King James Bible in National Geographic

We here at Better Bibles often say disparaging things about the KJV. There are several reasons.

Elizabethan English is hard for modern English speakers to understand, because English has changed so much. (The sticklers will point out that the KJV was written in Jacobean times, but I will respond that the translators were being self-consciously archaic, so the language is more Elizabethan than Jacobean. But the point remains either way.)

Their use of the Majority Text because they didn’t understand textual transmission is problematic.

While the translators may have, from time to time, used wonderful English in the passages they fully understood, they were very literal in the passages they didn’t fully understand, particularly where metaphors and indirect reference are involved. (You can’t now, nor could you then, use the English word walk to mean ‘live, conduct one’s life’.)

Nonetheless the KJV casts its shadow across every word of Scripture in English. We memorized from it. It echoes in our heads, even when we are reading contemporary translations. And its effect on the cultures of the English speaking world are so profound that one can hardly image English without it.

So it’s worth checking out the article in the December National Geographic on the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

30 Comments

  1. Don Fisher
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    You can’t now, nor could you then, use the English word walk to mean ‘live, conduct one’s life’.

    Ummm – you gotta walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

  2. Rich Rhodes
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    That’s because it’s Biblish, i.e., calqued from the KJV.

    “He walks crooked(ly).” doesn’t mean “He lives a crooked life.”
    “He walks upright.” doesn’t mean “He lives an upright life.”

    etc., etc.

  3. Posted December 7, 2011 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    Come on, you know that the KJV is even more inspired than the Greek. The Vulgate is a close second, though.

  4. Bradley Weidemann
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    (You can’t now, nor could you then, use the English word walk to mean ‘live, conduct one’s life’.)

    Really?

    Buddhism speaks of The Noble Eightfold Path and The Middle Way. Taoism itself means The Way or The Path. So why can path and way mean conducting one’s life but walk can’t?

  5. Rich Rhodes
    Posted December 8, 2011 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    There is no question that the metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY is nearly universal. English examples abound:

    He’s headed for trouble.
    She needs some direction in life.
    We’re always getting sidetracked.

    In this metaphor the person living is a traveler, his/her purposes are destinations, the means for achieving purposes are routes, etc. Hence, we say the way to do something. But way in English is no longer the normative word for ‘path, route’. And that’s the point. There is a major component of usage norms. Way now has a literal sense meaning ’manner‘ in English, but path, road, and route don’t.

    *That’s the wrong road to open that kind of can.

    And that’s the case here. Many expressions of traveling in English don’t automatically activate LIFE IS A JOURNEY.

    He drives fast.
    He’s headed uphill.
    He made a detour.

    Of course, you can contextualize expressions to favor a metaphorical reading,

    Two roads diverged in a wood …

    but in English walk only activates the metaphor when you force it. In Hebrew and Greek, no further context is necessary to trigger the metaphorical reference.

  6. David Dewey (UK)
    Posted December 8, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    I have just finished preparing our main Christmas Carol service. In deference to the 400th anniversary of the KJV and because people like a carol service to be traditional, I had opted for readings from the KJV (our usual Bible is the Good News), but found it impossible to use it without at least some tweaking. The result was something close to the ESV with the ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s put back in. While I am happy to honour the KJV and its unique place in the history of the English Bible, it really is no longer usable for public worship, at least here in the UK

  7. Bradley Weidemann
    Posted December 8, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    It is possible to imagine an example in which “walk” does not work as a metaphor. However, that example does not make “walk” as a metaphor always wrong. Readers with even modest abilities can understand when “walk” is used figuratively. The metaphor is too commonly encountered to claim unfamiliarity:

    “Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere.”

    “Like one that on a lonesome road/Doth walk in fear and dread, . . . .”

    “What do you suppose will satisfy the soul except to walk free and own no superior?”

  8. Mike Sangrey
    Posted December 8, 2011 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    You know, I wonder if it’s possible to categorically say, “X can never be used to mean Y.” Language is just too incredibly flexible. Even “Furious Green Ideas” gets over 10,000 hits on Google. Ummmm…make that over 10,000 and one. :-)

    However, that’s not the point. That is, the object in Bible translation should not be to see how far one can stretch people’s ability to correctly interpret a text. The purpose of the translated text is not to train people in foreign metaphors. It’s to communicate.

