Jun 15, 2012

Our Babel of Bibles

Online Edition:
June – July 2012
Vol. XVIII, No. 4

Our Babel of Bibles
Scripture, Translation, and the Possibility of Spiritual Understanding
Part II – Conclusion

[Part I: Our Babel of Bibles — Scripture, Translation, and the Possibility of Spiritual Understanding]

by David Lyle Jeffrey

In Part I of this essay, published in the May issue, Dr. Jeffrey comments on problems of translating sacred scripture in our time, and the “babel” effect of multiple versions of the Bible targeting particular groups. This often reduces the inherently spiritual or sacral language, with the effect of making the reader, rather than the scripture, the primary locus of meaning. Approaches to translation of the Bible that emphasize “accessibility” over accuracy risk losing the deeper meaning of the text — while the opposite method, a merely literal rendering of the words, risks losing the poetic content of the Bible. Discernment of the translator — theological, philological, and spiritual — is necessary in order to convey the full meaning accurately. In Part II, Dr. Jeffrey presents examples of serious mistranslations that imperil the spiritual understanding of the biblical text. — Editor


Banality & Babble

Although it is not my principal concern in this essay, it should be apparent that stylistic distortion is itself a species of mistranslation. Banality and bathos in the place of probity and pathos is widespread in contemporary English translations. Examples abound: When the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) gives “Acclaim Yahweh” for the memorable “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” we have in more than one way lost the music. Peter Mullen has made the pertinent point in regard to the New English Bible, namely, that “the NEB … cannot tell the difference between speech that is poetic and metaphorical and speech that is literal and descriptive. That is why for ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ we are given instead the pantomime howler, ‘men dressed up as sheep.’” [“The King of Bibles”, The Telegraph, November 14, 2011.]

Anthony Esolen has similarly clobbered the New American Bible (NAB) for its clunky, bureaucratic “Nabbish” and its reductive form-critical notes.8 He, too, includes an array of dreadful examples of the sort of banality that can unfailingly turn a silk purse back into a sow’s ear. Esolen’s complaint about a “bumping, boxcar” kind of language in the NAB is that while it carries some of the freight, it does so in a particularly ugly way.

Neither he nor anyone else with an ear for good English is likely to find the brand-new Common English Bible (CEB) much better in this regard. Take the familiar text, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the House of the Lord” (Ps 122:1). When this is rendered in the CEB as “Let’s go to the Lord’s house,” the locution may be lexically equivalent, as indeed would be “Let’s go to God’s house,” but it also verges on a grotesque secularism at the level of “Let’s go to Joe’s place — he has the biggest TV.”

Yet there are far too many instances where a supposed literal accuracy, pressed into the service of mere historicism, kills more than elegant diction. The CEB, an ecumenical effort of about 120 translators (twelve of whom are Catholics), at first seemed promising, and there are some virtuous passages in this version. But sadly, here too, the dominance of the language of social construction has led to slanted colloquialisms: “alien” becomes “immigrant,” “angels” become “messengers” (pleasing, perhaps, to those who wish to add an Islamic overture, but nonetheless a literal equivalent that kills a crucial spiritual distinction in the original).

In this new CEB version, neither John the Baptist nor Jesus calls on people to “repent,” but, less judgmentally, to “change your heart.” Generic language such as the inclusive use of “man” or “mankind” is studiously avoided; Adam becomes simply “the human” — even though, predictably, Eve is still “a woman.” The translators retain “son of Adam” in the genealogy of Christ as it is found in Luke 3, but the CEB reader will have lost the linkage with the name in Genesis, where pre-fallen “Adam” has been erased.

Far more seriously, Messianic titles for Jesus also go out the window. Jesus is no longer “the Son of Man,” but “the Human One.” At this point, theological misrepresentation disqualifies the CEB translation for those who regard “Son of Man” as a messianic title. Even for those who don’t, the locution has the odd effect of making Jesus seem like a character in an episode of Star Trek, with the narrator sounding like a Klingon, or at least someone from another galaxy: “the Human One must suffer many things and be rejected” (Lk 9:22); “the Human One is Lord of the Sabbath” (6:5); and “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Human One” (17:26). Meanwhile, the translators have no trouble with retaining “Be’ezalel” (11:18-19) and “Satan” (10:18).

The risk to the ordinary reader in this tacit erasure of the messianic title is a kind of philologically induced Arianism. A genuinely theological problem thus outweighs the many other infelicities in this version, though they are legion. One wonders, for example, how “children of snakes” can be imagined as an improvement upon “brood of vipers.”

But the greatest offense is theological. Sometimes a particular passage shows this with a clarity that one might think would have startled even the translators themselves: In Luke 9:26, the CEB reads, “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, the Human One will be ashamed of that person when He comes in His glory and the glory of the Father and of the Holy Angels.”

