Those treasonous translators

Traduttore, traditore, goes the old Italian saying. To translate is to betray.

Lancelot Andrewes, the best translator — and worst

This phrase both identifies and illustrates the immensity of a translator’s task. Its English version conveys the meaning of the original, but misses out on the alliteration and rhythm.

Now imagine a coruscating novel of 142,000 words, where every sentence is written in idiosyncratic vernacular and every page teems with untranslatable aphorisms. Add to that countless cultural allusions making little sense to foreign readers, and you’ll know why Gogol’s Dead Souls can never be properly rendered into English.

Nor can Dickens easily go into Russian. Back in the early 1960s, every self-respecting Russian family had (if not necessarily read) a 30-volume collection of his works adorning their bookshelves. The translation was practically word for word, which rendered the books dull and barely readable.

That showed the shortcomings of the so-called ‘literal school of translation’, which is so faithful to verbatim phrasing that it ignores its style and often even its meaning. The other school preaches ‘adequate’ translation. Its aim is to produce in the target language the stylistic effects of the original. On balance this is a better idea, provided it works, which it doesn’t very well with many books and not at all with some others.

So far I’ve been talking strictly about prose. Multiply the difficulties by any factor you choose, and you’ll begin to grasp the problems of translating poetry – or for that matter poetic prose.

There have been notable successes, such as some translations of Pushkin into English and French. Also, Bunin’s translation of Longfellow is one of the few examples of every original word preserved without damaging the poetry. Neither does Pasternak’s Shakespeare lose much in Russian, which isn’t to say it loses nothing. (For the sake of rhythm, the Russian Richard III offers merely half his kingdom for a horse, not the whole shebang.)

This brings me to the hardest task of the genre: translating Scripture. Enter Lancelot Andrewes (d. 1626), bishop, scholar and poet, who during the reign of James I oversaw the translation of the Bible into English.

His team didn’t work in a vacuum: they relied heavily on the earlier work by William Tyndale (d. 1536). He had translated good chunks of the Bible before being burned at the stake for his trouble – his effort was indeed a burning offence at the time.

Tyndale worked from Hebrew and Greek originals, and also from the Latin Vulgate translation. His work formed the basis of Myles Coverdale’s first complete English translation of the Bible, which in turn acted as reference for Andrewes and his friends.

What they produced is in my view the finest translation of the Bible into any language I know. I’m also willing to take a stab in the dark and bet that the King James Version is also the finest such translation even into the languages I don’t know.

It’s also a sample of the most beautiful, poignant and poetic English prose ever. Which is why C. S. Lewis thought it’s no good.

His arguments against using the KJV, and in favour of using modern translations, in today’s churches are so persuasive that I find myself nodding even though I disagree.

I could paraphrase his arguments, but C.S. Lewis was perfectly capable of speaking for himself: “The truth is that if we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation. There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing.”

Beautiful and solemn? Of course the KJV is. But that’s why “we must sometimes get away from the Authorised Version, if for no other reason, simply because it is so beautiful and so solemn. Beauty exults, but beauty also lulls… we may only sigh with tranquil veneration when we ought to be burning with shame or struck dumb with terror…”

The original Greek of the New Testament, writes Lewis, was the language of the streets, not of sublime poetic prose. That stands to reason, considering that of the four evangelists only Luke was an educated man, and of the epistle writers only Paul.

Hence rendering the New Testament in the language of sublime poetic prose is bad precisely because it’s so good. This also runs the risk of misunderstanding.

“Does the word ‘scourged’ really come home to us like ‘flogged’?” asks Lewis. “Does ‘mocked him’ sting like ‘jeered at him’?”

In other words, wonderful though the KJV is as literature, it, according to C.S. Lewis, is a bad – what my Russian professors would have called ‘inadequate’ – translation. We must have new translations from time to time, to keep up with a changing language and a diminished capacity of modern worshippers to understand archaic words.

Now, I regard C.S. Lewis as one of my teachers of both English style and Christian apologetics. Yet in this case I disagree with him, or rather both disagree and agree.

