Friday, January 6, 2017

On Englishing the Bible

From time to time I pick up this or that version of the Bible, and startle at the flabbiness of the translation. It could be St. Matthew, the calling of the apostles in this one, or it could be the Epistle to the Galatians in that. There is a flatness that doesn't seem right. Now and then I speak of this to a friend, who complains also, generally with chapter and verse.

Eventually this put me in mind of  Ronald Knox's book On Englishing the Bible, which I head heard of long ago, and recently I tracked it down. The book is a collection of essays, by-products of the nine or more years that Knox spent in translating the Vulgate, which in part meant discussing his translation with other scholars, and justifying the choices he made. (At the time, the Catholics of the English-speaking world got by with Bishop Challoner's 18th-Century revision of the Douay-Rheims translation of the late 16th and early 17th Centuries.)

Knox is persuasive on most of his points, and some of his points are provocative. He writes, for example, that
Unlike the French, the English have always been accustomed to having an archaic Bible. Douay and the Authorized Version were compiled in the time of Shakespeare; but neither was written in the idiom of Shakespeare's time. Read a couple of pages out of any of the comedies, and you will be sensible of it at once. More than three centuries have passed, and as current idiom has changed, 'Bible English' has become a sort of hieratic language; it is old, therefore it is venerable (for it is  a fixed belief in the heart of the ordinary Englishman that 'venerable' means 'old'). Let him beware, then, who proposes to alter it. Let him try to render the sense of of Scripture plainer to us by whatever means he will, but let him adhere (or rather, let him cleave) to the good old-fashioned diction which was good enough for our forefathers, and is still better for us because it is still more old-fashioned.
and elsewhere
It is no use objecting that the Authorized Version is good English. The Authorized Version is good English only because English writers, for centuries, have treated it as the standard of good English.
and again
 Do not be deceived when your friends tell you that they like Bible-English. Of course they do, reading or quoting a few sentences; there is a slow-moving thoroughness about it which conveys a sense of dignity--you get the same in an Act of Parliament. But if they would try to read a chapter on end, which they never do, it would rapidly become tedious, and the attention would begin to wander; why? Because they are reading a foreign language disguised in English dress. Just so, an indifferently translated French book gets you down; en effet is translated 'as a matter of fact' when it ought to be translated 'sure enough'; and d'ailleurs is translated 'anyhow' when it ought to be translated 'if it comes to that'. Your translator is almost imperceptibly failing all the time to hit the nail exactly on the head.
(This is not partisan abuse; Knox has plenty of hard things to say about the old Douay and the not quite as old Challoner versions. But there can hardly be anyone but Catholics over 70 and a handful of scholars who remember even Challoner.)

However, after his discussions of the choices that a translator must constantly make, I am less surprised that there are bad translations as that there any adequate ones. On translations in general:
Two alternatives present themselves at once, the literal and the literary method of translation. Is it to be 'Arms and the man I sing', or is it to be something which will pass for English? If you are translating for the benefit of a person who wants to learn Latin by following the gospel in a Latin missal when it is read out in church, then your 'Arms and the man I sing' is exactly what he wants. If you are translating for the benefit of a person who wants to be able to read the word of God for ten minutes on end without laying it aside in sheer boredom or bewilderment, a literary translation is what you want--and we have been lacking it for centuries.
Anybody who has really tackled the business of translation, at least where the classical languages are concerned, will tell you that the bother is not finding the equivalent for this or that word, it is finding out how to turn the sentence. And about this, the older translators of the Bible took no trouble at all. Take this sentence: 'The Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders.' No, do not exclaim against the cumbrousness of Douay; that comes from the Authorized Version.
 Yet words are not that simple, after all:
And now, what of words? Here a consideration comes which is often forgotten. The Bible is usually translated by a syndicate; and the first thing a syndicate does when it gets together is to make sure that all the members of it tell the same story. If you proposed to translate the Aeneid this way, each member of it translating one book, the first item on the Committee's agenda would be, What is going to be our formula for translating the word pius as applied to the hero of the poem? They go away, after agreeing (say) on the word 'dutiful', which does well enough. But if a single man translates the whole of the Aeneid, he very soon realizes that pius takes on a different shade of meaning with each fresh context; now it is 'Aeneas, that dutiful son', now it is 'Aeneas, that admirable host', now it is 'Aeneas, that trained liturgiologist'. The compilers of the Authorized Version evidently did something like that with a word like dikaiosune in the New Testament, or tsedeq in the Old. They could see that Douay's rendering 'justice', was beside the mark nine times out of ten. What they did was to resuscitate a more or less obsolete word, 'right-wiseness', recondition it as 'righteousness', and use that all through the Bible as the equivalent of the tsedeq-dikaiousune idea. It served well enough; but this wooden rendering, constantly recurring in all sorts of different contexts, has resulted all throughout the Authorized Version in a certain flatness, a certain want of grip. You constantly feel that your author is not being allowed to say what he wants to say; his thought is being forced into an artificial mould.
Words are not coins, dead things whose value can be mathematically computed. You cannot quote an exact English equivalent for a French word, as you might quote an exact equivalent for a French coin. Words are living things, full of shades of meaning, full of associations; and what is more, they are apt to change their significance from one generation to the next. The translator who understands his job feels, constantly, like Alice in Wonderland trying to play croquet with flamingoes for mallets and hedgehogs for balls; words are forever eluding his grasp.
On Englishing the Bible is out of print per se. Baronius Press provides it as lagniappe with the Knox translation; though Baronius marks the volume "NOT FOR SALE", some of those who have acquired it will sell it on the used market. In any case, the book is not hard to purchase, whether in the Baronius printing or an older one. I suppose that I should find the Knox translation next.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. I was reading Genesis in the NRSV and have shifted over to Alter's translation (and plethora of notes.)