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Why Mediocre Bible Translations Are Here to Stay

Title page of the first edition of Knox’s translation, via Flickr user bible_wiki

Michael Brendan Dougherty’s reflection on bad Bible translations reconnects me with a topic that I have had too much to say about over the years. But I’m going to quote something I wrote a long time ago to explain why I think the problem he notes isn’t likely to go away. Beware — it’s a long quote:

Most of us are familiar with the story of the “two cultures,” as C. P. Snow called it, or, in Isaiah Berlin’s terms, “the divorce between the sciences and the humanities.” When John Milton was born, in 1609, it was still possible to “know everything” — that is, to be competent in the whole range of available knowledge. But by the time Milton died, in 1674, the young Isaac Newton was already doing work in optics and physics so specialized and detailed that it would make such general competence impossible, and Europe’s young scholars began to be confronted with a choice of intellectual paths — a choice that we still have to make today, though by now that simple fork in the road of learning has led to the copious tangled bronchi of the modern university, a place in which even denizens of a particular department can speak languages incomprehensible to one another.

Right though we have been to focus our attention on this fragmentation of culture, with both its benefits and its costs, it has perhaps led us to neglect another extremely important “divorce,” another bifurcation of a once–unified culture. I refer to the divorce between literature and theology. Oddly enough, this parting of the ways occurred at the same time as the other one: the seventeenth century in England would begin with a series of figures — John Donne, George Herbert, Lancelot Andrewes — in whom literary excellence and theological acuity would be comfortably blended. It was also an age in which certain communal projects yoking theology and literature that had begun in the previous century would find their culmination: the Authorized Version of the Bible in 1611, the last major redaction of the Book of Common Prayer in 1662. In this period of English history — and one could adduce similar examples from elsewhere in Europe — the men of letters and the men of God were the same men, thanks largely to the Protestant Reformers’ embrace of much of the learning retrieved by the Renaissance humanists. (In this development some of the second–generation reformers were more important than even Luther and Calvin: Philipp Melanchthon’s role in linking classical literary culture with Protestant theology has been much neglected.)

Today, the most literarily gifted writers are unlikely to know Greek or Hebrew — note that the Knox translation Michael likes is from the Latin of the Vulgate (UPDATE: though Knox’s Oxbridge education gave him some Greek and even Hebrew) — and scholars learned in Greek or Latin are highly unlikely to have had a broad humanistic education. The latter are almost certain not to have been steeped on poetry in the way that their sixteenth-century ancestors were. The result is that, in general, they cannot produce beautiful language and, worse, cannot see the value of it.

I don’t see any circumstances in which this is likely to change. As I note in the self-quote above, the situation is an inevitable consequence of the growth and specialization of knowledge.

In case anyone is interested, I have further thoughts on these topics in an essay on the recent ESV translation and one in praise of Robert Alter.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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