Taylor: The merits of modern translation

Translations strive to get across writer’s intended meaning.

Ayoung woman, the granddaughter of a friend of a colleague of a—oh, never mind who she is—plans a very traditional wedding. She has instructed her minister that Bible readings must come from the 1611 King James Version. If he objects, she says, she’ll “spit in his eye!”

It’s hardly the language revered by devotees of the King James Bible.

She and her fiancé will probably also repeat the traditional words, “and thereto I plight thee my troth.”

Say, what?

No one, today, says “thereto” for anything. Asked what “plight” means, most people might think of the plight of the poor or the disabled. And “troth” is, umm, well…

So why would this woman want her wedding ceremony to be conducted in language that she herself never uses?

I can understand quoting Shakespeare in the language he wrote, even if it’s unfamiliar to today’s speakers. I also understand that the poetry of Blake or Hopkins, T.S. Eliot or Dylan Thomas, mustn’t be meddled with.

But the Bible was not written in English. The Old Testament used Hebrew; Jesus apparently spoke Aramaic, the lingua franca of his area; Paul wrote in everyday Greek.

So everything we read in the Bible is a translation.

(Another acquaintance recalls his mother insisting that the King James translation was the only true Bible, because “that’s the way God wrote it.”)

In fact, all translations are approximations. Every language reflects its own culture. The idioms and images of one culture do not always translate well into a different one.

A translation must also take into account the context in which it will be read. Translating for children is vastly different from translating for university professors.

The King James Bible was translated for liturgical use. It was intended to be read aloud to an assembled congregation.

When I wrote paraphrases of the biblical psalms in 1994, I similarly expected these psalms to be read, probably responsively, by a congregation. So I deliberately did not use terms that might offend their sensibilities. I did not use any of those infamous four-letter words. I did not ask an assembly of worshippers to say “pissed off.” Or “screwed up.”

Let alone “spit in his eye.”

But that’s precisely the kind of language that Jesus and Paul probably used.

Jesus didn’t orate in lofty cathedrals. He told stories on the street and in the market. He used the words of daily speech.

And Paul wrote personal letters. To people he had lived and worked with. He was quite upset with some of them. He didn’t pull his punches.

Putting the writers of the Bible on a pedestal—along with the Bible itself—does them an injustice. It may reveal a reverence for matters of faith. But it also sets faith issues in a comfortably distant world.

The more colloquial modern translations may seem to take liberties with the rich and rolling texts many of us grew up with. But they do a much better job of reproducing what the original speakers intended to say.