Friday, March 06, 2009

the case for a contemporary bible in English

What makes a contemporary English Bible? It is widely presumed that this is an easy and straightforward question to answer: a contemporary version can only mean the Bible put into modern idiom. The great variety of modern idiom versions that exists, however, tells us that even this conclusion is not that uncomplicated since there is significant difference of opinion over what modern English idiom is. Does it for instance, include “gender neutral” terms? Kenneth Barker, secretary of the NIV Committee aimed to justify the 'gender-neutral' revision of that version in terms of “shifts in English idiom”.

Another problem is the common assumption that contemporary idiom means that “a modern Bible should aim not to tax its readers’ linguistic or interpretative abilities on 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”. (Gerald Hammond). Indeed some publishers of the modern versions have estimated that translation will need to be revised in the light of modern language every 25-50 years.

There is yet another problem. What constitutes contemporary idiom? Where is it best found? Many modern versions have selected one contemporary idiom above all others and forced the Bible to speak in a journalistic voice. Billy Graham's high praise for the Good News Bible was that it read like the newspaper. Yet this a problem in that: "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).

From the perspective of language study this obsession with the journalistic voice is very strange since it is clear that different varieties of English exist in different situations. These are called 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’. What is ‘the language of today’ that we hear so much glib reference to in Bible version discussion? The very concept makes very little sense in this context. Instead of speaking of contemporary English we need to be more accurate and to define the register of the English language that is in question.

Definitions of contemporary idiom can be remarkably elastic and subjective. One of the principal translators of the New English Bible, Prof. Kenneth Grayston said: ‘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’. The translators of the New English Bible believed they were reproducing modern idiom, but in fact it was coloured by their ‘preponderantly Anglican’ and ‘Oxford’ background. The translators often found themselves proposing some ‘very 1930ish upper middle class English idiom’: the translation was made in the 1960s.

Dr Anthony H Nichols has researched problems in contemporary cross-cultural translation. In some versions Western principles and thought forms seem to dominate. This making the Scriptures to be Westernised rather than 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 no-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]”.

What is more culturally appropriate in our own society may likewise be far different than the manufacturers of the modern versions assume. Like the “traditional” formally equivalent Far Eastern versions we believe that the Authorised Version is actually more culturally appropriate than its recent rivals. It is the most accurate and the faithfulness of the Authorised Version is the very thing that has contributed to its character of being perennially contemporary and appropriate. It is worth reflecting upon the fact that it was no more accessible to the large number of working class converts in the 1920’s and 1930’s who loved it, than it is to us.

The AV, contrary to much misleading prejudice, is ‘clearly a form of Modern English’ (WH Stevenson). Its language is still part of English as currently used, indeed the English Bible has shaped the language. Granted that it is an early form of modern English but it is clear that it is as removed from Medieval English (Chaucer and Wycliffe) as 20th century English. What is required in a translation is that it should be accurate and faithful and that it should be in English. The AV has not only shaped the English language as a whole, it is the most significant influence upon ‘religious English’, the register appropriate for worship.

God’s Word through the AV still maintains a place in our society.In fact it is more contemporary than the so-called contemporary English versions. This is because we must properly define the term “contemporary” in relation to accurately and faithfully rendering the Scriptures and presenting them adequately. There are broader dimensions to the position, place and influence that a translation of the Bible holds and should hold. Contrary to the popular fallacy that there is no present point of contact with the idiom of the AV, it is firmly embedded in everday speech, especially in our proverbialisms. A website which investigates the origin and meaning of proverbial sayings notes: 'What raises that version above other versions of the Bible in terms of its linguistic impact is the fact that the language used has persisted into the present-day. Many of the phrase used are still commonplace. Here are some of the many phrases that originated in the Bible...' (go here for the list, which is only a selection).

There is a Bible that contains the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the 23rd Psalm as the man in the street knows them only. There is a Bible that carries a weight of authority and stirs a wealth of association for a significant proportion of our population. A Bible too exists that is quoted whenever the bible is quoted or alluded to, whether in popular books; academic seminars and conference papers; tabloids; broadsheets; and high, low, or middle-brow culture.

Think of a local church with a building that is situated prominently within a community, town, or village: a building with which all sections of the community are readily familiar and into which the majority have been at least once or so. Should that church abandon that building and commission plush, new premises right out in the middle of nowhere, remote from any houses whatsoever? The analogy with the Authorised Version and our community is very appropriate.

We are surely justified in concluding that rumours of the death of the Authorised Version have been greatly exaggerated and that it still deserves its justified title - The English Bible.