness' which denies 'the power thereof'.

Christian experience cannot be divorced from the Word, rather it has a bibline character. This emphasis is found in the Westminster Confession's chapter 18, the Larger Catechism's treatment of self-examination and the Shorter Catechism's teaching on the several benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification' viz. 'assurance of God's love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace, and perseverance therein to the end.' There are three dimensions, as it were, to true religion: doctrine, practice and experience - we cannot do without any, they are interdependent. John 'Rabbi' Duncan warned that our emphasis must be proportionate: 'If you preach all doctrine, then that is all understanding and that is a monster. If you preach all experience, that is all heart and that is a monster; and if you preach all practice, that is all hands and feet and that is a monster. Preach doctrine, experience and practice.'