More Praise for Clunky Translations


As the list grows of those who wonder what if they just said ‘wait’ to the new translation of the Missal, I thought it might be helpful to draw another historical parallel (in addition to the parallel I already drew to early Christian Latin).  A quick read of In the Beginning, Alister McGrath’s history of the King James Bible, reveals that many of the controversies surrounding the proposed liturgical texts resemble the controversies attending the first translations of the Bible into English.  And, as it turns out, the translation philosophy that guided the Vox Clara commission is also the philosophy that produced the King James Version, once reckoned the “noblest monument of English prose.”

At least two of the charges commonly leveled against the Vox Clara translation—that it is foreign-sounding and unintelligible to the average person—could also have been leveled against the KJV (and commonly were). Regarding the foreign constructions, McGrath draws attention especially to the slavishly literal rendering of Hebrew idioms.  He cites a study from William Rosenau:

The [King James Bible] is an almost literal translation of the Masoretic text, and is thus on every page replete with Hebrew idioms.  The fact that Bible English has to a marvelous extent shaped our speech, giving peculiar connotations to many words and sanctioning strange constructions, is not any less patent … Though the constructions encountered in the [King James Bible] are oftentimes so harsh that they seem almost barbarous, we should certainly have been the poorer without it.

Nowadays we scarcely perceive these as barbarisms, however, because so many Hebrew idioms have become “naturalized” into the English language.

To illustrate the point, McGrath provides an instructive list of woodenly translated Hebrew idioms.  The following expressions entered the English only by way of the KJV:

  • “to lick the dust” (Ps 72:9)
  • “to fall flat on his face” (Num 22:31)
  • “a man after his own heart” (1 Sam 13:14)
  • “to pour out one’s heart” (Ps 62:8)
  • “from time to time” (Ezek 18:2)
  • “the skin of my teeth” (Job 19:20)
  • “to put words in his mouth” (Ex 4:15)
  • “the powers that be” (Romans 13:1)
  • “to give up the ghost” (Mk 15:37)
  • “And it came to pass …” (400+ occurrences)

These idioms have become so domesticated through centuries of use that we are scarcely aware of how roughly the translators once treated the English language.

Those contemporary with the publication of the KJV, however, often complained about its excessive literalism—precisely on the grounds that such a translation method would render the Bible inaccessible the average “plowboy.”  John Selden, for instance, advocated a translation more respectful of English idiom:

If I translate a French book into English, I turn it into English phrase and not into French English.  “Il fait froid”: I say “it is cold,” not “it makes cold.”  But the Bible is translated into English words rather than English phrases.  The Hebraisms are kept and the phrase of that language is kept.  As for example, “he uncovered her shame,” which is well enough so long as scholars have to do with it, but when it comes among the common people, Lord what gear they make of it.

Sound familiar?

Some carried their jealousy for the purity of the English language to comical lengths.  Sir John Cheke, for example, half a century before the publication of the KJV, advocated the expurgation of all “inkhorn” terms (learned words directly borrowed from Latin or Greek) from Biblical translations.  A few examples: he advocated replacing “apostle” (with “frosent), “centurion” (with “hundreder”), “crucified” (with “crossed”), “lunatic” (with “mooned), “parable” (with “byword”), and “resurrection” (with “uprising”).  Such suggestions now seem comical, but they do go to show that the line between “natural” English and intrusive barbarisms is far from clear.

For these and other reasons, the KJV met with no critical acclaim upon its publication in 1611.  In fact, the little attention it did received was generally negative, with the result that most Englishmen continued to use the Geneva Bible (printed 42 years earlier).  Robert Lowth could not safely call the KJV the “noblest monument of English prose” until the mid-18th century–nearly 150 years after its first printing.

What lessons might we draw from this brief history?  First, an initially negative reaction to a new translation (in favor of one made 40 years earlier) does not necessarily count against the literary quality of the new text or against its translation philosophy.  Sometimes the most enduring translations aim first and foremost at literal accuracy–and are thus an acquired taste.  Second, it will take more than a year of focus groups to test the true worth of the Vox Clara translations.  The slow triumph of the KJV suggests that we should start the clock only after universal implementation, and then evaluate only after much longer than a year has elapsed.

