The final issue in the translation process -- and one that goes hand in hand with determining the meaning of the original text -- is putting the text into appropriate English. Bible translations can and do differ markedly in the way they handle questions of canon, textual basis, and interpretation, but style is the main criterion by which most readers distinguish one version of the Bible from another.
Although the question of archaic language has already been touched on, a few more things need to be said, if only because this issue obstinately refuses to die. Some still feel that the English Bible should be couched in oldfashioned, King Jamesian language. Many worshipers who grew up with the King James Version feel strongly that its antiquated vocabulary and syntax are invested with a special dignity, an indescribable aura of holiness. The archaic language helps to inspire in them a sense of religious awe. Some who are willing to concede that the scholarship of the King James Bible is outdated and that certain obsolete words and phrases do need to be replaced still argue that any revision of the King James ought to preserve the generally archaic tone of the language. Others simply claim that the Bible, being an ancient book, is supposed to sound "old."
The idea that archaic biblical language has an awe-inspiring quality cannot be dismissed easily. For 374 years the King James Version has had a powerful hand in molding our attitudes toward Scripture, religious language, and language in general. Only in the past few decades has the deeply rooted notion that the King James Version is the Bible begun to slip out of the minds of native speakers of English. This process will surely accelerate as the King James continues to lose ground to contemporary English versions of the Bible.
The preference for a Bible that sounds antique is easily explained, but archaism is not a defensible option for translators. Too often archaic language is an obstacle to understanding. It interferes with the reception of the Bible's message; at times it renders that message unintelligible. The idea that putting the Bible into clear, contemporary language somehow diminishes the magnificence of the Word has an ironic aspect: the majority of the Bible was written in language that sounded clear and contemporary to people living in the era in which it was written.
Exceptions can be found, but these only prove the rule. "The whole point of the New Testament language is that it's written for the most part in the Koine language of the people and not in an archaizing dialect," observes George MacRae, of Harvard Divinity School, a member of the RSV committee since 1972. "There are a number of examples where you can bring that out very clearly. A really clever translation of Luke, for example, should translate the first two chapters -- the infancy story -- in somewhat archaic language, because they're written in imitation of the Septuagint. The Greek would have sounded archaic -- what we would call 'biblical' -- to people in the first century A. D. "
The RSV deserves some of the criticism it has received for its ambivalent attitude toward the use of archaic language. In some places the RSV sounds pleasantly quaint; in other places it sounds antiquated and musty. Almost never does it sound genuinely contemporary -- and this was true even in 1946, when the RSV New Testament first appeared.
Two things should be said in the RSV's defense, however. In the 1930s and 1940s, when most of the work on the first edition was completed, the study of linguistics was still in its infancy, and translation theory lacked the sophistication and methodological rigor it has since acquired. Also, the forthcoming edition of the RSV will contain far less archaic language than previous editions contained. For example, the archaic second- person pronouns (thou, thee, thy, thine) and their corresponding verb forms (art, wilt, didst, enrichest, and so forth) will be dropped altogether. The original committee did away with these pronouns everywhere but in the language of prayer; thus, they were retained in the Psalms and all other prayers addressed to God. Eliminating them actually brings the English into closer conformity with Hebrew and Greek usage, for in the biblical languages the same second- person pronouns are used to address both human beings and God. Committee members promise that the vocabulary overall will have a more contemporary flavor.
A related matter is what might be called the level of language in a translation. How formal and literary should the language be, as opposed to informal and colloquial? One answer is that ideally the English should mirror the level of the original Hebrew or Greek -- which clearly varies from book to book and sometimes from passage to passage. A few translations have made efforts in this direction. However, Biblical Hebrew and New Testament Greek are long- dead languages, and we will never have the kind of sensitivity to their nuances that would permit translators to pin down the level of formality of every verse in the Bible. Furthermore, even where the stylistic level of the original text is relatively obvious, to replicate it faithfully in English is no mean task.
A more practical answer is that the level of language should depend on the intended audience. The existing RSV tends to use fairly formal diction, as one might expect from a translation that was conceived with an eye toward its use in the churches. To the extent that the King James phraseology is retained, a formal tone is inevitable. The RSV hasn't the stylistic elegance of the New English Bible, a British effort that is probably the most graceful and polished of the modern renderings, but the RSV certainly aspires to be literary rather than colloquial.
