The English Blanded Version of the Bible

Posted: July 13, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics, Pastoral issues
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Why do so few of our people read the bible? Even the keen Christians. So few.

I don’t know the whole answer, but I reckon our translations are part of the problem. We have more choices in English bible translation than ever before, but I reckon our people are reading them less than ever. Let’s be honest: we are not finding the bible to be compelling reading.

It’s not easy to translate any text let alone the Scriptures, and I’m sure the translators do their best, but there are problems emerging, aren’t there? More translations, less reading. Somehow things are not going the right direction.

I have had the privilege of learning both Greek and Hebrew (though not Aramaic!) and perhaps the thing that has surprised me most is how good so much of the bible’s writing is. It’s racy, colourful, quirky, creative, earthy, full of vivid metaphor, memorable one-liners. It’s so rich, I love it. It keeps me going back for more.

Then I turn to the NIV. Or the Holman. Sigh. So much is missing.

I know something is always lost in translation. But so much? So much of the colour and immediacy, ironed out by the committees. So much that might startle or puzzle or catch the attention, smoothed out in the name of ‘clarity’ or ‘reading age’. Anything arresting or memorable in the language, anything that might fire the imagination, tends to be neutered. Anything that stands out is very likely to get the chop.

It’s especially bad in the OT. Hebrew is a wonderfully concrete language, full of earthy imagery and characteristic turns of phrase. The Jewish mindset is very much built into the language. There’s not much abstract or academic in the Hebrew Scriptures.

But time and again, our translators take the solid, concrete, vivid, Jewish-sounding phrases, and turn them into colourless, abstract, mid-Atlantic news-feed-sounding and completely unmemorable pap. Instead of translating the metaphors, they try to explain them. Duh!

Fellas, this does not good reading make…

Sure the texts are easier to make some sense of at first glance, this way. But a first glance is all they invite. There’s often not enough of interest there to warrant a second reading. Let alone repeated reading over the years. Or memorisation. Who reads newsprint more than once?

It’s hard to get excited when most of the visual hooks have been excised. When abstract nouns are so dominant.

I’m not surprised people don’t feel like reading these translations: let’s be honest, they’re boring. They read like the findings of a committee. That’s because they are the findings of a committee!

It’s hard to feel that we are even reading Jewish literature: there’s not much of a Jewish feel to the language of the NIV Old Testament. It’s as though we think that the only way for these writings to speak to people today is if they are stripped of their Jewish culture. What’s going on there?

I’m going to call it: when you take the most important Jewish text, and turn it into something that doesn’t sound remotely Jewish, there’s anti-Semitism at work here isn’t there. Think about it.

I would never say all this to the people in our church. They’ve got to use these translations, no sense making them feel dissatisfied about them. But here at The Grit, it’s a forum for open discussion and critique.

Are they all so bad? The ESV is better, but only in the patches where the modernisers ran out of time, and didn’t get around to updating it! There are plenty of those. But all the rest, they have carefully blandified. The NRSV is also more restrained than most in the blandifying department. But it’s a relative thing – they all do it.

The King James had the wisdom to retain many of the Jewish turns of phrase, it avoids abstract nouns, the result being a text that is harder to read at first, sounds unusual at times, and is totally fascinating and memorisable. But a bit old for contemporary use. The NRSV where it follows the KJV is better than most others.

Robert Alter’s translations are so much better. But I’ve only found the Pentateuch, Psalms and David stories done by him. Hoping for more!

Maybe you’re not convinced by my ranting. Don’t blame you. I am going to start listing examples of where the modern English committee-translations blandify the original. There are thousands of them, so I might need to be selective!

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