    I’ve often puzzled over why people want to introduce error into each word when setting the standard for quality Bible translation. Our minds don’t build meaning from a text with words as a mason builds a wall with bricks. It’s much more like dropping different colored drops into a flowing stream. It’s not, read word, process word, understand word, pick up next word.

    Each word colors the words around it, changing their meaning as the text flows on. A specific word can even modify a word that has already supposedly been processed by the mind. It has always seemed to me that we should strive to choose words which help the reader flow with the flow. A metaphor that’s foreign doesn’t flow. It’s an abrupt eddy, or more likely, a rock infested rapid. It takes a lot of strenuous mental, analytical effort to process those rocks without dunking the reader who cries out, “I don’t understand.” Actually, I’ve met some readers who have drowned. They say, “I can’t understand.”

    I think we should follow the KJV lead and use wonderful English for the passages we understand. As far as passages we don’t understand, wouldn’t it be interesting if translators would footnote their more literal renderings with, “Rendered literally since we’re not sure what it means.”

  9. David Dewey (UK)
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    We unquestioningly assume that a good translation must be accessible and easily understandable. At the 400th anniversary of the KJV, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, effectively called that assumption into question. I would be interested in how group members respond to what he had to say. I don’t wholly agree with the Archbishop by any means (and it would be wrong to take his remarks as excusing a poor or obscure teransation), but I think he makes a point that cannot be ignored. And it seems to be that the Archbishop raises an issue that is more than just about the now-archaic language of the KJV. Here are his opening comments:

    What makes a good translation? Not one that just allows me to say, when I pick it up, ‘Now I understand’. Of course, if I’m faced with a text in a strange language, I need to be able simply to read it; but a good translation will be an invitation to read again, and to probe, and reflect, and imagine with the text. Rather than letting me say, ‘Now I understand’, it prompts the response, ‘Now the work begins.’

    One of the most striking things in the wonderful Preface to the King James Bible composed by Miles Smith is the clear conviction that there is never an ideal or a final translation. To translate any work of significance is to reveal a certain range of meanings in the original; but there will always be, as the 1611 translators fully recognized, another range that hasn’t yet been captured and will need another round of engagement with the text. If this is true of any important text, how much more true is it of Scripture, where the meanings are the self-communications of an infinite mind and love? The invitation that Scripture offers is an invitation to a pilgrimage further and further into the mysteries of that mind and love; and a good translation of the Bible must therefore be one that opens out on wider and wider horizons.

    We have all suffered from a mindset in the last couple of centuries that has assumed there is an end to translating and understanding and thus that there is something wrong with any version of a text that fails to settle disputes and to provide an account of the truth that no-one could disagree with. But what the 1611 translators grasped was that hearing the Word of God was a lifelong calling that had to be undertaken in the company of other readers and was never something that left us where we started.

    The full text of his sermon is available online at:
    http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/2246/archbishops-sermon-at-westminster-abbey-400th-anniversary-of-the-king-james-bible.

  10. Angela Flock
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    In regards to the comments about the connection between “walk” and “live or conduct one’s life”, what about the English idiomatic use of “walk of life” or “walk in life”? For instance, “People come from different walks of life” or “Our walk in life determines who we become.”

    While I agree with the fact that the KJV is archaic in many passages and likely misguided in others, it seems to me that every translation has something to offer. It was a huge undertaking for that time. True, there are some passages that I wish had been rewritten by the original KJV translators due to the confusion and verse-twisting they have caused, but at least these translators had the guts to publish something.

    Sometimes I think Christians are so scared to make a mistake Biblically-speaking that they don’t even consider approaching the original language. I know I’ve felt that way before. It’s daunting… but thank God for people like the KJV translators who were willing to take responsibility for such a noble undertaking. Even if I don’t always agree with what they’ve chosen, they, at least, made the bold choice of choosing.

  11. Bradley Weidemann
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    That is, the object in Bible translation should not be to see how far one can stretch people’s ability to correctly interpret a text. The purpose of the translated text is not to train people in foreign metaphors.

    I agree. However, in this case, I do not think that “walk” stretches anyone’s abilities, nor do I think that “walk” is a foreign metaphor.

    As far as passages we don’t understand, wouldn’t it be interesting if translators would footnote their more literal renderings with, “Rendered literally since we’re not sure what it means.”