In contrast, the American Bible Society, the sponsor of Today's English Version (the Good News Bible), wanted to produce a translation that could be easily understood by all speakers of English, including those who speak it as a second or third language. The translators employed language that is common to both contemporary standard written English and natural, everyday, informal (but not slangy) speech. They avoided not only archaic and arcane terminology but also words that a person of average education might be unfamiliar with, and they put clarity and simplicity ahead of elegance and euphony.
All of the above- mentioned choices between opposites -- archaic and contemporary, formal and informal, literary and colloquial -- are aspects of the issue of "how to say it in English." A more fundamental choice is between literal and idiomatic, although professional translators sometimes formulate it differently. "In the trade of Bible translating, we speak of a dynamic equivalence translation as opposed to a formal equivalence translation,"says Roger Bullard of Atlantic Christian College, a member of the Old Testament and Apocrypha panels for Today's English Version. "By a formal equivalence translation we mean what most people would simply call a literal translation, in which the sentence structure of the original language is reflected in English. The RSV is pretty much a formal equivalence translation. It is not very venturesome in altering sentence structures. It is venturesome -- or was, for the 1950s -- in breaking away from the traditional King James vocabulary and verb forms. But when it comes to monkeying with the structure of the original, it's quite conservative.
"Today's English Version and the New English Bible could be called dynamic equivalence translations, where the intent is not to translate word by word or phrase by phrase but to translate the meanings of the sentences. They feel perfectly free to change actives into passives, to take long subordinate clauses and make independent clauses out of them -- or often in the Old Testament the other way around -- or to take a short, staccato pattern of sentences and make something a little longer and more fluid out of it."
How does a dynamic equivalence translation differ from a paraphrase? The answer hinges on how one understands the term paraphrase. The Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary (1963) defines it as "a restatement of the meaning of a passage, work, etc., as for clarity. " On the basis of this definition one can say that every translation is to some degree a paraphrase -- an assertion that no responsible translator would argue with. At the same time, when translators say that someone else's translation is a paraphrase, they often mean it pejoratively. A paraphrase in this sense renders the original text in so loose a fashion that it is not worthy of being called a translation. One frequently hears Today's English Version referred to as a paraphrase, yet many experts maintain that it is no less deserving of being called a translation than the RSV is. What is the source of the disagreement?
We can eliminate some confusion by setting aside the loaded word paraphrase for the moment. The real issue seems to be how we determine what merits the title of translation and what doesn't. And the best response is that a translation is a competent and conscientious attempt to convey fully the meaning of the original text. That is, when a translator takes a text in one language and converts it into another language, he must try to capture every bit of meaning that he believes the text had for the readers and hearers for whom it was intended. No element of meaning that inheres in the original should be left out; no additional meaning should be included. To be sure, a good deal of subjectivity is involved in establishing the meaning of a text. The point is that this definition of translation centers on the concept of meaning; no importance has been attached to reproducing the original text's sentence structure, word order, grammatical features, and so on.
If one accepts this definition of translation, then Today's English Version and the New English Bible (also sometimes dismissed as a paraphrase) should properly be called translations. Formal equivalence translation, which tends toward the literal, and dynamic equivalence translation, which strives to be more idiomatic, are both acceptable methods of rendering a text.
Any serious student of the Bible will want to own the RSV and at least one Bible that represents a dynamic, or idiomatic, approach to translation. An excellent way to enhance one's understanding of a difficult passage in Scripture is to place a number of English versions side by side and compare their renderings. Here is how the RSV and Today's English Version handle two representative, fairly straightforward passages:
One popular English Bible really does not deserve to be called a translation. Though the Living Bible is billed by its publishers as a paraphrase, implying that it is something less than a full- fledged translation, many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians -- normally proponents of biblical literalism -- have made this curious text their Bible of choice, holding it to be a valid alternative to the other versions of the Scriptures. However, in numerous places the Living Bible actually distorts the biblical message.
The Living Bible appeared in seven installments between 1962 and 1970, before these were combined under one cover. (A new edition recently came out under the title The Book. ) It was produced hy one man, Kenneth Taylos who makes no claim to have translated from the original languages. Instead, using as his sources English translations that were available at the time, Taylor simply recast the biblical text in modern language. But he did not consistently strive for that equivalency of meaning which is the hallmark of a genuine translation. On the contrary, he regularly expanded upon and otherwise subtly altered the biblical message. Taken individually, the examples can seem inconsequential, but in their totality they impart to the Living Bible a fundamentalist theological bias. A peculiar kind of arrogance underlies Taylor's method -- few devout Christians or Jews would be so presumptuous as to make changes in a text that they consider to be divinely inspired.
