October 2019

What works for you?

Sometimes I am asked by those who are reading at a forthcoming service which translation I would like them to use. And I always answer truthfully, if possibly not helpfully, that they should use whatever translation they find most helpful.

There are, of course, many different translations of the Bible - a statement which will, I know be an anathema to those who think that there is only one translation: indeed there are some who seem to assume that it isn’t a translation at all, but that this was the Bible as dictated by God. This is, of course, the translation known as the ‘King James Bible’ or the ‘Authorised Version’. These are instructively strange titles, as the version we have neither reached its current format in the reign of King James, nor is there any record of its ever having been authorised by anyone. And also - tell it not in Gath - whatever its merits as a work of sublime English, it is not in truth a terribly good translation. 

What does a translation do? As someone who has spent most of his working life dealing with Ancient Greek and Latin literature, I would say that the aim of a translation is to reproduce in another language all that is contained in the original version. Yes, it should be accurate, but it needs to do so much more in replicating naturally the style and the nuances of the original. Certainly that means for classical literature that there needs to be a new translation every generation as English in its use changes and develops every generation. 

And for the Bible, all of that presents real problems. After all, unlike translating Cicero into English, when translating the bible, you are not dealing with the work of one writer at one time. The Bible was after all written in to languages - the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New in Greek - and those two testaments were written by a whole variety of people over a long period of time, in the case of the Old Testament over a period of 600 years. Any translation, therefore, which is written in uniform style throughout is never going to reproduce what was in the original. 

And there is more. The Book of Revelation is actually written in rather poor Greek. How do you reproduce that in translation? The two letters written to Timothy are written in a different style than that of Paul’s other letters, meaning either that Paul did not write them, or that he decided to indulge at he end of his life in some experimental writing. (I know which side I come down on.) How is that reflected in translation? The writers of the Old Testament, especially of the Psalms, had a lamentable propensity towards the use of puns. How do you reflect act in translation?

The answer to those questions - and there are many, many more - is that they aren’t. Or, to put it another way, there is, at least in my experience, no one translation of the Bible which is, in the fullest sense of the word, a good one. Personally, what I therefore turn to, is a translation which I find helpful and comfortable. And I recommend to everyone else that they do the same. And it is actually rather good to hear different translations in services, because there is always a danger, if you get used just to one translation, that familiarity can breed not contempt, but indifference. So, when i tell people to use whatever translation they find helpful, I do genuinely mean it.

It is always good to hear different voices, as well as different translations, in services, so if you would like to read at a service - and it is not nearly as daunting as you think! - do please let me know.