Lost in translations

Of course I love the KJV. What’s not to love? I love Shakespeare too, for much the same reasons. It should continue to be read because its authors had an ear for poetry, and poetry is one of the best ways of approaching God.Of course I love the KJV. What’s not to love? I love Shakespeare too, for much the same reasons. It should continue to be read because its authors had an ear for poetry, and poetry is one of the best ways of approaching God.

Don’t you love the King James Bible? And don’t you also love slagging off those awful modern translations that trendy churches use nowadays?

Well, you’re not alone. The 400th anniversary of the completion of the translation that King James I authorised to be read in churches has given opportunity for all lovers of tradition to come out of the woodwork and tell us how inferior and often awful any other version is.

Of course, their version of “any other version” – the one from which they take their toe-curling quotes – is usually the least satisfactory around, which almost no-one likes or uses. Yes, I’m talking about the New English Bible, which memorably opens the beautiful first chapter of John’s Gospel with the breathtaking and breath-removing “When all things began, the Word already was. The Word dwelt with God, and what God was, the Word was”.

All right, the search for accuracy when the original is carefully designed to indicate unfathomable mystery is bound to lead us up strange paths, but the NEB surely did not have to demonstrate it in such a ham-fisted way.

Why do these KJV-worshippers never mention the New International Version, which unlike the NEB, is frequently read in both churches and cathedrals. Perhaps because it is actually quite good. Straw men fall over so much more easily.

You can easily see this when the complainer strays from the safety of the NEB.The latest attack I have read complains (among much NEB-knocking) that the RSV replaces the KJV’s “giants” in Genesis with “nephilim”, but you can easily imagine that if the situation was reversed, and the KJV had plumped for nephilim, he would have complained about the banality of the RSV’s “giants”.

Of course I love the KJV. What’s not to love? I love Shakespeare too, for much the same reasons. It should continue to be read because its authors had an ear for poetry, and poetry is one of the best ways of approaching God. When it comes to accuracy and accessibility, its pedestal is not so high, or so secure, in these ungodly times.

Translation is an art rather than a science, and the KJV was not, as a good friend of mine once opined, verbally inspired by God. It was an attempt – as far as the New Testament is concerned – to convey something written in 1500-year-old Greek (which was itself in many cases a translation from the Aramaic) into something easy and familiar for those in another country, culture and time.

How could it succeed? Look at a translation – or preferably a paraphrase – of the Lord’s Prayer directly from the Aramaic and you will see how much you lose in the KJV, the NIV or any other easily available English version. It goes far beyond the rather obvious point that Jesus would hardly have asked his Father: “Lead us not into temptation.” And what about the Greek continuous present tense? What happened to that?

Ah, well. These are esoteric points, perhaps. Or perhaps not. The point is that the KJV is good. Some might say it’s damn fine coffee. (Another cultural nuance that would be pretty much impossible to translate.) But there are other good drinks out there. And they can be just as nourishing.