    Footnotes are useful. Translators can paraphrase the unfamiliar idiom in the text, and include the literal rendering of the idiom in the footnote. That technique seems to me, as a reader, to be a self-evident best practice.

  12. Posted December 9, 2011 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    “But what the 1611 translators grasped was that hearing the Word of God was a lifelong calling that had to be undertaken in the company of other readers and was never something that left us where we started.”

    That’s one of my main points in not systematically preferring functional equivalence. The preference for the dynamic/functional equivalent approach is linked to a concern particularly for individual readers in isolation.

    Just as one cannot discuss science without certain philosophical axioms, one also cannot discuss translation philosophy without certain ecclesiological/theological axioms — namely, an emphasis on the individual reader as an independent interpreter (and perhaps authority).

    But at what point in time was the Bible ever quite so clear that the average Christian or Jew could read the whole thing and get it? Did the average first-century Greek convert “get” the Septuagint? Did Jews understand it, whether Christian or not?

    Considering:
    1. The literacy rate,
    2. The price of books, and
    3. The rarity of reading silently,

    I daresay that the idea of reading as a private activity was not simply assumed. Interpretation and response to particular writings was no doubt the subject of discussion among those who read/heard a piece of literature. Could we really imagine that a community-building text such as the Bible would truly lend itself to interpretation by individuals apart from the community?

  13. Posted December 10, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    I find this site’s disparaging attitude toward word-based translations in general–and toward the King James Version in particular–to be highly arrogant. Yes, there’s value in thought-by-thought translations, but why not also admit that the Lord has used the KJV in marvelous ways? The KJV has never been my main Bible, except for the year when I read through it, but I think we should all thank God for that translation–perhaps the most wonderfully helpful thing ever to come out of a committee. Then we should humbly admit the strengths of the translation, including the slight foreignness which stimulates our meditation. Maybe I should read through the KJV again.

  14. Rich Rhodes
    Posted December 10, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    A charge of arrogance comes a little close to being ad hominem. (See the comment rules.)

    I (and I assume all of us) will gladly stipulate that the KJV has played, and will continue to play, an important role, not just in Anglophone Christianity, but in the English speaking world as a whole.

    But that’s not the issue.

    There is a basic problem when the language of a translation is so foreign that we need pastors and teachers to interpret for us what the text means. That shifts the burden of de facto translation onto the backs of folks who — for the most part — hardly know enough of the original languages to do that work. The result is that we’ve turned translation on its head. Too much of the time we interpret the Scripture based on our theology, instead of basing our theology directly on Scripture. And we have done this for so long that we don’t realize just how dysfunctional it actually is. (We’ve also lost track of the fact that this issue was resolved in the Reformation. The Bible and what it means should be directly available to everyone, i.e., that the Bible needed to be translated into the language of the common people.)

    Don’t be fooled by the fact that we’ve listened to the KJV for our whole lives, so we think we know what it means. We’re too often wrong and don’t realize it. And even when we’re not wrong, we nonetheless get a funny take on the text.

    All we need to do is to compare what we accept as translation when it is the Bible with what we insist on in other translation, functional or literary, to see that there is a serious problem.

    Sorry, but calling a spade a spade is not arrogance.

  15. Posted December 11, 2011 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    Rich, I understand the value of the arguments you’re making. More than 35 years ago, I thought the NIV didn’t sound enough like the Bible. I don’t think that any more. I often use the HCSB, which is not strictly word-for-word. The NLT is a valuable translation. There’s value in thought-for-thought translations. Yet there are also advantages of word-for-word translations. As near as I can tell, this blog, for the most part, denies that those advantages exist. I could list those advantages, but think I’ve done so before, so won’t repeat that at this time.

  16. Mike Sangrey
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    As near as I can tell, this blog, for the most part, denies that those advantages exist.

    Perhaps I’m assuming too much, but I think you need to read more of this blog. We have talked about the advantages of word-for-word (or literal) translations. Perhaps not often. And it’s probably always been in the context of balancing their negative characteristics. In any case, I find your characterization of us as having a “disparaging attitude” and “highly arrogant” as way over the top.

    However, there are two points I’d like to make here.

