Monday, October 04, 2010

C.S. Lewis on the King James Bible and Modern Translations

Here is an interesting perspective on the King James Bible and the need for modern translations by C.S. Lewis. This was originally published as an introduction to J.B. Phillips book, Letters to Young Churches: A Translation of the New Testament Epistles.
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It is possible that the reader who opens this volume on the counter of a bookshop may ask himself why we need a new translation of any part of the Bible, and, if of any, why of the Epistles. ‘Do we not already possess’, it may be said, ‘in the Authorised Version the most beautiful rendering which any language can boast?’ Some people whom I have met go further and feel that a modern translation is not only unnecessary but even offensive. They cannot bear to see the time-honoured words altered; it seems to them irreverent.

There are several answers to such people. In the first place the kind of objection which they feel to a new translation is very like the objection which was once felt to any English translation at all. Dozens of sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of turning the time-honoured Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) ‘barbarous’ English. A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into ‘language such as men do use’ — language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street. The answer then was the same as the answer now.

The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernized is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the Eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety. In it we see Greek used by people who have no real feeling for Greek words because Greek words are not the words they spoke when they were children. It is sort of ‘basic’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language.

Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense, an incurably irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion. When we expect that it should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorised Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King. The real sanctity, the real beauty and sublimity of the New Testament (as of Christ’s life) are of a different sort: miles deeper or further in.

In the second place, the Authorised Version has ceased to be a good (that is, a clear) translation. It is no longer modern English: the meanings of words have changed. The same antique glamour which has made it (in the superficial sense) so ‘beautiful’, so ’sacred’, so ‘comforting’, and so ‘inspiring’, has also made it in many place unintelligible. Thus where St Paul says ‘I know nothing against myself,’ it translates ‘I know nothing by myself.’ That was a good translation (though even then rather old-fashioned) in the sixteenth century: to the modern reader it means either nothing, or something quite different from what St Paul said. 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 for all, for a language is a changing thing. If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once for all: he will grow out of it and have to be re-clothed.

And finally, though it may seem a sour paradox — we must sometimes get away from the Authorised Version, if for no other reason, simply because it is so beautiful and so solemn. Beauty exalts, but beauty so lulls. Early associations endear but they also confuse. Through that beautiful solemnity the transporting or horrifying realities of which the Book tells may come to us blunted and disarmed and we may only sigh with tranquil veneration when we ought to be burning with shame or struck dumb with terror or carried out of ourselves by ravishing hopes and adorations. Does the word ’scourged’ really come home to us like ‘flogged’? Does ‘mocked him’ sting like ‘jeered at him’?

We ought therefore to welcome all new translations (when they are made by sound scholars) and most certainly those who are approaching the Bible for the first time will be wise not to begin with the Authorised Version — except perhaps for the historical books of the Old Testament where its anachronisms suit the saga-like material well enough. … It would have saved me a great deal of labour if this book had come into my hands when I first seriously began to try to discover what Christianity was.

-C.S. Lewis-

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1 Comments:

At Tuesday, December 11, 2012 11:27:00 AM, Blogger wfrodgers said...

I first happened upon this Intro/Preface of Lewis's when reading J.B. Phillips' Letters to Young Churches. Phillips' own 'Translator's Notes' in that work left me nearly in tears: a beautiful piece of writing. Item 4 in his list of Illustrations, to me, presents an apologetic for the validity of The Faith.

 

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