Hilary Day:
Postwar Bible Translations


It is proposed in subsequent editions of this Journal to do reviews of postwar Bible translations. We hope to provide a forum whereby readers may make their contributions and offer their opinions on the problems posed when translation Scripture.

The volume we know as the Bible contains 66 books of varying length covering history, theology, hymns, poetry, prophecies, letters, stories, myths, parables, laws etc. It still maintains its position, worldwide as a ‘bestseller’, and has been translated into more languages than any other book. It is not going too far to say that it is also the most influential, as well as, possibly, the most controversial, book in the world. It is seen by many as the Word of God revealed to mankind. To Christian fundamentalists the authority of Scripture is absolute; but in the English-speaking world, it is the authority of the Bible in English that is absolute. These Scriptures, however, were first written down in Hebrew in the collection of books known as the Old Testament; and in Greek in the New Testament.

The history of the controversies between Church and State; the story of the Reformation, and of those who believed in the right of every person to read the Bible in his or her own language, is perhaps symbolised in the martyrdom of William Tyndale in 1536.

It is in effect with Tyndale that the story of the Bible in English begins, with the subsequent revisions throughout the 16th century, culminating in the publication in 1611 of the King James version, which, although never in fact authorised, is known as the Authorised Version (hereinafter referred to as the AV). This remained the basis of all further emendations until the Second World War.

However one views the contents of the Bible: as the story of God's love and concern for the people He created; as the history of a small population in the Middle East; as a guide to law and ethics; or simply as an interesting social document, there are few who could deny the fundamental role it has played in the culture and history of Western society; and in the English-speaking world the influence of the AV is immeasurable. Certainly until the middle of the present century, it was the single most influential source for our literature. It was the Bible of Herbert, Vaughan, Milton, and on through the centuries to Dickens, Gerald Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot. Its rhythms and cadences imbue the writings of our hymn writers, poets, playwrights and novelists. Its idioms and turns of phrase are part of our everyday speech.

The arguments which raged 500 years ago over Tyndale's use of certain words and phrases and the resultant conflict with the Church have never been resolved or become a thing of the past. As Gerald Hammond says; ‘Translation is one of the most influential forms of literary criticism, for it both interprets and recreates the text it addresses.’ [1] In the case of Biblical translation, this is especially crucial, as now, even as in Tyndale's time, a certain word, phrase or recreation of a sentence order can support or confute a particular doctrine or dogma.

The parallel between the sixteenth century and the postwar period continues in that more versions of the Bible have been produced than at any time since the Renaissance, and each new translation or paraphrase has its adherents and its detractors.

For the first time since Tyndale the word ‘new’ is apposite, for the teams of translators have returned to the Hebrew and Greek originals and have included the most recent linguistic and historical, theological and biblical scholarship in their work. The discovery, for instance, of the Dead Sea Scrolls and ancient Hebrew texts have thrown new light on the interpretation of key passages.This means that our modern translations are unquestionably more accurate than the AV.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century there have been many translations and paraphrases and the following brief overview of the main versions is necessarily selective and is in no way a valuation of their merits or demerits. Of those from the early years of this century the New Testament in Modern Speech by Richard Weymouth (1903), the New Testament (1913) and Old Testament (1924) by James Moffatt, and in America Edgar J. Goodspeed's translation of the New Testament (1923) are noteworthy.

Since the Second World War there has been a veritable flood. J. B. Phillips' paraphrase Letters to the Young Churches was published in 1947 and the whole New Testament in 1957. The Living Bible, a paraphrase, (of current translations, not of the original texts) was first published in America in parts from 1964 to 1970 and the whole Bible in one volume in 1971. The Roman Catholic Knox New Testament translation (from the Vulgate) appeared in 1949 and the whole Bible in 1956. In America, Roman Catholic scholars worked on a revision of the earlier Challoner Bible; this work was extended to become a new translation and was issued in 1970 as the New American Bible.

The Jerusalem Bible (1966) was the first official Roman Catholic translation made from the Hebrew and Greek rather than Latin. Its name derives from the notes which were written in Jerusalem (at the French École Biblique) and were included in English in this edition. This was revised and the New Jerusalem Bible was issued in 1985.

