Friday, November 23, 2012

Dusting off the debate over Bible translations

Several writers at First Things are having an entertaining back and forth about the old Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible, the much preferred translation of the magazine's late founder Richard John Neuhaus. In Protestant circles, this translation has been pretty much out of circulation for about twenty years. The Catholic edition, however, is apparently still in wide use, much to the consternation of Michael Brendan Dougherty, whose article in The American Conservative sparked the First Things conversation. Dougherty finds the old RSV "unmemorable and unexciting." Leroy Huizenga disagrees, calling it "accurate and readable and dignified."

David T. Koyzis offers the most detailed critique, pointing out the RSV's stylistic inconsistencies and Christological deficiencies.
Having grown up with the King James Version of the Bible, I have no sentimental attachment to the Revised Standard Version, although I do read from it in the context of daily prayers. Still I cannot manage to summon up Fr. Neuhaus’s enthusiasm for this translation, which has a number of literary flaws, stemming mostly from the translators’ misguided retention of some Jacobean English features in an otherwise modern translation. The problems are especially obvious in their inconsistent use of the old second-person-singular pronouns (thou, thee, thy, thine). In general, these are used in addressing God, as in this example from Psalm 25:

To thee, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, in thee I trust, let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me.

However, these pronouns are never used in addressing Jesus, which might be seen to suggest a deficient christology on the part of the translators. Moreover, there are some passages where the second-person-singular pronouns are used to address a personified entity, such as a country or city:

He it was who smote the first-born of Egypt, both of man and of beast; who in thy midst, O Egypt, sent signs and wonders against Pharaoh and all his servants. . . . (Psalm 135:9)


The LORD will reign for ever,
thy God, O Zion, to all generations.
Praise the LORD! (Psalm 146:10)


. . . and the sound of harpers and minstrels, of flute players and trumpeters, shall be heard in thee no more; and a craftsman of any craft shall be found in thee no more; and the sound of the millstone shall be heard in thee no more; and the light of a lamp shall shine in thee no more; and the voice of bridegroom and bride shall be heard in thee no more; for thy merchants were the great men of the earth, and all nations were deceived by thy sorcery (Revelation 18:22-23).
In conclusion, Koyzis says the old RSV was crying out for revision or replacement after forty years as the mainline standard. He leaves it up to the reader whether the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) or English Standard Version (ESV) is best, but he commends both for their dispensing with the last remnants of "Jacobean English."

I am fully on board with Alan Jacobs that the ESV ought to get the nod. I have no use whatsoever for the NRSV, and not primarily for the reason one might think. It is easy enough to dismiss it for its condescending use of "gender neutral" language. However, my chief problem with the NRSV is similar to Jacbs' problem with the New Living Translation (NLT).
Before considering the excellence of the ESV, we must take some time to understand a little more about the range of translations that enrich, or afflict, our world today. Let’s begin with the Living Bible. The Living Bible—a paraphrase, not a translation—was produced by a single man, Kenneth N. Taylor, and was published by Tyndale House in 1971; it sought to provide access to Scripture for those who found all translations too formidable. Its enormous success led the people at Tyndale to suspect that a genuine translation based on similar principles might also be successful, and in 1996 the New Living Translation (NLT) appeared. We may begin to approach the problems facing a translation that would seek to be universal, or something close to it, by looking at the very first page of the introduction to the NLT. The translators, as one might expect, attempt to distinguish their work from the other available versions, and they do so by claiming that they have produced a “thought-for-thought” (or what is usually called a “dynamic equivalence”) translation and then explaining what this means:
The value of a thought-for-thought translation can be illustrated by comparing 1 Kings 2:10 in the King James Version, the New International Version, and the New Living Translation. “So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the City of David” (KJV). “Then David rested with his fathers and was buried in the City of David” (NIV). “Then David died and was buried in the City of David” (NLT). Only the New Living Translation clearly translates the real meaning of the Hebrew idiom “slept with his fathers” into contemporary English.
I remember clearly the first time I read these words; I smiled sadly and put the book away, knowing that I would not use it.

My complaint can be easily stated: the author of this introduction does not know the difference between an idiom and a metaphor. It is a distinction both simple and vital. It is highly unlikely that a Jew of David’s time, or at any time in Israel’s history, would have found a family member’s dead body and run to tell everyone that grandpa was now sleeping with his fathers. Hebrew has words to express quite directly that someone has died; the chronicler of Kings chooses here to eschew them in favor of a particularly hieratic and formal way of describing the death of David. When (in 2 Samuel 1) a man comes from the camp of Israel’s army to report to David, he says simply that Saul (along with his son Jonathan) has died. The deaths of Saul and Jonathan are given no cultural or political meaning, because by the time this history was written the people of Israel no longer identified Saul as having special importance for their national identity. David, by contrast, is for the Israelites their first true King, the head of a proper dynastic line; therefore he does not merely die, he “sleeps with his fathers” in Jerusalem, the “city of David.” The phrase is not an idiom—a common phrase lacking an evident literal meaning—instead, it is a carefully chosen image of David’s place in the culture of Israel. The meaning of the phrase may not be immediately evident to the average reader; but the scholar who on those grounds removes it does not translate but interprets. (It is true, of course, that every translation is in some sense an interpretation; but translators are not thereby liberated from the need to strive for fidelity; and only a strange sense of fidelity would lead a translation committee to erase distinctions the original text strove to preserve.)

What is really being revealed here is not clarity or forcefulness of translation, but the modern biblical scholar’s mistrust of figurative language. Some years ago Gerald Hammond noted that many recent translations of the Bible “eschew anything which smacks of imagery or metaphor—based on the curious assumption, I guess, that modern English is an image-free language.” One could find no better illustration of Hammond’s point than the sentence “Then David died and was buried in the City of David.”
The NRSV makes a similar mistake which has, arguably, much deeper theological implications.
While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he died. (Acts 7:59-60 NRSV)
Compare the above rendering with the same passage from the ESV. The difference is subtle, but significant.
And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
(Acts 7:59-60 ESV)
In light of Jesus's resurrection, the New Testament writers, even moreso than the Old Testament chroniclers, had good reason to use the temporal term, "fell asleep," as opposed to the seemingly permanent term, "died." The NRSV carelessly throws around the latter term throughout the New Testament, leaving the departed saints in a seemingly permanent state of separation from the living.

Equally egregiously, the NRSV runs roughshod over the theologically significant metaphors so carefully chosen by the New Testament writers. One example will suffice.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24 NRSV)
Again, the variance with the ESV is subtle, but significant.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
(1 Peter 2:24 ESV)
Of course, the "tree" is a reference to the cross, but Peter is being quite deliberate in making the connection between the cross, which sets us free from sin, and the original "tree" which brought about our downfall through the sin of Adam and Eve in garden (Genesis 3). The NRSV translators demonstrate considerable theological shallowness in missing this point. Then again, it is only one of a myriad of points--theological, Christological, and (of course) anthropological--they miss throughout what is a thoroughly vapid and vacuous translation.