It’s true that a translator’s task isn’t to improve the original but to render it ‘adequately’, to use the term of my professors of literary translation. If the original speaks in a rough-and-ready dialect, then so must the translation.

And yes, language is indeed a living thing and words often swap their old meanings for new ones. However, living, especially these days, comes precious close to dying.

Thus we have versions of the Bible aimed exclusively at particular groups. One renders the commandment “honour thy father and thy mother” as “don’t dis your mum and your dad, it ain’t cool.” In the same version “thou shalt not kill” comes across as “don’t waste nobody”.

C.S. Lewis didn’t see this version but, had he lived another 30 years, would he have condoned it? If not, where did he draw the line in his quest for up-to-date, easily understandable Scripture?

Would he have abandoned the Book of Common Prayer phrase “with this ring I thee wed” for the modern version “this ring is a symbol of our marriage”? His own ear for English was so finely tuned that I find that hard to believe. But he also had such a splendid mind that his arguments are hard to dismiss.

But they can be countered. Yes, language changes, as does everything else. Yet, to borrow the logic of the argument from contingency, this both necessitates and proves the need for a factor of immovable constancy.

Language changes, writes Lewis irrefutably. But that doesn’t mean that liturgical language must follow suit and keep pace. Lancelot Andrewes realised that, which is why the KJV speaks in an English people didn’t speak in the streets of Jacobean London.

The way I was taught to translate was to look at a paragraph and keep looking until I’ve memorised it. Then I was to push the book aside and write down what that paragraph meant for me, the effect it had produced. That done, on to the next paragraph.

Scriptural translation requires more textual precision, granted. But is it possible that Lancelot Andrewes, and Tyndale and Coverdale before him, did precisely that? They kept looking at the Greek (and Hebrew) text until their eyes hurt. Then they pushed it aside and wrote down what the text meant for them.

The effect was so explosive that they could only express it in a prose of sublime and solemn poetry, thereby rejecting the prescriptions of my professors of literary translation and, alas, C.S. Lewis. Then again, God is the first and last source of all beauty, and those men were so close to Him that His Book must have lived within them as eternal truth, not just text.

A personal lament if I may: having converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism years ago, I desperately miss the KJV (and the Book of Common Prayer). This is the version I always quote from – not just because it’s the most beautiful one, but also because that was the first Scripture I knew.

If I can’t have it, I’d rather have St Jerome’s Latin Vulgate than any of the modern translations into English. But that choice is as scarcely available as, these days, the choice of the KJV in Anglican churches.

I don’t think the beauty of the KJV has ever lulled me into complacency, although I’m sure that C.S. Lewis was right to say that it had such an effect on others. Nor have I ever had any trouble understanding any of the archaisms. Adding beauty to a translation is a sin, but it’s more forgivable than subtracting beauty.

Lewis’s view, expressed whenever he spoke to novice priests, was that Scripture shouldn’t be instantly accessible only to educated people. That’s true, but surely it’s a priest’s task to educate his flock, regardless of the educational qualifications of every parishioner?

Scriptural texts should unite, not put asunder (which is one reason I’m in favour of Latin Mass). Yet people can come together at different levels, and my preference is for it to be as high as possible. Having said all that, Lewis made some good points that are worth pondering at length.

17 thoughts on “Those treasonous translators”

  1. And then JC sparked up: “oi you lot! what the **** are you playing at eh?” But the Pharisees weren’t having it, he was too real for them.

    -Da good book.

  2. Well, Lewis himself wasn’t consistent here. In the first chapter of ‘Letters to Malcolm’, when he’s writing about the language of the Book of Common Prayer, he takes almost the opposite point of view to the one you quote: not completely opposite (as he says, ‘If you have a vernacular liturgy you must have a changing liturgy; otherwise it will finally be vernacular only in name’) but extremely cautious. ‘I think it would have been best, if it were possible, that necessary change should have occurred gradually and (to most people) imperceptibly; here a little and there a little; one obsolete word replaced in a century – like the gradual change of spelling in successive editions of Shakespeare.’