    1. The advantages of literal translations come at a significant price. Speaking more from a New Testament perspective (though the principle will apply more generally), literal translations form a bridge to the Greek. I think that is valuable. I use this fact on this blog when I cite the NASB or ASV to illustrate the Greek. I personally think it is unfair of people (who agree with me regarding more natural translations) who say, “If you want to do that type of detailed study, then learn Greek.” (I may have said this myself during my more frustrated moments.) Not everyone can devote the time necessary to traverse the mechanics of “reading Greek.” Literal translations help by giving a leg up for the serious Bible student. However, whether reading Greek, or reading a literal translation of the Greek, the linguistic intuition–the idiomatic sense–must be developed.

    That immediately brings us to the significant price; there’s another side to this coin. With a literal translation, in many cases, one has to get their mind around the Greek idiom. So, it’s also unfair to expect the normal person, who wants to be changed by the Bible, to think in the highly complex pseudo-language formed by the mingling of Greek and English (or other mother tongue). The reader must self-consciously process the text; they must analyse the text in order to obtain a relatively accurate understanding. And they must do this with an understanding of Greek. And they must understand the Greek in an English garb. That’s asking a lot!

    I’m analytical. I expect you are, too. And I expect many who read this blog to be like-mindedly analytical. Most people, however, are not. The evidence of everyday life strongly suggests that the vast majority of people need the Bible (that is, the translation) explained to them, even those committed to its truths. And to add incredulity to difficulty, we’ve reached a point in our Bible history where a dizzying array of explanations are offered.

    2. This blog is faced with many difficult to overcome assumptions about the accuracy of word-for-word translations. I have often heard, in response to a request for guidance, the expression, “You want to buy a literal translation, they’re the most accurate.” The assumptions pervade much of the Christian culture.

    The reason these assumptions need overcome is because the definition of accuracy is ambiguous. In one sense, accuracy refers to the considerable care the translators take to achieve transparency into the underlying original language. The mapping, if you will, from translation to original is simple enough to be easily verified. Thus, accurate. This mapping is basically what we refer to when we use the expression, “Formal Equivalence.”

    However, there is another sense to accuracy (or, more accurately, another referent) often wrongly intertwined with the former referent–people hear ‘accuracy’ and think they’re getting the right meaning. The accuracy of meaning is only obtained through a much more complex mapping. Thus terms like “Dynamic Equivalence” or “Functional Equivalence.” This complexity is the whole reason the Tower of Babel fulfilled God’s intention. Bringing meaning from original to destination language is complex; but, it can be supported with the extensive linguistic tools we have available today (ones not previously available).

    From my way of thinking, the belief that there are not two different referents of ‘accuracy” belies a wrong assumption. The assumption that one can have simplicity of mapping and simplicity in obtaining the meaning. To me, this shows a clear denial of the historicity of the Tower of Babel. Either one must accept the historicity and therefore expect that simplicity of mapping results in substantial difficulty of obtaining accurate meaning or one must deny the Tower of Babel.

    In other words, if one is going to recommend a literal translation as the most accurate, then one must also dictate that obtaining the meaning is going to be very difficult. I have never, ever heard someone recommend a literal translation and also state that understanding it will be very difficult and in many cases, impossible. I’ll note here that no so-called literal translation is consistently literal. In fact, since the ASV (which I suggest was the peak of literal translations), literal translations have migrated to less and less literal.

    The wrong assumption that the one accuracy invariably implies the other, and, in fact, the belief the two can be referred to interchangeably, is one assumption this blog is trying to uncover.

    So, I think it’s understandable that most posts and comments by the blog authors will seek to expose people’s common misconceptions about literal and non-literal translations. In the larger context of Bible Translation discussion, this blog seeks to bring some balance. This doesn’t mean, nor even imply, arrogance on our parts. This blog seeks sound linguistic research. And it seeks to relate this science to the serious Bible student, and hopefully even the average person.

    I pray we all benefit.

  17. Ernst Wendland
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    “However, there are two points I’d like to make here.”

    Very nice explanation, Mike–thanks!

    And what you have written here with regard to English applies to many of the larger languages of Africa where at least two major translations exist–one FC, the other FE in nature.

    However, our problem here is that the former type of version came first in point of time and in some cases has been used by several generations of Christians. Thus, we have our own kind of “KJV factor” to deal with.

