The contribution of the lone translator

By Deirdre Good

Take a look at the Bibles on your bookshelf. Which are the ones you read again and again? Many of us read the New Revised Standard Version, and the King James of course, but alongside these, we value translations by individual authors. On my own shelves, for example, I read Tyndale daily, and I often read Everett Fox’s Five Books of Moses and Robert Alter’s translation, The Book of Psalms.

Individual authors have been translating the Bible for centuries, but their work has little authority. From the Septuagint in the 2nd Century BCE to the King James translation of 1611, it is not translations by individuals but by committee that are authoritative. Individual translations of the Bible, however, have a vitality that just doesn’t appear in the work of translation committees. So renditions of the Bible by individuals are crucial to the dynamism of the text. In this article, I’m going to explore the rationales some individual authors give for their Bible translations and the authority of their work both immediate and derived.

Jerome, perhaps the earliest individual translator, the patron saint of translators, revised Old Latin manuscripts on the basis of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts he gathered at the request of Pope Damasus in 382. His revision, the Vulgate, became the bible of the western Church. Jerome’s theory of scriptural translation favored a rendering by sense over semantic equivalence (i.e. word for word). Augustine argued unsuccessfully that Jerome’s rendering needed to be subjected to the scrutiny of other scholars to be authoritative. The first book to be printed in 1455 from the press of Gutenberg at Mainz was the Vulgate. The printing of quantities of identical copies gave additional authority to the Vulgate.

John Wycliffe created the first translation of the whole bible from the Vulgate into English between 1380 and 1384. He wanted people to have access to the word of God in a language they could understand. A less literal and more readable revision by John Purvey was completed in 1408 but the then Archbishop of Canterbury banned the use of all unlicensed Bible translations a year later. It’s worth noting that in these two different translations we see a distinction still operative today between a more literal-formal translation and a more idiomatic or functional one. After his death, Wycliffe’s bones were removed from sacred ground because of his translation work. Henry De Knyton, a scholarly monk, complained that Wycliffe made the gospel “vulgar and more open to the laity, and even to women who can read.”

Erasmus produced in 1516 the first printed New Testament in Greek. In parallel columns he set out his own revisions of the Vulgate on the basis of the Greek text and he included detailed annotations explaining his proposed changes. Erasmus wanted to return the Bible to the heart of Christian life and reconnect theology to its biblical roots. Theologians and churchmen saw his work as undermining their authority, although that was not his intention.

William Tyndale encountered Erasmus’ Greek and Latin New Testament as the basis for Luther’s New Testament and he sought permission from Bishop Tunstall to translate the New Testament into English. When Tunstall refused, Tyndale went to Europe and from Germany produced a New Testament in English in 1526 and again in 1534. In 1530 he produced the Pentateuch and in 1537 Joshua to 2 Chronicles and Jonah. Tyndale emphasized God’s law, that is, scriptural authority over the authority of the church. He translated the Greek word _ekklesia_ as “congregation” in Matthew 16:18 (as Erasmus before him had done) thus excluding a reading of papal primacy from the passage. Sir Thomas More described Tyndale as “a drowsy drudge drinking deep in the devil’s dregs” intent on destroying Christian tradition. Tyndale’s martyrdom and the incorporation of his translation into the King James version gives his work a derived authority.

In 1876, Julia Smith (1792-1886) published at her own expense a translation of the Bible that she had worked on for twenty years. From an educated family, she learnt Greek and Latin and then proceeded to teach herself Hebrew. Arguing that the King James translation was not literal enough, she translated “word for word, giving no ideas of my own” the Greek New Testament and Septuagint, together with the Hebrew Bible. By the end of her life she made a total of five translations.

In 1875, Smith was interviewed for the New York Sun. She describes her method: “I have used only the lexicon and, of course, have looked up the King James translation, but I have consulted no commentators. It was not man’s opinion that I wanted as to construction or rendering, but the literal meaning of every Hebrew word that I wrote down, supplying nothing and paraphrasing nothing…” In her translations, she specifically eliminated all the italicized words of the King James’ version. “Let every reader supply them for himself, as these translators did,” she added. Smith’s work is unjustly neglected.

