Monday, October 29, 2012

Ronald Knox and Bible English

This, I think, is an important issue that we probably have not dealt with all that much on this blog, but need to.  You often hear people say things like "Well, that doesn't sound like the Bible" or "That translation doesn't have the same literary quality as this or that translation."   But what does that really mean?

Again, I want to thank Baronius Press for reprinting Knox's On Englishing the Bible, which has proven to be an enlightening read.  Here are a couple of selections from Knox, that should serve to begin this conversation:


"Constantly, then, you have to be on the look-out for phrases which, because you have so often met them in the Bible, read like English, and yet are not English. Many of them, beginning life as Bible English, have even crept into the language; “to give a person the right hand of fellowship,” for example, or “to sleep with one’s fathers,” or “the son of perdition.” If the translator is not careful, he will let these through the barrier by mistake, and he will be wrong. When a public speaker urges that we should give Chiang Kai-shek the right hand of fellowship, he means “give him the right hand of fellowship, as the dear old Bible would say.” And when you are translating the Bible, you must not describe the apostles as “giving Paul and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, as the dear old Bible would say.” Some of the phrases which we take over, as unconscious quotations, from the Authorized Version, or more rarely from Douay, have even become jocose. It is intolerable, in a modern translation of the New Testament, to find St. Paul talking about “the inner man,” when “the inner man” has been used for so many years as a facetious synonym for the human stomach. If you are simply revising the old text of the Douay, you may, perhaps, be justified in leaving such phrases as they stand. But if you are writing a translation of the Bible, a translation of your own, you must find some other way of putting it; “the inner man” is a phrase that has become desecrated (5)."



19 comments:

Biblical Catholic said...

Huh.....this almost looks like it was inspired by the comment I made yesterday that dynamic equivalent translations just don't sound like the Bible to me.....cool!

Anyway, this is much like the previous question of paraphrase, there is no easy answer...it's not really 'yes/no'.....on the one hand, one wants to retain certain renderings which have become iconic....Psalm 23, the Our Father etc one comes to expect to see certain timeless phrases and is disappointed when he does not, 'valley of the shadow of death' just sounds better than 'a dark valley', even if 'dark valley' is more accurate..

On the other hand, sometimes certain phrases become so well known and iconic that they lose their impact, it becomes simply a matter of rote memorization with little real understanding of what the words mean.

And of course, the more cynical side of me tends to think that sometimes some of the more bizarre renderings we see in some translations are motivated by a desire for novelty, or a desire to stand out among the vast crowd of Bible translations, sure maybe a particular renderings sounds clunky or awkward...but hey...at least it's different....

I think Bible translators tend to think....'hey, so what if Tyndale got this particular phrase exactly right in the 16th century, and no one has been able to improve on it since....what's the point of having yet another translation that just follows Tyndale?

Which is why I often wonder when reading a particular Bible translation....'why does this translation even exist? What is the point of this?' What is it that makes someone look at the already overcrowded market of Bible translations and say 'we could use another one of these?'

I don't know, as usual on these questions, the answer is not a strict 'yes/no' but more of a 'both/and'...

rolf said...

After reading this, I wonder why he put in the archaic 'thees and thous' when he translated the Bible? Seems to me that he is putting that very language into the text that he is speaking out against in his book. If he truly wanted to break that cycle of 'Bible English', I thought he would have started with that!

Timothy said...

Rolf,

Concerning this issue, Knox says this a little later in the article:

"Strictly speaking, the thing is not possible. “Peter stood at the door without” sounds old-fashioned today; “Peter stood at the door outside” would have been incomprehensible in the seventeenth century. And I confess that I have preserved one or two archaisms; “multitude,” for example—“crowd” is such an ugly word; and “brethren,” so familiar in ecclesiastical use, and one or two others. Much more serious was the problem, what to do about “thou” and “you.” I confess I would have liked to go the whole hog, and dispense with the use of “thou” and “thee,” even where the Almighty was being addressed. They do these things in. France, but I felt sure you could not get it past the British public. Why not, then, have “thou” for God and “you” for man? That is Moffatt’s pnnciple, but it seems to me to break down hopelessly in relation to our Incarnate Lord.Who is to say, exactly when he is being addressed as God and when he is being addressed as Man? Moffatt makes St. Paul address him as ‘you’ in a vision, but the Lamb of the Apocalypse is “thou.” In a single chapter of the Hebrews, quoting from a single psalm, Moffatt gives us “thou art my Son,” and “sit at my right hand till I make your enemies a foot-stool.” I despaired in the face of these difficulties, and resolved to keep “thou,” with its appropriate form, throughout, at the same time abolishing third-person forms like “speaketh,” which serve no useful purpose whatever."

rolf said...