In the same vein, consider the NAB in Isaiah 7:14: “a young woman shall conceive and bear a son.” This is a revision, of course, of the familiar “a virgin shall conceive” in the King James (KJV), the New English Bible (NEB), and others. Mercifully, the NAB citation of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23, following the Septuagint (LXX), retains “virgin” (parthenos).

Yet even if the scruple of the NAB translators is with the Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 alone — in particular the term ‘alma — there is still an unjustified misrepresentation in this rendering.

The Greek translators of the Old Testament, who gave us parthenos for the Hebrew ‘alma in the LXX, properly saw in Isaiah 7:14 a rare term: ‘alma appears only seven times in the Old Testament. It means a pubescent girl and is never used for young women who are married. Bethula, another term for a young woman of marriageable age (it is closely approximated by the English “housewife”), does not in fact exclude sexual experience; bethula may also be used of a widow (Joel 1:8). All seven uses of ‘alma confirm that in the Old Testament this term is overwhelmingly associated with an unmarried state and the Jewish expectation of chastity before marriage. The translators of the Douai, KJV, and other versions (e.g., New International Version [NIV], English Standard Version [ESV], New King James Version [NKJV]) thus had ample warrant for following the LXX and the Latin Vulgate in rendering ‘alma in Isaiah 7:14 as “virgin.”

This text, transparently cited in the New Testament to make the point that Jesus is not the natural offspring of Mary and Joseph, has always been regarded by Christians as a messianic portent. What has been lost by the supposedly “candid” literalism of the NAB translators in this instance, even at the level of denotative and material understanding, is a diminishment of that point. Thus their translation is, if I may say so, far more damaging to “the glory of God” than Robert Alter’s insistence upon “tent” for ‘ohel [discussed in Part I – Ed.] — if only because it is an obfuscation of the miraculous nature of the Incarnation. All too obviously, few readers of the NAB — or of any other English translation — now live in a culture in which sexual chastity in an unmarried teenager can be assumed to be normative.

Piety without Poetry

It is an irony that the babel effect of numerous competing translations replicates in some measure the conditions that created the need for the KJV in its own day. At a conference in Hampton Court in January 1604, Dr. John Reynolds — the president of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, one of only four Puritan leaders in the largely Anglican gathering — argued that dissonance between the Bishop’s Bible (then standard in churches) and the Geneva Bible (most commonly read in families) was creating theological uncertainties among laypeople, and that this made the development of a common, authoritative translation desirable for the sake of Christian harmony. One could be forgiven for thinking that a similar case for a common Bible in English is far stronger now than it was then. Yet it should be evident that any such effort will face formidable obstacles.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, in his essay “On the Different Methods of Translation,” observed the tension with which all translators must wrestle: “Either the translator leaves the author in peace, as much as possible” he writes, “and moves the reader towards him; or, he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author towards him.”9 It will be obvious by now that I am among those who think that much of recent Bible translation has veered too far in the direction of leaving contemporary culture undisturbed.

It will be equally clear that I think this problem is not merely a matter of ungainly style, though Anthony Esolen is certainly right to think — as he puts it in his inimitable fashion — that a flat, “bland, Scripture-muffling, colorless, odorless, gaseous paraphrase,” may reasonably be suspected of calculatedly deleterious spiritual intent. I think, summarily, that where Holy Scripture is the text, we ought to resist the form/content dichotomy in translation altogether and, in particular, to resist the overweighting of a one-dimensional target language at the expense of a polysemous original, which often depends heavily on form (style, repetition, rhythm, parallelism, trope, etc.) to deliver transcendent spiritual meaning.

The late Eugene Nida, of the American Bible Society, an arch-proponent of the notion of “dynamic equivalence,” was preoccupied with the historical sense to a fault; and many of his disciples have produced tone-deaf translations where the spiritual sense is concerned.

Paradoxically, it is in the sensuous physicality of the original Hebrew and Greek terms that the spiritual sense often becomes most available. Abstract or incautiously chosen “functional equivalents” can deny to biblical language its sacramental power.

Clarity in the target language is desirable, but not a sufficient justification for word choice. There are innumerable failed attempts to be more literalistic among professional biblical exegetes, many of whom retranslate biblical texts so as to provide practical clarity or to undergird their own interpretation.

To take an apparently innocuous example, Grant R. Osborne, in his Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, renders “Give us this day our daily bread” as “Give us today our daily needs.”

