Monday, June 13, 2011

Psalm 139 in the RSV

Recently, while I was doing an introductory talk on Scripture in front of a group of adults, in the middle of the talk I was inspired to refer and quote from Psalm 139. Of course, Psalm 139 is a fairly well-known Psalm, and I decided to quote from the middle portion of the Psalm, consisting of verses 13-18. I had my NOAB RSV with me at the time, so when I began to quote from it, I quickly had to choose whether or not to use the archaic language or translate on the fly. I decided to translate on the fly, and I must say that I fumbled through the verses. It didn't come off the way I had hoped.

Psalm 139: 13-18 (RSV):
"For thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful. Wonderful are thy works! Thou knowest me right well; my frame was not hidden from thee, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth. Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance; in thy book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. How precious to me are thy thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. When I awake, I am still with thee."

Ultimately, in my attempt to make something, which I figured would be difficult for the audience to understand, more clear, I actually made it a lot worse. While this is hardly one of the more difficult passages in regards to archaic language, a few thoughts came to mind as I reflected on this incident:

1) Perhaps translating archaic language on the fly isn't the best idea. I always make sure that I am prepared when I give a talk, but I also try to be docile to the promptings of the Spirit as well.

2) Is having archaic language in my primary Bible a problem? Not sure. Certainly the RSV-2CE or NRSV are legitimate alternatives. (I should point out that this isn't an issue at my day job at the high school, since the Bibles we use with the students don't have archaic language in them.)

3) Is there any value to using a Bible that contains archaic language for the typical parish Bible study or introductory Scripture course? The audience matters, right?

17 comments:

Geoffrey Miller said...

Some people like it. It sounds poetic. I don't think the average person has as much difficulty understanding it as you might think.

Anonymous said...

In my Nature and History of Language class in college, we actually talked about the strange phenomenon of the KJV, in that the average American, particularly in the Bible Belt, is capable of understanding Early Modern English in a way we really shouldn't be, linguistically speaking, due to the influence of the King James Bible, not only on Christians, but on the entire language and culture.

Personally speaking though, I think the archaisms work best in the Psalms.

Katie

Jim said...

Archaic language by itself is not an issue. Every Sunday in mass we pray "Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name," and I don't think anyone would want to change it. The issue is more with the translation than the "thee's and thou's." The language in the KJV was already archaic at the time but the translators settled on it because it sounded more majestic. The RSV is a fairly modern translation and the language is not difficult at all. The Douay-Rheims, on the other hand, can be nearly incomprehensible at times but that is more a function of trying to fit English into a Latin syntax. All in all I think the occasional appearance of the "Holy Ghost" is good for the soul.

rolf said...

To me personally, the thees and thous in the Psalms in the RSV-NAOB is what made me switch to using the RSV-2CE.

Michael Demers said...

I guess the bottom line is really whether what's archaic has become obsolete or simply baffling. We need new translations but some of the old ones are still quite useful and even beautiful. I agree with Katie above that many people are at home with the KJV and not just those in the Bible Belt, either.

Leonardo said...

Hi,

I believe that one source of inspiration about what to do when conducting a class are the reactions and ideas of the persons participating in the class.

Theophrastus said...

The dominant literary feature of Hebrew poetry is its parallelism, so I think it helps to put the text before the audience in a way that illuminates the parallelism, and the stress that with vocal inflection. With that done, I think the RSV is not bad at all:

For thou didst form my inward parts,
thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb.

I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful.
Wonderful are thy works! Thou knowest me right well;

my frame was not hidden from thee,
when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.

Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance;
in thy book were written, every one of them,

the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.

How precious to me are thy thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!

If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
When I awake, I am still with thee.

See what I mean? It is much easier in that format -- despite the slightly archaic language. (It helps if you are a bit of a ham -- a dramatic reading actually makes the text easier to understand.)

Similarly, if you used contemporary language (but did not put in the breaks to show the parallelism) I think it would still be hard to grasp.