    He points out that revisions don’t necessarily have the effect aimed at: ‘A country parson I know asked his sexton what he understood by “indifferently” in the phrase “truly and indifferently adminster justice”. The man replied, “It means making no difference between one chap and another.” “And what would it mean if it said ‘impartially’?” asked the parson. “Don’t know. Never heard of it,” said the sexton. Here, you see, we have a change intended to make things easier. But it does so neither for the educated, who understand “indifferently” already, nor for the wholly uneducated, who don’t understand “impartially”.’

    And he also points out that the BCP has one great quality: ‘Cranmer may have had his defects as a theologian; as a stylist, he can play all the moderns, and many of his predecessors, off the field.’

    How does one reconcile the two Lewises? It’s helpful to realise that CSL, more than almost any modern writer on religion I know (Ronald Knox ran him close), always had purpose and audience in mind whenever he wrote (or gave a talk). The sections you quote are taken from his Introduction to J.B. Phillips’ ‘Letters to Young Churches’, Phillips’ translation of the NT Epistles, an Introduction which Phillips had requested from Lewis. This means that Lewis was trying to convince sceptical readers that modern translations were good and useful, rather than dangerous, even blasphemous – a not uncommon reaction in the 1940s. Thus he focuses on the difficulties and perils of the KJV for the modern reader rather than its beauties. In ‘Letters to Malcolm’, he’s much more nuanced: clearly he loved the BCP (and, indeed, the KJV). He wasn’t a hypocrite, but he varies his arguments as necessary. You can still disagree with him, but you don’t have to feel quite as baffled you seem to be in your piece!

    1. Actually, I’ve read the essay you refer to, and I think it’s important to remember it was written a long time ago. Today’s sextons would have no problem with ‘impartial’ — as Lewis says, language develops. He also makes a related language argument elsewhere, when insisting that any communication should be in a language the audience can understand. Specifically, he was talking about eschewing academic terms and rare words. It’s a respectable point of view, as all his views are. But I disagree. I think the writer should use the exact word, no matter how rare or long. And if the reader doesn’t know it — well, that’s what God created dictionaries for. Whenever I run into an unfamiliar word, I’m grateful to the writer for expanding my vocabulary. If somebody is too lazy to look up a word, that’s his problem. So I wouldn’t say I am baffled. It’s just that I respect Lewis so much I was uncharacteristically mild in voicing my disagreement.

      1. A very interesting point. It is something that I have spoken to regarding our political leaders. I want leaders who are smarter than the average Joe on the street. I don’t wanting them dumbing down their speech in order to reach us. The same should also pertain to our clergy. If we do not understand a speech or a sermon, it is up to us to educate ourselves. People often learn the jargon of a job or a sport – we are capable of expanding our vocabulary.

        You have made me pull out my dictionary more than a few times, and I am grateful for it. This is the one internet site I visit that makes use of what previously were only answers to crossword clues – as in partaking of postprandial drupes.

  3. While it is true that language changes, we have taken it to an accelerated, ridiculous level in modern times. Rewriting the Bible to keep in touch with the youths “on the street” would be futile – especially since so few would ever crack the cover. My wife occasionally harasses me (in a nice way) to find Latin lessons, so our youngest son and I can read the Vulgate Bible. Not likely, I’m sorry to say – at least for me.

    As for the various translations, I have stood in a book store wafting through them and tossing all aside. It doesn’t take much research to cast one aside. The New American Bible with its “Hail, favored one!” is quite unsettling. “Hail, full of grace” reinforces the idea that the Blessed Virgin Mary was born without sin. But that does not fit with our 21st century ecumenism (what did so many of those martyrs get so worked up about?! To borrow a phrase: Saint John Fisher, ring your office.) The point of Latin being the official language of the Catholic Church is that it is a dead language: it will not be changing.

    I will stick with my Douay-Rheims version. It is not perfect, but at least it was written before the USCCB could get their filthy hands on it. So much of the New American Bible (their approved version) is just stupid.

    On the lighter side, there is this 2019 article from Crisis Magazine offering help with a new translation of the Ave Maria.