At one level, this elision can seem to capture a kind of bottom-line understanding of Jesus’ words. But the spiritual sense is clearly jeopardized. What is lost is the rich, sacramental polysemeity — the densely layered meanings — of Jesus’ own language in this prayer and elsewhere, in which “bread” (arton) may signify His body, His teaching, His person. The term for “bread” used by the Gospel writers to translate the Hebrew of Jesus clearly intends “bread” in a more than merely physical way; this bread recalls the manna in the wilderness, the “bread of heaven” in prototype. We do not need to insist on the Douai’s overly theologized “super-substantial bread” (following Origen’s rendering of epiousion) to correct the flatness and one-dimensionality of “daily needs.” A sounder spiritual sense, evoked by the metaphorical register, is present already in the Pater noster as it has been prayed since apostolic times. We should be extremely reluctant to depart from the poetry of it.

Piety without poetry can be dangerous to theological truth. We may imagine a range of “dynamic” or “functional” equivalents to the Hebrew phrasing of Isaiah 40. For example, we may concede that something like “all topographical variations shall be leveled” would be a functional equivalent of Isaiah 40:4a, but who would choose it over “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low” — and what Handel would want to set the functional equivalent to music? Here it is the tone of joyous exaltation itself that conveys the theological truth about eschatological consolation.

Captive to the Zeitgeist

What would be required for a translation to be faithful to the author and yet accessible to the English reader?

Here I agree wholeheartedly with Leland Ryken: a good translation is one in which “the author’s own words are reproduced, figurative language is retained rather than explained, and stylistic features and quirks of the author are allowed to stand as the author expressed them.”10 It is unfortunate that even some very pious modern biblical exegetes and translators resemble the average atheist in this respect: metaphor makes them nervous, and they would prefer to do away with it. Yet it is very frequently metaphor that most clearly opens to us the transcendent in biblical texts.

Contrariwise, when the poetic language of Jesus, or of the Law and the Prophets, is reduced to some mere material affect or other, it is almost always at the risk of theological error. Such misrepresentation can easily come from an inept pursuit of “dynamic” and “functional” equivalents, simply by letting the culture of the target language over-determine the rendering of biblical language.11 Translators, as well as interpreters and preachers, can all too easily succumb to a kind of linguistic “Stockholm Syndrome,” inadvertently yielding to the spirit of this present age — which, to cite Charles Taylor, “identifies in a strongly transcendent version of Christianity a danger for the goods of the modern moral order” (A Secular Age, p. 546). Which goods must be served if one wants to make a splash — and money.

When translators are captive more to the Zeitgeist of the target language than to the spirit of the scriptural text, even the high purpose with which they began becomes muddled. Sometimes the results are just blatantly inept; one may think here of the modern Liberian translation in which “lead us not into temptation” comes across as “do not catch us when we sin.” We laugh — but the howler is not so dissimilar to other types of over-determination in our own language when these are made to reflect the one-dimensionality of our present culture at the expense of the intention evident in the biblical text itself.

It may well be, as C.L. Wrenn argued in response to the Good News Bible of the 1960s, that

Since the seventeenth century there seems to have been some kind of spiritual contraction which renders the symbolic language properly necessary to religious material no longer receivable: and the loss of older patterns of thought makes a purely synchronic current colloquial language incapable of conveying the thought of the ancient Christian documents.12

What Wrenn meant, of course, is that the secularization of our consciousness extends its effects right into the very language by which we try to understand spiritual and sacramental concepts. Spiritual/theological words almost always imply more than the narrowly synchronous sense we tend to give them in a materialist age. They require recovery of their spiritual sense, their reference to things “invisible” (Rom 1:20), to bear the authentic signature of theology or, in the sense Aquinas intends, their value as symbol.

The Venerable Example of Bede

What can be done about all this? It is frequently alleged that even though our colloquial language may be reductively materialistic, we have to use it, since it’s just the way we talk now. But if colloquial language of the sort I have instanced is our limit, then any discussion of spiritual interpretation will seem esoteric and antiquarian; it cannot be expected to bear fruit in preaching or personal devotion among those Christians whose diminished translations of Scripture simply will no longer bear the weight of philological and theological glory.

To those who say, “Yes, our translations may be riddled with mistranslation, even outright misrepresentation of spiritual reality, but what can we do but accede to the norms of our culture and recalibrate the message?” we should reply that recalibration to what the world wants to hear entails infidelity to the text whose own purpose is described as “a witness against us” (Joshua 22:27).

In fact, the social determinist claim that we are definitively constrained by the character of our contemporary vernacular is just plain false. What we have also got is the language of Holy Scripture itself — responsibly Englished if we will use it — and the language of the liturgy and hymns passed down to us. Neither translator nor teacher is restricted to whatever limit seems to pertain in our colloquial idiom.