  18. David Dewey (UK)
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Picking up Gary Simmons point in response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks, two additional comments are in order:
    1) The issue with the KJV centres on two factors, not just one. Not only is it fairly literal (though not as literal as many assume or indeed as literal as some modern versions), it is also now archaic (and to an extent was slightly arcahic when first produced). We need to keep these issues separate. It is possible to imagine a good, literal translation that is neitehr archaic nor bound by the KJV tradition.
    2) As the Archbishop went on to say, it was translated with the hearer in mind rather than the reader. Too many translations in the last 50 years have prioritised either the personal study of the Bible or its instant accessibility over the public reading of Scripture within the worshipping community of faith. This, IMO, has not served the Bible well.

  19. Ernst Wendland
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Sorry, I forgot to mention this pertinent article:
    Jan Kroeze, Manie van den Heever, and Bertus van Roy, “How Literal Is the King James Version”? Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 37/1 (2011), 27-52.

  20. Posted December 12, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    In response to Bradley Weidemann, I like the RSV’s footnote for I Chronicles 26:18. It is translated as “and for the parbar on the west there were four at the road and two at the parbar.” The text note explains, “The meaning of the word parbar is unknown.”

  21. Bradley Weidemann
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for that example, Mr. Frank. The footnotes that I really appreciate are the ones that explain figures of speech. Either the literal figure of speech is in the text and it is explained in the footnote, or the other way around.

    Looking for a quick example, I found where the CEV says in Daniel 7:12, “they were allowed to live a while longer,” and the footnote explains that the literal phrase was “for a time and a season.” That way we get to have our cake and eat it too.

  22. Posted December 13, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Nice post Mike. Long, but worth reading and processing.

    The topic of ‘accuracy’ is a good one to discuss. In Bible College I was steered toward literal translations because they are ‘accurate’. I later discovered that literal translations are accurate to the words and word order, but accuracy can also apply to focus, style, genre, register, etc., etc.

    Is a translation that is ‘accurate’ to word order but ‘inaccurate’ to focus still accurate? It depends on what is important to your translation.

    Literal translations are beneficial to those who understand Greek and Hebrew discourse, but there aren’t many people who are.

    Anyway, I’m thankful for the KJV. It changed the world. It brought my grandparents to Christ, who brought my parents to Christ, who together showed me the way. The KJV is embedded in the DNA of my spiritual legacy. Hopefully those who are dedicated to rendering the Bible into the English dialect of today will be able to enjoy such a legacy.

  23. Kenneth Howes
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    There are few figures of speech in the KJV that are obscure. Most of them are easily understood, certainly by a high school student who’s gotten through a couple of Shakespeare plays and sonnets.

    The big issue, though, is not older versus modern language. The NKJV undertook, quite successfully, to update the language of the KJV. The issue is the source text.

    The received text represents the overwhelming majority of the documents at our disposal. The modern versions that make changes beyond those of simple updating are relying on a relatively few texts, most of them of Alexandrian provenance.

    Based on those documents, the modern versions have deleted significant amounts of Scripture not only as it appeared in the KJV but as it appeared in the enormous majority of Bibles for a very long time. The critical editions also overlook that passages that they deleted are quoted elsewhere in documents earlier than the manuscripts relied on.

    The manuscripts most relied on are the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus. An example: They omit the second half of the final chapter of Mark. These are fourth-century manuscripts. But Irenaeus, roughly 150 years earlier, quotes those very verses!

    The majority text is that which appears in the Byzantine manuscripts, many quite old though not as old as those two codices. But hold–where did Greek remain the language, and Christianity the religion, for almost a millennium after the fall of Rome in the West? The answer, of course, is Byzantium. Where there were innumerable manuscripts around, there was much less need to hold onto a couple of old ones.

    Now, consider. The critical centuries in all this are the fifth to the eighth. Byzantines fought civil wars over theology, sometimes over very minor points. If anyone in Byzantium had monkeyed with the text, he would have had a raging mob at his door, led by a thousand monks. No, the Byzantine text is reliable.

    I don’t say that the KJV is the only good translation; but its translators’ use, like that of the Catholic translators of the Douay version, the Reformed translators of the Geneva Bible, and Luther’s German Bible, of the majority text is not a defect.