Here are a few examples (collected by Eldon Jay Epp in his article "Jews and Judaism in The Living New Testament," which appeared in Biblical and Near Eastern Studies, edited by Gary A. Tuttle): In 1 John 3:9, where the RSV has "he is born of God," the Living Bible renders "he has been born again"Living Bible's italics). For the RSV's "justification" in Romans 5:16, the Living Bible's term is "glorious life." In Galatians 1:6 and 1:11 "gospel" in the RSV becomes, simplistically, "way to heaven" in the Living Bible. And Galatians 5:5, which the RSV translates as "For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness," appears in the Living Bible as "But we by the help of the Holy Spirit are counting on Christ's death to clear away our sins and make us right with God."
Another weakness of the Living Bible is its seemingly casual denigration of Judaism. Epp, who has catalogued numerous instances of this phenomenon, has written that "the [Living New Testament] appears almost to take pleasure in castigating and chastening the Jews and Judaism -- to punish them by tongue- lashing and to reprimand them for failing to accept 'their Messiah' -- while all along wishing also, it would seem, to preach the gospel to any Jewish readers. "
Where Jesus speaks in the RSV of "this evil generation" and "an evil and adulterous generation" (Matthew 12:45; 16:4), the Living Bible has "this evil nation" and "this evil, unbelieving nation." The RSV translates Luke 17:25 as "But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation"; the Living Bible reads, "But first I must suffer terribly and be rejected by this whole nation." In John 1:17 the RSV says simply, "the law was given through Moses," but the Living Bible expands this to "Moses gave us only the Law with its rigid demands and merciless justice. "
For the RSV's "we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe" (Galatians 4:3), the Living Bible has "We were slaves to Jewish laws and rituals." In Galatians 4:9 what the RSV translates as "weak and beggarly elemental spirits" the Living Bible renders as "another poor, weak, useless religion of trying to get to heaven by obeying God's laws." And in Galatians 5:1, where the RSV has "stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery," the Living Bible reads, "Now make sure that you stay free and don't get all tied up again in the chains of slavery to Jewish laws and ceremonies."
One final issue of Bible translation is of quite recent origin. Over the past ten to fifteen years speakers of English have become increasingly sensitive to what is variously referred to as "male- oriented," "masculine-dominated," "patriarchal," or "sexist" language. Many Americans are now uncomfortable with the generic use of such words as man, men, mankind, and brother(s), as well as the use of he and him to refer to an indefinite person who could be of either sex. They are making an effort to replace such terms with what has been labeled "inclusive" language -- language that is inclusive of both sexes and free of male bias. Whether the English language will change in this direction is no longer in question. Tremendous change has already occurred, and we are sure to experience more. The questions now are how extensive the changes will be -- for instance, whether the majority of Americans will come to use humankind as a substitute for mankind -- and how soon certain changes will gain a secure foothold among various segments of the population.
Not one of the major English Bibles -- not even the New International Version, which was published in 1978 -- fully reflects the dramatic changes in English usage that have taken place already with respect to male- oriented terminology. This is scarcely surprising, because the changes did not really begin to make themselves felt until about 1970, and work on the most recent major versions, Today's English Version and the New International Version, started in the sixties. The translators were aware that change was occurring. "When we began our project, in 1967, the feminist issue of inclusive language had hardly been raised," Roger Bullard says, commenting on his involvement with the Old Testament panel for Today's English Version, "but it began to be felt as we were doing our work, and we felt the linguistic ground shifting beneath our feet. It seemed that we were translating at a very unfortunate time, because before our work was over [the Old Testament was published in 1976], it seemed evident that the English language was destined to change in some unforeseen ways and our translation would then appear dated."