Think about church history, e.g., the Venerable Bede, whose grandparents were pagan, and that entire generation of Benedictines. They translated into their native Anglo-Saxon both the Gospels and the Psalms. But there was a sorry inadequacy in this vigorous early form of our language where many biblical and liturgical terms were concerned. The earliest translators were not daunted, but promptly borrowed words from Latin to meet the need: alms, altar, angel, anthem, apostle, ark, canticle, chalice, creed, deacon, demon, disciple, epistle, hymn, manna, martyr, priest, prophet, psalm, Psalter, rule, Sabbath, shrift, temple.

Later would come words like absolution, baptism, beatitude, charity, communion, confession, contrition, creator, crucifixion, devotion, faith, homily, mercy, miracle, obedience, passion, pastor, penance, religion, sacrament, saint, sanctuary, savior, temptation, theology, trinity, virgin, virtue — and on and on.13

What would have happened if someone had said, in that time and place, “We just have to find dynamic equivalents in Anglo-Saxon?” There weren’t any. Appropriately, the first translators were not intimidated by the prospect of teaching people the meaning of biblical and sacral terms not to be found anywhere in their everyday language. They gratefully borrowed the language of Scripture as they found it in another tongue. We may need to reclaim their honest practice.

As Psalm 19 is at pains to declare, every form of speech known to man is demonstrably inadequate to convey to us fully the glory of the Lord. Yet clearly some choices are better than others if it is really the glory of the Lord we wish to acknowledge. And just here is where we may look for a solution — in careful translation, in attunement to the sacred more than to the secular in liturgy, in catechesis, in the homilies preached upon the gospel.

If the flat, secularized language of our culture no longer has the terms to convey spiritual content, we, too, can borrow words from our own English language — terms hallowed in another age and culture — and give back to them their fullness of meaning for understanding Scripture.

To Speak with Understanding

There is a solution — though the secularized language of the surrounding culture may be an impediment. It is to become one of those who recover and learn to speak with understanding the language of Holy Scripture at the heart of the Church, striving to teach patiently, at every opportunity, its richness and truth.

This can be done, if we wish to, by a principled inclusion of accurate definitions of sacred terms in every homily and catechetical context. I think we must, as J.R.R. Tolkien once said,14 engage in a willed act of recovery of sacral language if the sacred sources themselves are not to be elided by cheap philological and symbolic facsimiles.

The warning in Deuteronomy, “You shall not add to the word which I command you, or take from it” (4:2), and the similar admonition at the end of Revelation (22:18-19) do not forbid translation. The Great Commission of Jesus to His apostles — to go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel (Mt 28:18-20, Mk 16:15, Acts 1:8) — virtually requires it. Moreover, the Gospels themselves are in Greek, already a translation. What is forbidden in those passages is excision and misrepresentation.

That this puts every translator on notice seems to me to follow, and nowhere more especially than when we are dealing with sacral terms. Spiritual interpretation is not merely an option. For the translator as well as the theologian it is a necessity, enjoined by the text of Holy Scripture itself. But attempts to communicate such understanding for a laity whose sense of biblical language has been flattened and disfigured by ineffectual translation will be largely fruitless.

I do not mean to suggest that error in translation is always avoidable. Though “the Law of the Lord is perfect,” as the Psalmist says (Ps 19:7), it is necessary to recognize also that the reader is always subject to imperfect understanding: “who can understand his own errors?” (Ps 19:12). But it is the job of the translator to ensure as much as possible that error is not added to error.

We do not think it an intrusion to pray for holy fidelity in pastors and parents. We should as readily pray for scruple and discernment in teachers and translators — that the latter especially may leave metaphor and mystery undisturbed and resist materialist reduction at every turn.

Notes – Part II

8 Anthony Esolen, “A Bumping Boxcar Language”, First Things (May-June, 2011), 15-17.

9 In Wilson, ed., German Romantic Criticism, trans. A. Lefevere (Continuum, 1982), 1-30.

10 Leland Ryken, The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation (Crossway, 2002), 10.

11 Eugene Nida, Towards a Science of Translating (E.J. Brill, 1964).

12 C.L. Wrenn, Word and Symbol: Studies in English Language (Longmans, 1967), 11.

13 Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language, 3rd ed. (Prentice-Hall, 1978), 84-85, 169.

14 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (Ballantyne, 1966), 57-59.


David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University and Guest Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Peking University. Among his recent books are The Bible and the University (Paternoster Press/Zondervan), and Luke: a Theological Commentary (Brazos). He and his wife have five children, and are members of Our Lady of the Lake parish in the Diocese of Fort Worth (ACNA).

The original version of “Our Babel of Bibles” appeared in the March-April 2012 issue of Touchstone magazine (touchstone mag.com); this two-part version is published in AB with the author’s permission.



David Lyle Jeffrey