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