  24. Stephen
    Posted December 14, 2011 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    Kenneth might be a little simplistic – I believe the common tale is that the KJV editors essentially copied Erasmus’ text which was admitted to only be looking at 5 or 6 manuscripts, his own aleph and B. However, there do exist scholarly and serious textual critics which resist Alexandrian priority and still favor the textual transmission theory that would give approval to the majority Byzantine manuscripts.

  25. Stephen
    Posted December 14, 2011 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    (Forgive the double post, please)

    I think most proponents of more “literal” translations would agree that beyond word order there is “accuracy can also apply to focus, style, genre, register, etc., etc.” However, without having much if any knowledge in formal linguistics, it seems evident to me that accuracy on the word-for-word level is much more objective than accuracy on these other levels. And as Gary Simmons and others have pointed out, it may be more biblical, more spiritual (whatever that means), and a better adherence to the model which the church has always followed and corrected at the Reformation, to put interpretation of subjective things in the hands of the community. I think the misuse or lack of use of footnotes by many “literal” translations is a right objection, but on the whole it seems their objective is to allow the faithful reader to determine what a metaphor means instead of taking away that opportunity.

  26. Dannii
    Posted December 14, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    However, without having much if any knowledge in formal linguistics, it seems evident to me that accuracy on the word-for-word level is much more objective than accuracy on these other levels.

    I don’t think that it is any more objective to mimic morpho-syntax than the other levels of language. There is no one-to-one correspondance, and all translators of word-for-word translations must still choose which words to use.

    What it is, is easier, and riskier. It’s like you have an architectural design for a building you’re constructing, but the plan is old and foreign and doesn’t meet the currently building standards. Word-for-word translations very carefully construct the building to the plan, but they don’t consider whether it meets the building standards – they just hope for the best. Maybe the plan was okay in it’s original context, but if you’re constructing it somewhere with different soil, or with a different type of timber, or more rain, or lots of earthquakes, there’s a big chance it could fall down. Some word-for-word translations try to meet all the standards too, but at a sacrifice: all the pieces of their building are cut to size, but the way they’ve been assembled in a different way. The building won’t fall down, but neither is it the designed building because the relationships between the components have been changed.

    Now a bad meaning based translation would be just as bad – they’d treat the blue print more like a picture to inspire them, and though the building would meet all the standards it might bare little resemblance to the original plan. So I believe the correct balance is inbetween. You can never get away from the source text words, because so much meaning is encoded in them. But meaning also comes from the combination of elements. There is always a balance between fidelity to the original and fidelity to how the target language works. The successful building will meet the building standards perfectly – that’s non-negotiable. It will also try to follow the plan, finding a balance between fidelity to the words and fidelity to how they are held together. And I think that usually the words will lose out a little – if you want the result to match the design then if you have to choose between cutting a beam an inch shorter or not being able to fit it in it’s place you cut the beam.

  27. Posted December 16, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Nice analogy Daanii.

    Stephen wrote:
    without having much if any knowledge in formal linguistics, it seems evident to me that accuracy on the word-for-word level is much more objective than accuracy on these other levels.

    Are you referring to translators or general users of the translation? I assume the latter, but wasn’t sure.

    If translators, then all professional translators will have a good knowledge of formal linguistics (or at least, should have, but if not, that’s like a professional electrician not knowing about watts, amps and volts).

    If you meant the general reader, as I assume, then true, they probably won’t have knowledge in formal linguistics.

    But that still doesn’t mean that ‘accuracy on the word-for-word level is much more objective than accuracy on these other levels [style, collocation, register, focus, etc].’

    I’ll give an example from Swahili. English has relative pronouns (which/that/who etc). Swahili has relative pronouns.

    So, if you’re translating from English to Swahili, and English uses a relative pronoun, the word-for-word translator says, “Let’s use a Swahili relative pronoun because it’s objective and more accurate and safer. That way the reader can see how the English was actually worded.”

    But English relative pronouns can be restrictive or unrestrictive, i.e., I can say, “Send it to my office, which is about 10 minutes from the city.” In English, all you’ve done is described how far your office is from the city. If you translate this literally into Swahili, it means that you must have another office somewhere, i.e., “Send it to the office of mine that’s 10 minutes from the city.” It’s implied (implicit information) that you must have another office somewhere else.