In other words, why don’t we just say ‘wait’?

6 Responses to More Praise for Clunky Translations

  1. Qualis Rex says:

    My take on it is that the KJV is a great work of English literature, but as a biblical translation it is about as accurate as a blind, quadruplegic archer. We’re talking apples and oranges here, since the church is essentially “tidying up” a very slopshod job done 40 years ago. T beleive the heavy lifting has already been done, meaning we’re just talking about Latin to English (again), as opposed to Hebrew, to Greek, to Latin to English etc.

    Please, bring it on!!!

  2. Excellent thoughts, and presentation…

    While your reasoning approach appears to cover
    core bases, the human existential predicament, though,
    remains, which is the complexities resident in
    the communication process confronting humanity
    since Adman left Eve.

    Since translation theory matured in the times
    since the earth was deemed flat, which is a mere
    500 (not thousand!) years ago, it still even today
    tends to fail to grasp the psychology evolved
    in that same time period, which would argue
    the other way of the twig bending: the relativity
    of translations, especially at the pew level,
    which is not scholarly nor does it need to be!

    Let the Seminaries argue about translations.
    Let the pews argue for common bunker theology texts!

    As long as the 80-20 Rule is met in a, in any,
    translation, then that by definition deems it
    good enough: I don’t see Jesus getting hung up
    over which OT text source He was going to read
    from in one of His synagogue solo appearances!
    But today, we make our translation extremisms
    sound as if He did ….. lol!

    Having to slide back and forth between my native
    language, and local parochial English daily,
    I don’t find translation theory an issue:
    I find psychology always and everywhere, the
    numero uno issue! If I don’t communicate the
    psychology of that translated, I’ve failed!

    And that is about all that, that KJV issue was:
    once people’s psychology caught up with the vernacular, for their time, for their decade,
    the translation “was in” (the subconscious
    acceptance stage of audience maturity:
    adult formation addressed)…..

    So, just some additional Angles of Vision to
    broaden out our broader approach to such narrow
    issues that in past Ages were just too narrowly

    I find my Lithuanian missal readings just as
    pedestrian to understand as ANY of the English
    one’s during my lifetime: none of this present
    tempest I think means much, except to the purists?(!)

    The Jesuits couldn’t be more right, in following
    Ignatius’ genius, in preaching the principle
    foundation to thinking skill sets:
    “Seek Balance!” We ‘seek’ balance because we
    never psychologically ever ‘attian’ it!!!
    Seekers is, and seekers are, we all!

  3. Giovanni says:

    I think that Virgilijus Kaulius makes an excellent argument for returning to the Latin only Liturgy and that the translations and vernacular for use in the Liturgy be suppressed. However I do believe that translations especially those which are literal without regard for vernacular puffery are most welcomed for study of the original Latin texts.

    I for one agree.

  4. Qualis Rex says:

    Giovanni – the arguments for returning Latin and the Tridentine liturgy to the church are of course sound, logical, rational and above all compelling. But it’s just not going to happen. It is human nature to take the easy road, and that is exactly what the majority of the church hierarchy has been doing for the last 30 years. By the grace of God, we are finally getting clergy brave enough to stand up and right the wrongs. As I was born long after Vatican II, I truly never thought I’d see it in my lifetime, and for that I am extremely grateful.

    God bless our current Pope Benedict! May God grant him 100 years!

  5. Joe says:

    If you love the KJV then you know what beautiful English is, and you also know that the proposed new translations are horrible junk. Please read them.

    There was a tsunami of rage from the faithful in South Africa when these translations were released. The US Bishops face a worse trouncing and they well deserve. Most of them did not even bother to read the farcical new translations — knowing, I suppose, that it would be a waste of time, since all the Vatican asked for were observations on points of detail, not on the quality of the translations as a whole; and moreover the Vatican ignored most of the criticisms sent by the bishops.

  6. […] The new translations have been discussed before on Whosoever Desires by my Jesuit brother Aaron Pidel here and here. […]

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