Friday, February 10, 2006

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.