When the RSV committee was at work on the first editions of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Apocrypha, the issue of inclusive language was nonexistent. Now, however, committee members are excising all unwarranted male- oriented language as they overhaul the text for the forthcoming revised edition. Unwarranted is a crucial word. "The basic principle that the RSV committee uses is that we will remove all masculine- dominated language that has been introduced by the translators," says George MacRae, who serves on the New Testament panel. Thus, no attempt will be made to disguise the fact that every book of the Bible is the product of a thoroughly male- dominated society. To pretend that the ancient Near Eastern world of the Bible was not radically different from our own world would be to deprive Scripture of its historical context. "I think it's part of God's revelation in history that we take history, and we take the time- boundedness of a biblical writer, seriously," says William Holladay, an Old Testament panel member who teaches at Andover Newton Theological School, in Massachusetts. "Then, it's the teaching task of the church or the synagogue, it seems to me, to say, 'Well, all right, Jeremiah said it this way. What God intends through those words may be something a little bit different, so let's talk about that for a while.' "
Where inclusive language can legitimately be substituted for male- oriented language, rephrasing the verse or passage in question is usually a simple task. The RSV committee has made public some examples of changes that it has already approved or is likely to approve for the revised edition. In John 2:10 "Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine" does not in fact refer exclusively to males. The committee has proposed to change it to "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk." Similarly, in Romans 2:16, for "God judges the secrets of men," it has proposed "God judges the secrets of human beings." In Paul's letters, when he uses the word "brethren," he is surely addressing both male and female members of the church. The committee is weighing such alternatives as "brothers and sisters" -- which some committee members feel has too much of a revival- tent ring to it -- and "friends."
In trying to expunge male- oriented phraseology, the committee has improved some renderings in unexpected ways. George MacRae says, "There's a famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13 that talks about love being the higher way, and it begins, 'If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.' The term men there, though it is the Greek generic word for 'men,' is completely unnecessary, and it obscures the contrast. If we translate it 'If I speak in the tongues of human beings and of angels, but have not love,' then the contrast is brought out much more sharply, because the contrast is between angels and human beings. We find lots of instances like that, where a change that we've become sensitive to because of the women's issue of inclusive language enables us to improve the translation." Often, however, the committee refrains from making a change that would result in what it considers contrived or awkward English. Currently 1 Corinthians 11:28 reads, "Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup." This will be changed to "Let a person examine himself...." English lacks a common- gender singular pronoun in the third person, and the committee feels that "himself or herself " would interrupt the smooth flow of the verse.
A different committee is behind An Inclusive Language Lectionary, which, like the RSV, is being prepared under the auspices of the National Council of Churches. The first volume of the lectionary, representing the first year in a three- year cycle of readings from Scripture, appeared in October of 1983. The second volume was published last October, and the third is due this year. A lectionary, as the introduction to the first volume explains, is "a fixed selection of readings, taken from both the Old and the New Testament, to be read and heard in the churches' cervices of worship. " The Inclusive Language Lectionary project was created in 1980 on the recommendation of the National Council of Churches Task Force on Biblical Translation. A committee of twelve was appointed "to create for use in services of worship inclusive language lectionary readings based on the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, with the text revised only in those places where male- biased or otherwise inappropriately exclusive language could be modified to reflect an inclusiveness of all persons." The lectionary committee, separate from the RSV committee, was free to develop its own approach to the question of inclusive language.
Two controversial principles distinguish the lectionary committee's method from that of the RSV committee. Whereas the goal of the RSV people is to "remove all masculine- dominated language that has been introduced by the translators," the lectionary panel is attempting to revise the RSV text "in those places where male- biased or otherwise inappropriately exclusive language could be modified." The lectionary committee's efforts to eliminate male- oriented language that is intrinsic and integral to the original Hebrew and Greek text of the Bible go far beyond what the RSV committee feels is necessary and appropriate. The second fundamental point of difference is that the lectionary committee has not hesitated to make editorial additions to the biblical text in order to counterbalance what it interprets as "male bias" in certain passages.
Here are some specific examples of how the inclusive-language lectionary recasts the RSV. Justifying its choices with references (in the appendix of the first volume, Readings for Year A) to "God's bisexuality" and to God as "the motherly father of the child who comes forth," the lectionary committee has elected to change "God the Father" to "God the Father [and Mother]" or, at times, "God the [Mother and] Father." The Hebrew divine name, rendered "the LORD" in the RSV, becomes "GOD" or "the SOVEREIGN ONE" in the lectionary. In the New Testament, "Lord" is normally replaced by "Sovereign." "Son" and "Son of God," used in the New Testament to denote Jesus, become "Child" and "Child of God." "The Son of man," another New Testament designation for Jesus and a term that has a long and complex history in the Old Testament and in intertestamental Jewish literature, is rendered "the Human One." In many passages where the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are mentioned, the lectionary adds in brackets the names of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel. In Matthew 3:9 Abraham's concubine, Hagar, is thrown in for good measure.
