Gained in Translation?

The Spawn received a Bible for Easter — the NIV translation, which I figure will strike a decent balance between clarity and content for my bright 14-year-old, and which is also the one my colleague in the Religion department recommends. It still feels weird to me, though, having grown up with the King James Version, which marks its quatercentenary this year, indeed, this month. It was the first Bible I read completely, when I was in sixth grade, and it’s still the one I’m likely to turn to when I’m teaching or thinking.

I admit that I’m a KJV person — not because I see it as more divinely inspired than other translations, but because it provides the bedrock for so much of our language and literature. I’ll also admit that I like the sense of connection to generations past that the KJV gives me — it reminds me of the continuity of the Christian community. The rhythms have inspired poets from Whitman to Ginsberg, and the phrasings persist to this day, archaic though they may be — and of course, some of them were archaic even in the early 17th Century. The English language, in either its native or American form, would not sound or feel the same without the KJV.

Between the KJV anniversary and the Spawn’s Bible, I couldn’t help noticing an essay from my main man Roger Scruton at The American Spectator. Scruton suggests that one of the remarkable things about Christianity is its acceptance of Scripture-in-translation, Scripture-as-subject (and product)-of-scholarship:

This scholarship has made it difficult to think of the Bible as God’s word — that is to say, as the word spoken to prophets and others by God. At best the Bible consists of words inspired by God[…] It is impossible that the Bible should now have, for the educated Christian, the kind of authority that the Koran has for the Muslim. The Bible is a text to be discussed and interrogated, whose message does not remain entirely the same from generation to generation, but which responds to the changing circumstances of those who consult it. And one proof of its inspired nature is that it always does respond, that it offers thoughts, arguments, words, and guidance in all the changing scenes of life[…] It has persuaded us to take responsibility for our actions, and not to bequeath our problems to humorless old men in beards who pretend that only they know how to read the sacred text.

As ever, Scruton is palpably brilliant, and the essay is fascinating. I commend it to you, and I leave you with one more anecdote on the value of translation.

My grandfather was a bright man, but uneducated. He left school when he was nine years old — his father had died, he was a big kid, and he was needed in the fields. In his later years, my family bought him a Bible — the Living Bible version. A few months later, I was sitting in the den with him, watching baseball. He picked up the Bible, and said, “Smitty, you ever read this?”

“Yeah, Paw-paw, I have.” He nodded.

“Lot of sons-of-bitches in there, ain’t there?”

“Yeah, Paw-paw, there are.”

A couple of years ago, I mentioned that story to my pastor, who said, “Well, sounds to me like he was actually reading it.” There’s a lot to be said for Holy Writ that can be paraphrased and still let you spot the sons-of-bitches.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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