Wednesday, December 29, 2010
The year 2011 will witness the 400th anniversary of the publication of what is commonly called the King James Version. It was a major milestone in 1611 and its shadow continues to fall across English speaking Christendom. Throughout the coming months I hope to blog on various themes related to the history of the English bible from various angles. The history of the bible combines numerous areas that have long fascinated me: church history, Hebrew and Greek languages, biblical interpretation and the like. Tonight I begin with some thoughts on the King James as a "literal" translation. Many are under the illusion that it is and that a so called "literal" translation is by definition more accurate. We will touch on all these themes in the future ...
KJV: A Literal Translation??
Greetings this Wednesday nite. I was reading Romans in my 1611 so called Authorized Version this morning and was struck by something: Its lack of consistency in rendering the same Greek term the same way in English. I will be the first to admit that often times a word should be translated differently in different contexts because the meaning is different. But if the KJV was an exacting literal translation it would in fact render the terms the same -- consistently. Further there are places where the same Greek term is used -- in the same passage -- by the inspired author for emphasis; in these places the English should be rendered the same. The English reader will not know the apostle uses the same word for effect. The King's translators themselves warn us about this feature of their work. Hear them:
"Another thing we think good to admonish thee, of gentle Reader, that we have not tied ourselves to an uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done, because they observe, that some learned men somewhere have been as exact as they could that way. Truly, that we might not vary from the sense of that which we had translated before, if the word signified the same thing in both places (for there be some words that be not of the same sense every where), we were especially careful, and made a conscience according to our duty." (Translators to the Readers, pages are not numbered).
Having recently gone through Romans in my Greek Testament, I was struck by the KJV in Romans 5. Here we have a picture perfect example of the love of variety in translation testified to in the quoted section above. In Romans, in the KJV, we read:
"we . . . REJOICE in hope in the glory of God" (5.2); In the very next verse we read, GLORY in tribulations" (5.3) and a few verses down in 5.11 we read "we also JOY in God . . ."
The bold face words are all the one and the same Greek verb. Further they have the same connotation in each place. The NIV reads "rejoice" in all three places (more consistently and more accurately than the KJV).
If the aim of translation should be the production of an equivalent effect in the reader of the translation as the reader of the original text, then there is much to be said for translating in a passage like Romans 5, and the examples provided above, the same words with the same English word. For a good part of the effect intended by Paul was produced by his deliberate repetition of the same word. This is but one single example that could be multiplied into dozens but there is no need. F.F. Bruce, a widely respected historian and NT scholar comments on this "character trait" of the KJV:
"It is probably right to say that the Authorized Version has gone too far in its love of variation, whereas the Revised Version runs to the opposite extreme" .
A true "literal" translation is simply not possible. For example if you can suggest to me how one might "literally" translate the middle voice from Greek into English I would be grateful. English does not HAVE a middle voice. This is a major problem since the middle voice is not a rare bird in the Greek NT.
Other examples of the KJV's love of "variation" would include:
1) Matthew 25.46, renders "aionios" as "everlasting punishment" opposite of "life eternal" - why not the same? The text invites the reader to suppose that there is a difference when the same term is used.
2) In Romans 4 the same verb is rendered "counted" (vv 3, 5); "reckon" (vv. 4, 9-10) and "impute" (vv.6, 8, 11, 22-24). This is significant variation! Especially when Paul seems to be consciously using the same meaning.
3) In Romans 7 epithumian is rendered three different ways in the space of two verses: "lust" (v.7), "covet" (v.7) and finally "concupiscence" (v.8).
The NIV is much more consistent and accurate in all of these places (cf. NIV in the texts cited).
4) The Greek word katargein occurs twenty-seven times in the NT. But the King James Version translates it with seventeen different English words (which is a tad excessive!).
Merry Christmas & Happy New Year,
 F.F. Bruce, The King James Version: The First 350 Years (Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 27.