The lectionary committee goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid using masculine pronouns. He, him, his, and himself are never used to refer to God, to the pre- existent Christ, or to the risen Christ. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son" (John 3:16) becomes "For God so loved the world that God gave God's only Child." John 1:10- 11 in the RSV reads, "He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not." The lectionary has "The Word was in the world, and the world was made through the Word, yet the world did not know the Word. The Word came to the Word's own, but those to whom the Word came did not receive the Word." "Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself" (Philippians 3:20- 21) is rendered "Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like Christ's glorious body, by the power which enables Christ even to subject all things to Christ's self." Instead of "Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds" (Titus 2:13-14), the lectionary gives us "Jesus Christ, who gave self for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for Christ's self a chosen people who are zealous for good deeds. "
What is wrong with all of this? Well, a number of things. We can begin with "God the Father [and Mother]." Certainly, the biblical expression "God the Father" is an example of metaphorical language. Furthermore, a surprising number of biblical passages -- especially in the Old Testament -- use female metaphors for God. Many of these are examined by Phyllis Trible in her groundbreaking study God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Fortress, 1978), a thoughtful book that obviously left a strong impression on the lectionary committee. Yet, as Trible acknowledges, the Bible "overwhelmingly favors male metaphors for deity" Elizabeth Achtemeier, of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, points out that "God is never addressed as 'Mother,' never invoked as 'Mother,' in the Bible." Bruce Metzger, the RSV chairman, says, "There's a mystery as to what God is like internally, in the Godhead, and I think it's right to say that God transcends gender differences. But the way in which we believe God revealed himself, the way in which the writers of the Old and New Testaments perceive him, is as a father, as a king. We need to teach people God is not an old man sitting on a throne. But this is the work of Christian educators, not of Bible translators."
Although translation is more an art than a science, a responsible translator still aims to convey the meaning of the original text as precisely as possible -- that is, as precisely as the target language will allow. In this the lectionary committee fails miserably. "A young woman shall conceive and bear a son" (Isaiah 7:14) becomes "a young woman shall conceive and bear a child. " In the parable of the three servants (Matthew 24:14- 30) "a man going on a journey" becomes "someone going on a journey." His servants address him as "Master" in the RSV, but in the lectionary the title is "Sovereign." John 9 is the story of a man born blind, but in the lectionary he (it?) becomes "a person blind from birth," "the blind person," "the one born blind," "the blind one," "the one who had been blind," and "someone born blind." The RSV's "This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11) is clear. The lectionary's "This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Jesus go into heaven" is unidiomatic and confusing; one wonders if two different Jesuses are being spoken of. Matthew 14:21 in the lectionary reads, "And those who ate were about five thousand men and women and children" -- implying a total of five thousand people. Yet that is not how the RSV and other English Bibles understand the verse. The RSV has, "And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children." Today's English Version translates, "The number of men who ate was about five thousand, not counting the women and children." And the New English Bible renders the verse "Some five thousand men shared in this meal, to say nothing of women and children." Must a concern for inclusive language usurp the concern for accuracy, not to mention grammar and syntax?
Virtually everything having to do with the Bible is more complicated, more ambiguous and open to debate, than most Christians and Jews -- even educated church and synagogue members -- are aware of. To put it another way, too many people give too many easy answers to questions about the Bible. This is true not only with respect to the present subject, Bible translation, but also with respect to the history of biblical times and the theology of the Scriptures. The truth of Christianity or Judaism does not hinge on the answers to questions of these kinds about the Bible, but frequently intellectual honesty is at stake.
For Bible translators, whose work may reach an audience in the tens of millions, intellectual honesty is not simply an academic matter but a matter of responsibility. This is where the Living Bible and An Inclusive Language Lectionary fall short. Regardless of the specific audience -- fundamentalist, feminist, or otherwise -- for whom a translation is intended, if the translators are not doing all they can to convey the meaning of the original text accurately, they are not going to produce a responsible translation of the Bible.
Copyright © 1985 by Barry Hoberman. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1985; Translating the Bible; Volume 255, No. 2; pages 43-58.