Thanks for the answer Timothy!

Jason Engel said...

I would be curious to hear opinions of NT Wright's Kingdom New Testament. Has anyone else read it yet? Thoughts?

Biblical Catholic said...

Very disappointing, I gave up in the first chapter of Matthew when he translated 'and Joseph knew not his wife until AFTER she gave birth....'


The addition of the word 'after' is as bad or worse than Luther adding the word 'alone' to the phrase 'we are justified by faith' in the letters of St Paul. It is as bad as Edgar Goodspeed translating 'the word was divine' in John 1:1, it is one of the worst and most biased translations of a verse that I have ever seen, and when I read that, I put it down, and have not opened it up since, I don't know if I ever will again.

It is beyond appalling that a scholar of NT Wright's caliber would produce a rendering that brazenly biased.....and if he ever produces a second, revised edition that is the first place I will go to to see if it is worth reading.

Jason Engel said...

Ah. You prefer doctrine and tradition. Gotcha.

losabio said...

Hi Jason, I just so happen to have a have a brand new KNT right here, and am finding it to be quite enjoyable and thought provoking. Here's a sample from today's Gospel reading Lk 3:10-17(10/29/2012).

He was teaching in a synagogue on the sabbath. And a woman was there who for eighteen years had been crippled by a spirit; she was bent over, completely incapable of standing erect. When Jesus saw her, he called to her and said, “Woman, you are set free of your infirmity.” He laid his hands on her, and she at once stood up straight and glorified God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant that Jesus had cured on the sabbath, said to the crowd in reply, “There are six days when work should be done. Come on those days to be cured, not on the sabbath day.” The Lord said to him in reply, “Hypocrites! Does not each one of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it out for watering? This daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now, ought she not to have been set free on the sabbath day from this bondage?” When he said this, all his adversaries were humiliated; and the whole crowd rejoiced at all the splendid deeds done by him.
(Lk 3:10-17, NABRE)

One Sabbath, Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues. There was a woman there who'd had a spirit of weakness for eighteen years. She was bent double, and couldn't stand fully upright. Jesus saw her and called to her.

"Woman," he said, laying his hands on her, "you are freed from your affliction." And at once she stood upright, and praised God.

The synagogue president was agnry that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath.

"Look here," he said to the crowd, "there are six days for people to work! Come on one of those days and be healed, not on the sabbath day!"

"You bunch of hypocrites!" replied Jesus. "You would all be quite happy to untie an ox or donkey from its stall on the sabbath day and lead it out for a drink! And isn't it right that this daughter of Abraham, tied up by the satan for these eighteen years, should be untied from her chains on the sabbath day?"

At that, all the people who had been opposing him were ashamed. The whole crowd was overjoyed at all the splendid things he was doing.
(Lk 3:10-17, KNT)

I am enjoying the KNT quite a lot. Translations like "Paul and Timothy, slaves of King Jesus" are challenging and definitely give one pause.

Biblical Catholic said...

"Ah. You prefer doctrine and tradition. Gotcha."

No, I prefer accuracy and truth....there is no 'after' implied in that verse....this is simply not an honest rendering of the Greek....the verse is merely a denial that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus, it says nothing, one way or the other, about what happened afterwards...the verse is vague and non-committal, to turn it into a positive affirmation is dishonest, the same translation 'until' is affirmed in ALL translations since at least Tyndale......this change introduced by Wright is without precedent in the history of English translation of the New Testament...

Biblical Catholic said...

Iosabio,

Sorry...but in the passages you quoted, I prefer the NAB.....Wright sounds far too colloquial....not quite as bad as the New Living Translation or the Common English Bible....but nevertheless of the same character...NAB is by no means by favorite translation....but of the two you have posted...I have to regard the NAB as better....not as good as Tyndale as reflected in the RSV by any means....


The irony is that Wright created that translation, ostensibly, for serious study and research by graduate students, but an ultra dynamic translation like that is NOT what you want for serious study....grad students need something much more literal, which is why most seminaries use RSV, NRSV and NASB....

CJA Mayo said...

"And of course, the more cynical side of me tends to think that sometimes some of the more bizarre renderings we see in some translations are motivated by a desire for novelty, or a desire to stand out among the vast crowd of Bible translations, sure maybe a particular renderings sounds clunky or awkward...but hey...at least it's different...."

Of course that's the case, because they have to change something, or it's not a new translation. Once they got rid of the Christological prophecies (RSV, original), and the archaic language (TJB or NIV was probably the first major translation to do away with it completely), there's no way to make a new translation except to change renderings - and often those changes are in the wrong direction, from more perfect to less perfect.