The first official interchurch (excluding Roman Catholic) translation in Britain and the first major postwar version to depart from Tyndale/AV was the New English Bible (NT 1961, whole Bible 1970). It used the latest scholarship and was enlightened by the Dead Sea Scrolls and linguistic knowledge of Hebrew, and was intended to be modern without the archaisms of the AV. It was not wholly successful in its aims and did not capture the popular imagination. It has been completely and thoroughly revised and was published as the Revised English Bible in 1989.

Perhaps the single most significant translation was that produced by the American Bible Society as the New Testament in 1961 and the whole Bible in 1970 entitled Good News Bible or Today's English Version (1976). This has been revised and the second edition appeared in 1994. This latter edition uses inclusive language where the original text clearly refers to women as well as men.[2]



The New International Version (1972 and 1978/9) is a Protestant evangelical translation by a team of over a hundred international (though predominantly American) scholars. This used the best original texts and aimed at a dignity of language more in line with that of the AV. In 1982 was published a major revision of the AV itself, the New King James, or Revised Authorised Version. It replaces the ‘thees’ and ‘thys’ with ‘you’ and ‘your’ and updates the more abstruse phraseology.

Oxford University Press have still to decide whether or not to publish the new ‘politically correct’ version which has already created controversy in the press. A spokesman from O.U.P. told me that it is at present out to advisors and the decision will be made on the basis of the possible size of the market and the probable public reaction. The leak to the press came from America.

The problem of political correctness is only one of the myriad problems of translating Scripture. Some of those facing Tyndale are the same today, whilst others are peculiar to their time. Not least today is the question of presenting the Bible to an increasingly secular audience. Who is the ploughboy now? Whoever he is, he may have found the AV as arcane and inaccessible as the Vulgate in Latin was for Tyndale's ploughboy, but is a ‘modern’ easy-to-read translation with dynamic equivalence and inclusive language going to set him/her eagerly scrutinising the Word of God?

Gerald Hammond asks; ‘If the Bible is a collection of texts produced over a long period and widely diverse in genre and style, then to turn them all into the “language we use today” will inevitably mask such distinctions’ [3] I would append to this a related issue. The ‘English’ of the Renaissance was the English of these islands; nowadays ‘ English’ has several voices from different continents, hence the need for international translators. English, particularly idiomatic English, is, therefore, not only living and changing, but it is also diverse. What, then, is ‘the language we use today’? Who, indeed, are ‘we’? ‘We’ are the people who turn to the Bible as the authority for our particular viewpoint on the ordination of women to the priesthood; who scan its pages for insights into our specifically twentieth century ethical problems, and for grappling with the issues confronting a pluralist society.

The dilemma of interpreting the universal, eternal Word of God is at the heart of translation, simply because translation is to do with meaning. One of the avowed aims of the Good News Bible was to eliminate scholarly, poetical and technical religious terms, as well as all ‘slang’ expressions. The result claimed to be a ‘common language’. [4] Even if this were an achievable aim is not this a grave disservice to both the readers and the writers of Scripture? For, surely, to eliminate the poetry is to eliminate the mystical and the numinous, and are not these a very great part of the meaning? Tyndale spoke the language of the ploughboy; he did not thereby eschew the language of poetry.

On a more practical note, there is the problem of which version of Scripture is to be read in Church. This was highlighted in the Christmas Eve Carol Service broadcast on television from Canterbury Cathedral (1994). The readings were mainly from the RSV but there were occasional diversions into the NEB. The result was oddly incoherent.

Perhaps this particular problem will not be solved until we have another ‘Authorised Version’.

Many of the facts about English translations available today were kindly supplied by the British and Foreign Bible Society, along with the following data. Of the 6,528 distinct languages of the world:

The work of Tyndale and Reformers goes on.


References

  1. Gerald Hammond, ‘English Translations of the Bible’, in The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, (London 1987), p. 649.
  2. British and Foreign Bible Society, Bibles, Testaments & Gospels: The Guide 1994-1995, p. 2.
  3. op. cit., p. 654
  4. The Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible, edited by Pat Alexander, (Lion Publishing, 1978, revised 1986). p. 79.

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