Of 20th Century individual translations, that done by J. B. Phillips in 1947 is noteworthy. He had encountered young people for whom the language of the New Testament was completely obscure. So he sought to render Paul’s letters into language he hoped would induce the same reaction as those first reading them might have felt. C.S. Lewis appreciated his work and argued in an Introduction that the immediacy and simple character of the Greek was better conveyed by such a translation than by the now-archaic rendering of the Authorised Version (the King James version of 1611). Phillips said that his goal was to make a translation “not sound like a translation at all.”

A white southerner, Clarence Jordan translated Paul’s Epistles in the Cotton Patch Version (1968) thus: “we go right on proclaiming a lynched Christ” (I Corinthians 1: 23). He explains, “It may be that ‘lynched’ is not a good translation of the Greek word which means ‘crucified.’ Christ was legally tried, if we may call it that, and officially condemned to death. So, technically speaking, it was not a lynching. But anyone who has watched the operation of Southern justice at times knows that more men have been lynched by “legal” action than by night-riding mobs. Pilate publicly admitted that his prisoner was being lynched when he called for a basin and washed his hands of official responsibility. If modern judges were as honest, then ‘lynching’ would be an appropriate translation of ‘crucifixion.'”

Jordan believed that words and also context had to be rendered. So in the Cotton Patch New Testament, Jew and Gentile became “white man” and “negro.” By rewriting the gospel in this southern idiom, Jordan made the reader a “participant” in the text. Thus the gospel is present reality, not past history. In Jordan’s rendition, the Good Samaritan is black, and good. It is the good person who through unlimited love opposes cultural stereotypes.

Something entirely different happened in 1995. Everett Fox produced the Schocken Bible as a translation of the Five Books of Moses. Influenced by the work of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig in translating the Bible into German, Fox’s more formal translation seeks to draw the reader into the world of the text by replicating the patterns of spoken Hebrew.

Fox’s rendition prioritizes the source language over the target language. His work has been well received and occasionally read in synagogues. What Fox invites us to consider is how we might produce a formal rendering of the New Testament. Mark’s gospel, for example, is often improved by translations. Would it not be more authentic to render Mark in a rough, unpolished English that would reflect Mark’s vulgar Greek?

In 2002, Eugene Peterson produced “The Message” to bring the Bible to life for people in the pews. He described people’s response to hearing the Bible read. “It was just awful. They’d fill up their coffee cups and stir in sugar and cream and look at their cups and they weren’t getting it. I went home after the third week and said to my wife that I was going to teach them Greek. If they could read it in Greek they would get it, they’d understand what a revolutionary text it is and couldn’t just keep living in their ruts. She agreed that would empty the class out fast.”

Peterson says that “Language has its own colloquialisms and every time the Bible gets translated, it expands, it’s not diluted, it’s larger.” Reading is a translation. We need constant correction as we try to understand the revelation of Jesus.

So what’s the merit of biblical translations done by individuals? Without Jerome’s work, we wouldn’t have the Vulgate. Without Wycliffe, we wouldn’t have an English translation of the Bible. Without Tyndale we wouldn’t have the King James translation. If Julia Smith had been included amongst the groups of scholars in 1870 to prepare a revision of the King James Version, the English Revised Version of 1881, we might have had a more inclusive translation sooner than the NRSV. We’d be more aware of the interpretative italics of the King James version and less inclined to see it as literal. Without the work of Clarence Jordan, we might miss the inherent racism of some translations and interpretations. Without the work of Buber and Rosenzweig underlying the translation of Everett Fox, the world of Hebrew wouldn’t be so strange and accessible. And we wouldn’t be considering a new and different way to apprehend the New Testament. Without Eugene Peterson’s work, Bono might not have found the Bible so engaging. Our apprehension of the Bible is impoverished without individual translations, so why not read these translations alongside others both privately and publicly? Why not print official and individual translations side by side in new editions of the Bible? We just might bring about new encounters with the living word of God.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

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