    Unless the Swahili reader has ‘knowledge in formal linguistics’ and is aware of the different discourse features of English relative pronouns, he or she will simply unconsciously read Swahili rules into the sentence. In this case, the word-for-word translation is problematic precisely because the reader doesn’t have ‘knowledge in formal linguistics’.

    This is the primary danger of word-for-word translations! And it’s especially dangerous because people are generally completely unaware of these kinds of things. They feel confident in their word-for-word translation, yet they don’t realise that they’re applying, e.g., Swahili discourse rules to a Swahili text embedded with English discourse rules.

    It takes a lot of training and experience to become aware of such things, and to know the source and target languages well enough to distinguish them. If the translator doesn’t or can’t distinguish them in the translation, the reader certainly won’t. And the result is a translation that has inaccurate implicit information, inaccurate register, inaccurate focuses, inaccurate degrees of normalness, and that’s just the beginning of the list.

    Translation is like an iceberg, and the words are like the top (or tip) of the iceberg. Few people ever look at what lies beneath.

  28. Daniel Buck
    Posted December 16, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    People give the KJV translators way too much credit for their expertise in Greek. You have to realize that Greek was in those days an exotic dead language taught in the Classics departments of universities–and it was more Attic Greek than Koine. The language of Theology was, and had long been, Latin. Learned men of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries had been taught Latin as soon as, or before, they learned to read. They were practically bilingual in it. So it only stands to reason that–whatever their more recent exposure to Greek–when they sat down with an Erasman or Bezan diglot of the Textus Receptus, they directed more of their gaze to the Latin side of the page.
    It has been demonstrated over and over that the KJV is based not so much on the Greek texts of Erasmus and Beza, but the Latin. Gary S. Dykes has most recently shown this on his textexcavation website.

  29. Posted December 16, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    I use several of the newer translations (ESV, HCSB, NASB, God’s Word) more than I use the KJV. Yet the KJV has amazing strengths. Here are some of them.
    1. It’s largely free from bias. Its translators came from a variety of theological positions. This reduced the likelihood of putting personal opinions into the text.
    2. It has a high level of accuracy. The scholars were good scholars.
    3. Its translators understood how translation works. Although they knew nothing of modern linguistic theory, they knew multiple languages. Thus, they knew that it’s often possible to translate something in more than one way.
    4. It’s great for reading aloud. Many of the translation choices resulted in a text with good rhythm of sounds.
    5. For most of the years since its introduction, the text has been clear enough for most English speakers to understand most of it without much trouble, and has been just strange enough to force them to think a bit about what they are hearing. As the English language changes, the KJV has become less and less clear, but it’s worth noting that many of the churches that still use the KJV are composed mostly of people with a lower level of education. Churches with a high level of education tend to prefer other translations.
    6. In the USA, it’s not under copyright. That means it’s available for quoting and for reprinting without added bother or added expense.
    7. It’s widely respected. If you quote it, people don’t automatically think you’re trying to pick a translation that supports your particular theological quirks.
    8. It’s been used by God in amazing ways. The translators were imperfect men. The translation they produced was not perfect. Yet I believe the evidence shows that the Lord guided the KJV translators so that their result was pleasing to him.

  30. M.A. Moreno
    Posted January 29, 2013 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    This post’s claim about the metaphorical range of “walk” in English (contemporary or otherwise) registers to me as “sounding brasse or a tinkling cymbal.” It rings the false note of resistance to the presence of figurative language in translation, which is quite distinct from a concern for foreign idiom (although I might be tempted make an argument for that feature as well). The necessity of conveying meaning should not come at the expense of the inspired authors’ artistic license. A footnote should set the reader’s path straight, not a pedestrian suppression of poetic expression. (Translations for second-language learners may be an exception, but it should never be the rule.)

    The bizarre resistance to so-called Biblish understates the impact of the Authorized Version on English idiom and literature. To expect a modern reader to misunderstand “walk” is little different than expecting a modern reader to understand “conversation.” Doing so assumes an absolute dearth of comprehension skills in modern readers, not to mention a crippling ignorance of common turns of phrase. Is the goal to clarify the Bible for contemporary speakers or to wedge the familiar King James quotations out of our language? I truly assume the former (lest anyone think I accuse the Better Bibles Blog of a conspiracy), but some of the more radical suggestions such as the deletion of the metaphorical “walk” could only result in the latter.


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