PBS regularly broadcasts Shakespeare plays on television, and in my (secular) high school, I had to read Shakespeare and Milton. Shakespeare (and Milton) are considerably more challenging to a modern reader than RSV English.

Owen said...

Archaic language is not as hard to understand as some people would make you believe. If there is a problem with comprehension, it may prove the public school system and teachers' unions aren't doing a very good job.

Archaic language sounds more poetic and prayerful. It lifts scripture up. And isn't the whole point of the Catholic faith to lift people up, not to drag the religion down? At Mass, we pray "Our Father Who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name". Imagaine if it were "Our Daddy whose crib is in the sky kingdom, rightious social justice is your name". (Wait... I think the American Catholic Council just approved that at thier meeting).

Geoffrey Miller said...

Totally off-topic, but I just listened to this blog's theme song. ROFL you guys are awesome!

Timothy said...

Geoffrey,

Thanks! A friend of mine surprised me with that tune, which I think captures the tone of this blog.

Anonymous said...

I think the "fear" of archaic language is blown way out of proportion. It is an elevated form that is worthy of Scripture and Liturgy. The far-left is criticizing the new English translation of the ordinary form (which does not have archaic language) for being too lofty and "hard to understand". If that's the case, then as Owen pointed out, it's the public schools and teachers' unions that have failed to teach our children to comprehend words with more than two syllables.

Look at the Anglican Use Mass. It does have archaic language. Where we will be saying
P: The Lord be with you.
R: And with your spirit.
the Anglican Use has
R: And with thy spirit.

They have thee's, thou's, and thy's all through their Liturgy, and it is considered to be second only to the Extraordinary Form in beauty, reverence, and majesty.
The Litugical Forms would rate
1. Extraordinary Form
2. Anglican Use
3. Eastern Rite ordinary form
and sadly last
4. Latin rite ordinary form

So hopefully both the Extraordinary Form and the English Ordinariates will have a positive influence on the Latin rite ordinary form in the years to come.

David.

Timothy said...

David,

Like you, I am very much looking forward to the new language at Mass. I belong to a parish that offers the TLM, as well as the NO in Latin. While I prefer the Novus Ordo, I definitely prefer more traditional language, without the archaisms. I think the RSV-2CE, even with it's issues which have been discussed on this blog, fits that need.

Anonymous said...

If you would like to read the text of the Anglican Use, you may do so here.

It might be fun for you to take a break from comparing Bible versions to compare Liturgical texts. :)

This site has many transcripts of various forms of Liturgy (Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican) you may find interesting to read and compare.

David

Timothy said...

David,

Thanks for the links.

While I do touch upon liturgical issues from time to time, there are a number of fine sites and blogs who do a far better job on it than I could ever do. That said, I am sure there will be some posts on the new Novus Ordo Missal as we approach Advent.

Anonymous said...

hello tim,

I love the archaic language of the RSV. It reads so smoothly and naturally. I have no problem understanding immediately what was being said (to the extent that there are no mysterious meaning involved) even though English is not my native tongue. Psalm 139 you quote just now is simply beautiful.

However, since you are going to teach Scripture, I understand your apprehension. But if you know your audience, you know your subject, you know yourself, then just let the Holy Spirit guide you.

On a slightly trivial diversion, I am reminded of those bible verses that Corporal Jackson keeps saying while he fires his sniper rifle in the film Saving Private Ryan.

"O my Strength, I trust in thee: let me not be ashamed, let not mine enemies triumph over me."

"Be not that far from me, for trouble is near; haste Thee to help me..."

Because of these archaic terms, the sniper's behavior had that much more impact. And its the archaic language that makes the hair on my skin stand on edge when I read a section on the Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman's book Prayers and Devotions- which I highly recommend by the way.

Archaic English in the Bible will always have a place in my heart.

park2011

Anonymous said...

What most people aren't aware of is that the archaic language in the KJB was not the everyday English of the people during the 17th century. It is biblical English. Its style is that of the Hebrew and of the New Testament Greek

Servus Dei said...

However, I think archaisms can only be appreciated by native English speakers. For me, as a Filipino, using English as a second language, does not see any use of archaic language.