    1. St Jerome’s “gratia plena” represents the Greek “kekharistōmenē”, which is a perfect participle and could be literally translated as “having received grace”. “Hail, thou who hast (already) received grace!” might reproduce the sense of the text. But (and it’s a big “but”) the Greek spoken in New Testament times (and indeed earlier) often used the perfect participle (instead of the aorist or present participle) for emphasis rather than with any sense of past time, so one could also translate aoristically: “Hail, thou recipient of much grace!” Both “gratia plena” and “full of grace” are similarly aoristic.

      So, as is usual in the Bible, the text neither supports nor refutes either Catholic or Protestant doctrine. Instead it gives us something to have a friendly debate about.

  4. Words should reflect meaning, so, with the KJV “wealth” meant “well-being”, “prevent” meant “proceed”, “conversation” meant “conduct”, “communicate” meant “share”, and there are other less glaring changes in meaning. Lewis may have meant these types of changes rather than wholesale rephrasing into modern jargon like “The Message” Bible by Eugene Peterson.

  5. The most inappropriate changes are those in Revelation where the newer translators have determined to change the symbolic numbers into actual distances, heights and widths and so totally miss the significance.

  6. “There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing.”

    Basically meaning of the word in context as understood at the time. JESUS not just a carpenter but a wood-working artisan as people of HIS period would have described him as.

    Turn the other cheek too when one struck also misunderstood. That phrase as a response to insulting violence directed against you and the “turning of the other cheek’ meant to show contempt toward your assailant and not passivity as a response.

  7. The translation of ‘terra nullius’ in Australia implies that Cook improperly. claimed possession of the east coast on the orders of his superiors in London.
    But what did his superiors actually mean by it?
    It is quite possible that they meant ‘not already claimed by another colonial power’. We will never know , unfortunately.

  8. The problem with new translations of the Bible (from the Revised Version of the 1880s onwards) is not that they’re written in modern English but that they’re written in bad modern English – by which I mean not English that contains grammatical mistakes but English that is devoid of imagination, music and fervour. And the latest translations also deliberately distort the meaning in the interests of “inclusivity”.

    C S Lewis and T S Eliot were both members of an Anglican committee to revise Coverdale’s Psalter for liturgical use, but as far as I know nothing came of their efforts. In a better world, we’d have both Lewis’s Psalter and Eliot’s Psalter to evaluate and perhaps admire.

    As for translations in other languages, I’m fond of Martin Luther’s clumsy but powerful German version of St Mark’s clumsy but powerful Greek, and King Alfred’s prose version of Psalms 1-50 (with the King’s own additional notes on the duties of a monarch) is sufficient justification in itself for learning Old English, but in general I agree that the King James Bible is probably unrivalled anywhere.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve always thought that a modern translation would be possible, perhaps even desirable, if it were done by today’s answer to Lancelot Andrewes. However, since no one like him has so far come forward, the KJV should be it. Moreover, I think it should also be possible to adapt it to Catholic use, by stylising the translation of the books that don’t appear in the KJV. That’s a much easier task than retranslating the whole thing.

      1. The problem with making small adjustments to the language of the Authorised Version and Prayer Book is that you and I won’t be the ones invited to decide which adjustments are needed. One of C S Lewis’s essays makes a similar point: as soon as one allows change in the hope of improvement, the changes one gets may not be improvements but disastrous vandalism. (See the Revised Version of the 1880s and all subsequent English versions for proof.)

        Note that King James’s translators also translated the “Apocrypha”.
        “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us. The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning.” (Ecclesiasticus 44.1-2)

        I wonder if you have any nostalgia for the ancient and holy language of the Slavonic liturgy? Slavite Gospoda!

        1. Liturgy of any kind wasn’t part of my life in Russia, I’m afraid. I do like the Orthodox liturgy now, but it’s strictly a matter of aesthetic or, if you will, ethnographic interest. These days I can only repeat what that female Texas governor said – seriously – 100 years ago, when vetoing a bilingual education bill: “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” Add Latin to that, and those are the only languages in which God speaks to me. By the way, the modern French translations are even worse than ours.

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