Thursday, 21 February 2008

Another Bible translation?

Yes, there is to be a new interdenominational translation of the Bible — for some sketchy details of this (as yet unnamed) translation, see the graphe site. Do we need another Bible? Surprisingly, I think the answer is yes. In our college community, the NIV seems to hold sway, with some use of the NRSV, the ESV and others. I encourage students to branch out and read, among others, the New English Bible, the Jerusalem Bible and the New Living Translation, though they all have their strengths and weaknesses.

The translations in most common use seem locked in a time warp in terms of their use of language. The thees and thous may have gone, but the sentence structure too often remains stilted. The characters who inhabit the pages of Scripture seem to speak in translationese, with expressions and idioms which no native English speaker would use. Just at random, would you ask a friend to “Intercede with the LORD your God and pray for me that my hand may be restored” (NIV), or would your prayer point be in the form, “Entreat now the favor of the LORD your God, and pray for me, so that my hand may be restored to me” (NRSV - 1 Kings 13:6)? We’ve got to do better than this.

The editorial board includes the likes of David L. Petersen and Joel Green, and promises to devote attention to readability. The translation is to be “developed with a special emphasis on education and worship”.

The fact that the new translation includes the apocryphal books is not likely to endear it to conservative Protestants. Are we then condemned to keep using the NIV for the next 350 years just as the church I was in for a while was still insisting on the use of the KJV (“it sounded like a Bible should sound”) long after comprehension had ceased?


Pete Moore said...

John - I agree with your 'take' on the weird things that translators have bible characters say. Quite stilted at times. Do you think though with reported biblical speech that sometimes the characters do say things in more formal and even stilted language, given some pretty unusual (far from everyday) situations. Is that something that good scholars could pick up from the Hebrew and Greek text? Pete Moore

John Davies said...

That one deserves an essay rather than a blog comment. The short answer is that we don’t have any native speakers of the Biblical languages, and all of the MP3 recordings of the pub conversations of the likes of Baruch or Simon Peter with their mates were destroyed in the burning of the library of Alexandria (well that’s my theory). So it’s true, we don’t have definitive controls on how close to everyday speech the dialogue bits of the Bible were. My blog comment above was bloggish and not very nuanced.

We do have, however, contemporary, or near contemporary documents of a non-literary character — letters, etc. (as well as more literary texts) for both OT and NT which are very close to the language of the reported speech in the Bible. Of course every time we try to write down speech, we are to some extent stylizing and approximating at all sorts of levels. For example, phonology: no writing system is capable of capturing the range of sounds we actually utter. There are subtle intonational patterns we don’t represent in writing. Our vocabulary range is not identical in speech and writing. There are even different rules of syntax operating (though some might dispute this).

There are more polished literary forms of reported speech as well as more colloquial in our literature and, we might assume, in the Bible (e.g. Luke is written in a style closer to the conventions of Greek literary history). Language used by a Peter delivering a sermon or a Paul mounting a legal defence might be expected to be a little different from that used by the soldiers at the foot of the cross (despite the momentous event happening above them). One might use a more formal form of address in conversing with a social superior (and probably an angel!), though I find it difficult to detect this most of the time. Probably Luke’s form of address to Theophilus (while not dialogue) is in this category. We should remember too that probably much of the Bible was dictated to a scribe rather than written down by the “author” and thus has an oral aspect which might lead us to expect that the author would tend to couch his dialogues in regular conversational idiom. The question of the extent to which a scribe tidied up the language of the one dictating is an open one, but my hunch is that they did have some freedom, at least to the level of a Hansard reporter to tidy up the false starts, the er, um, hesitations, the beg-your-pardons and the like, but that the character of the oral origin of the text has not been routinely obliterated by being recast by the scribe into something remote from contemporary spoken idiom.

Does the subject matter of some of the conversations (e.g. the resurrection) lead us to expect that the language will be more formal? Hard to say, though there is no intrinsic reason why it should. It is possible to say stupendous things in simple everyday language, and the emotional dimension of (e.g.) seeing the risen Lord might militate against the notion of the characters constructing a more literary dialogue and an author (albeit with some freedom to recast) would surely be sensitive to this fact. The vast bulk of the dialogue in the Bible, however, deals with everyday situations which only take on their deeper significance when we stand back and see the bigger picture of God’s dealings with and through the characters.

With all the caveats, there are still a lot of indications that the Bible writers intended to approximate their record of conversations to the sorts of conversations that would resonate with their first hearers, e.g. the reported speech of the excited girls of 1 Sam 9:12-13 oozes verisimilitude. We are meant to smile at the depiction of these girls through their garrulous speech pattern. The writer of Ruth seems to have deliberately put into the mouths of Naomi and Boaz some “old timers’ language.” There are hints of regional dialectal differences in some instances of reported speech, suggesting these have not been levelled to that of a standard literary dialect and we are meant to hear the distinctive characters’ voices in the dialogue.

I’m still hanging out for a more readable translation, one where the characters leap out of the page and talk like real people.