I want to start off this blog by comparing to translations of the story of Jesus’ birth, from the Gospel of Luke. The first is the King James’ Version of the 17th century, the second the Good News Bible of the 20th century.
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
8 There were some shepherds in that part of the country who were spending the night in the fields, taking care of their flocks.
9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone over them. They were terribly afraid.
Both translations are accurate, but are as different as chalk and cheese. First of all, there’s the matter of rhythm. The first knows how to make words dance, rhe second has a tin ear. Then there’s vocabulary. Compare “abiding” with “spending the night” or “round about them” with “over them”. The first is strong and spacious, while the second is weak and apologetic. There’s also the tone. The first is consciously that of a storyteller, with its changes of pace, its awareness of the audience ( And, lo!). The second is that of a dull historian, giving the facts. Above all, the first is beautiful, the second banal. I have singled out GNB but in fact the same deficiencies can be found in differing degrees in all modern versions.
The usual defence given is that the originals are not often in elegant Greek prose, and some of them are almost ungramatical. This makes the mistake of thinking that my sort of criticism puts style above original content. Not so. the KJV is a literal translation which italicises words that do not appear in the Greek. It sticks close to the content, finding the most appropriate English expressions of it.
There is a neo-fundamentalist bias in many modern versions which is more concerned with the bible as “the supreme rule of faith and life” than it is with letting the original authors speak in modern english. The absence of the storytelling voice in the gospels is a symptom of this. Who knows what terrible heresies might result from thinking of the Gospel as a story told by Matthew!
But, I hear you say wearily, does it really matter, the lack of beauty? Didn’t the literary snobs of Rome criticise the Christian writings for their lack of beauty? And don’t upper class atheists often uphold the KJV as a monument of English literature in spite of its unfortunate content? Yes, yes, but I am talking about beauty which is different from literary excellence, in that it may give us successive sentences beginning with “and” which would never happen in good literary English. No, the beauty I mean comes from the vocabulary, the syntax, the voice and the tune all combining to say the author’s thought with maximum effectiveness, while staying as close to his/her original expression as possible. The KJV achieves this difficult beauty in many passages, so that almost 70 years later I can still recall the first time I heard the story of the shepherds read aloud. The words have been in my head ever since. Will anyone ever remember the words of any modern version?
Even so, does beauty matter in this context?
I’ve just been reading a book about China by the Hungarian author Krasznahorkai, who is ferociously committed to the beauty that human beings can create, in words,images, sculptures, drama, music, and even gardening. He has a visceral dislike of everything shoddy, pretentious, ugly, fake and dreary. For him, the creation of beauty is a moral imperative which commands our best human qualities. Shoddy housing betrays the fact that the builder doesn’t rate the poor people who willl live in it; fake grandeur, like Trump Tower, advertises the unearned self -satisfaction of the owner. Banal bible translation proclaims the theology of its translators, so that it is their word rather than the word of God. Indeed the bible itself says of God’s suffering servant, that he has “no beauty that we should desire him”, but it says so in words which when well-translated are of sober beauty.
In Jesus’ humanity the beauty of God’s character was revealed as the joy of human desiring. This ought also to be true of the human words of the Bible.