The changes have to be somewhat major (ASV to NASB), or on a hot-button topic (RSV to NRSV, regendering, N/RSV to ESV, removing some of the regendering, RSV to RSV-2CE, replacing some Christological prophecies and removing archaic language) in order to be a "new" translation, and not merely a revision of an existing one (e.g. ESV 2001 to ESV 2007 to ESV 2011).

If major changes weren't made, God forbid! we might have an English standard Bible, or close to it (at the very least return to where Catholics had one, and everyone else had one), and many translators would be out of a job.

"Better" is the enemy of "good": this rings true nowhere more truly than in Bible translations.

I learned this expressly while attempting to revise a translation myself, and ending up with some renderings - while trying to capture just right there, that elusive nuance of the Greek, that made a cross of Knox, Moffat, and MSG seem truly King Jamesian in comparison.

CJA Mayo said...

"The irony is that Wright created that translation, ostensibly, for serious study and research by graduate students..."

This is an problem endemic to such translations. The New English Translation originally had a similar goal (evidence of this remains in the notes that are of such a technical nature non-scholars can not understand them), but somewhere along the line it went from a quasi-interlinear to just south of the NIV 1984 on the formal-dynamic-paraphrase spectrum.

I had no idea the KNT was designed for such purposes. I thought it was solely for "people who don't read the Bible, or read it so much it's old hat", as I've heard said; that is, to jar loose ingrained words and verbiage. I sold my copy on Amazon; I posted a mini-review of it (agreeing in essentials with Biblical Catholic) in another comment thread on this blog.

The KNT is at that perfect spot, the Eutectic of Translation, where it is absolutely useless for study, either critical, theological, or devotional. The most dynamic paraphrase I've ever read is the Cotton Patch Gospels by Clarence Brown(?), which actually does serve its purpose, better than any I have ever seen, of transporting the Gospel message in to an entirely new context with entirely different verbiage, and, as such, is useful, even if not for critical study, for devotional and even for theological (the latter of course in conjunction with the original languages or at least a very literal translation: how many major theological errors have been caused because of an inopportune choice of word in translation? The "gap theory" of Compromised Creationism was based on a single word, "replenish", which fed a vicious circle of eisegesis up to "and the earth became without form and void" [no warrant in the original languages], and bad theology [how does "very good" fit with a world that was laid waste by Satan?]).

My $0.002 (2 mil).

Biblical Catholic said...

Well...I don't think the impetus for new translations is coming from the translators, and I don't know if translators are paid, I think most of them are volunteers, and most of them work in academia, so they have jobs.

I think most of the impetus comes from readers and from churches and other organizations who are unhappy with the options.

Every time a new Bible comes out, the reviews by readers tend to be mixed....'this is good....that is bad' always concluding that a new version is needed to fix the problems....

Also, there are various political and religious ideas at work. Some people want 'inclusive language', others oppose it.....and each group wants a translation that fits their own ideas.

In addition, many churches are moving more and more towards wanting 'their own version'....the NAB is not the best, but the bishops seem proud that it is their own translation....the Southern Baptists were unhappy having to pay royalties to others for the NIV, so they commissioned their own translation, the Holman Christian Standard Version.....

You have liberal Bibles (RSV, NRSV, REB), Catholic Bibles (NAB, JB, NJB), evangelical Bibles, the evangelical editions range from conservative to liberal....

And you have your different translation philosophies, from 'essentially literal' to full blown paraphrase like The Message....

No....I think it's coming from the readers, we're not happy with what we have and keep demanding another one...

Biblical Catholic said...

Well....I've never seen a direct statement by Wright that he intended it for serious study by graduate students, but the origin of the translation is that he wrote a multi-volume commentary on the New Testament, and for this purpose he created his own translation so that he could have a good rigorous text to comment on.....it is similar to the Anchor Bible, although far less ambitious....so.....given that he made it to go with his commentary I have to assume that he intended to be something to be used for serious study...

CJA Mayo said...

I heard it spoken or read it written:

"Thou shalt not live by bread alone, but by every word which falleth from the mouth of God",

And,

"We should conform our views to the Bible, not the Bible to our views."

That latter one is likely an impetus behind many, if not most, modern translations.

A Bible with prophecies of Christ, that have been used by Christians for millennia? Can't have that, might offend the Jews: useless for an ecumenical version. A Bible without prophecies of Christ? No Christian who believes in prophecy or miracle's going to put up with that. So much for an ecumenical version that no one uses.

Hebrew is a patriarchal language, and thus God's thoughts are distorted when written in it. Inerrantists won't have that. But the message of the Bible is strongly patriarchal, and feminists won't have that, and it will impede the spread of the Gospel and its acceptance in certain parts of the academe. Can't have that. We'll have to capture liberal academia with one version that no one else uses.

We have to make the Bible relevant to the times, to make it easier to come to Christ, so let's remove thees and thous. That didn't work? Now, let's paraphrase it. That didn't work? Let's remove condemnations of homosexuality and patriarchal passages. That didn't work? What is left?

We have to make a Bible for serious study. But, the students are likely going to be immersed in academia or have come therefrom, with little Greek and/or Hebrew remaining, and regendered Bibles aren't literal. Oh, how to proceed?

A Bible from the Majority text or the Latin? Oh, traditionalists or Orthodox will like it, but it's not scholarly. A Bible from the critical text? Traditionalists won't have that.

A traditional, conservative (in th sense of "conserving God's truth") Bible that most can accept? Good! Finally! But... conservative evangelicals won't touch a product with the Apocrypha between the same covers as the sixty-six... Oh, the dilemma.

I'm beginning to see that the demands of the readers in a secularized society that has lost a common religious vocabulary must provide a lot of impetus for translations. The scholars should say, "No more!", and stop pandering.

Biblical Catholic said...

Unfortunately, I am part of the problem, because every time a major new translation is released I rush out and buy it....and every time I read a new version I conclude 'nope, not good enough....it's going to take one more translation to hit the sweet spot'....

But if I was forced to make a decision today...if I had the power to decree that all English speaking Christians use only one Bible for the next 100 years and I had the power to make everyone do what I said....I would probably choose the ESV.....

CJA Mayo said...

I would be hard-pressed to choose between the Challoner (more correct) and the KJV (far more beautiful). Knowing my notorious indecisiveness (don't even ask about discerning a vocation!), I'd probably reach my decision on the forty-second of September.

Assuming they all had the full canon, the NKJV would be a distant third, the NASB a close fourth to the NKJV, and the ESV a distant fifth to the NASB. The ASV and ERV would be distant sixths.

But I'd have very little problem if any of the above five (or six/seven) versions were chosen.
Far be it from me, on the other hand, to not become an armed rebel in the Scripture Liberation Front if it were decreed that the NIV 2011, NRSV, NJB, or NAB/RE with Annotations were declared to be "the Bible". If the NIV 1984 or the Old JB or even the RSV were so declared, I'd probably bitch on the internet and in church, and write papers on the topic so that Bibliotheca Sacra and CBQ can reject them, but refuse to take up arms. (Essentially the same situation as present.)

CJA Mayo said...

"A traditional, conservative (in th sense of "conserving God's truth") Bible that most can accept? Good! Finally! But... conservative evangelicals won't touch a product with the Apocrypha between the same covers as the sixty-six... Oh, the dilemma."

That was mostly aimed at the ESV, which I think, if the NRSV finally sees the wooden stake when it looks down, could become the Standard English Version.

Tom said...

My crisp, new, old-fashioned copy of Ronald Knox's Bible arrived yesterday! Baronius Press has a winner with that - exploiting a market niche that had gone unexploited. Giddily I read a few chapters from Ephesians - it's said that Knox is best at the oft-confusing letters of St. Paul and he really does nail it. A fine introduction by Scott Hahn that gave me some good food for thought in just a page and a half. I don't like the overly formal language and the unfamiliar names of the OT books, based on the Vulgate as it is, but I'm certainly glad to have it in my quiver.

Beautiful reading the other day from Ephesians 3. It's no wonder bible-loving Protestants love St. Paul so much - they've naturally gravitated to the most consoling part of the bible. It's inconceivable to think of the NT without the writings of Paul and there's an vibrant sense of hope in most of his work. Different translations help. The fresh words, though conveying essentially the same meaning, really ring out. And it feels almost magical to have the NABRE and New Jerusalem versions both on my smartphone and being able to conjure up those life-altering words at a moment's notice.

My favorite quotes from Hahn's intro in the new Knox version include: "On the barque of Peter, those with queasy stomachs should keep clear of the engine room."

The other quote is from Frank Sheed:

"The Biblical attack on Catholic dogmas did not (after the shock of the attack) destroy Catholic attachment to the dogmas; but it sensibly weakened Catholic attachment to the Bible. A man can never feel quite the same about even the nicest book if he has just been beaten round the head with it...

This Scriptural insufficiency of Catholics is the last heritage of the Reformation still to be liquidated. Liquidated it must be. How necessary Scripture is to the life of Catholics, St. Jerome indicated long ago with his phrase, 'Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.'"