What did she know, and when did she know it?

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Another marvelous post by Anthony Esolen at Mere Comments highlights a theme I’ve been thinking about off and on for the last month or so, Bible translation.

It started when I saw a reference on Steven’s website to a blog devoted to the topic of translating the Bible. I browsed this site a few times, but it seems the main concern for modern translators is inclusive language – the blog featured what appears to be a frustrated attempt by one it’s authors to interview J. I. Packer and obtain his agreement that this is, indeed, the most important topic facing translators today.

I later saw a reference, over a First Things, to the Authorized Version (the King James), that said that, even as dated as it is, the translation is still a good one. I mean good here as one that is not so dated that it shouldn’t still be read and relied on.

I have always thought, and in one sense I think this a point Esolen makes indirectly, a Bible translation should be beautiful; the language should convey something of the majesty of God. The Bible is God’s revelation of Himself, and the heart of that revelation must be His perfect beauty; God’s word is not mundane, or worse, inane.

For example, in 2 Samuel, chapter 11, we have the story of David’s adultery with Bathsheeba. 2 Samuel 11:2 describes the moment David first laid eyes on Uriah’s beautiful wife. The New American Bible reads thus:

2 One evening David rose from his siesta and strolled about on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing, who was very beautiful.

By comparison, the English Standard Version reads:

2 It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful.

Better, but the King James reads:

2 And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.

It has always puzzled me how anyone in his right mind would use the word “siesta” to describe King David taking a nap, as if he were some village chieftain in some remote Mexican village. It boggles the mind. It’s not beautiful it’s just silly.

Another example is the one Dr. Esolen used, Mary’s question of the angel in Luke 1:

Here is how the NAB renders the original:

But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

The ESV reads:

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

The KJV has:

Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

The NAB conveys the idea, but in a very matter of fact, down to earth sort of way. In this case, I don’t think the ESV is much better. The King James’ “seeing I know not man” has a certain beauty about it. We know what is meant, but more than just the act is implied, I think there is in Mary’s question the implication of the fact of her sinless state. The expression itself implies chastity.

Finally, there is the question of inclusive language. I think when it is used; it also detracts from the beauty and deepest meaning of the text. For example, 1 Timothy 2:3-4 is translated this way in the NAB.

This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.

Gosh, boys and girls, we all get to enjoy the fun, isn’t that wonderful?

In contrast, the KJV has:

For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.

The Greek word for “men” here is anthropos and generally refers to “a human being, whether male or female” according to Strongs. However, it also refers to the human race, as opposed to angels or plants or some other species. Again, when we say all “people” it is a lesser translation because it deprives the reader of seeing a potentially deeper theological meaning, that man holds a special place in God’s plan for salvation history.

In every case I have cited I think there is good reason to prefer the antiquated King James translation over the more modern and possibly more politically correct versions. I guess that’s the reason it has endured for nearly five hundred years.

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Anthony Esolen at Mere Comments talks about Bible translation: I don’t have a fully fleshed out theory of translation. If I were pressed, I’d say that the virtue most required of a translator is a kind of reticence—or you might call it a chaste... Read More


Dear Ron,

You know, I don't think I could possibly agree more. I understand the goal of the Better Bibles Group, but I think any translation that does away with majesty and beauty in the name of accessibility is wrong-headed. Thanks for posting this.




Thanks for your comment. I think it was a big advantage to grow up reading the King James Version. Most verses that I have memorized are from there.


Steven said:

I understand the goal of the Better Bibles Group, but I think any translation that does away with majesty and beauty in the name of accessibility is wrong-headed.

Steven, as one of the contributors to the Better Bibles Blog I hope that your sentence is not suggesting that the BBB places "accessibility" above other Bible translation needs. He highest priority for any Bible translation is accuracy, not accessibility, not even majesty or beauty, although we hope for majesty and beauty to be included in an accurate translation.

The problem with a literal translation of the Hebrew idiom "know" is that it does not accurately communicate the meaning of the Hebrew idiom to English speakers who have a different meaning for the word "know." The question then becomes: Should we translate literally and teach Bible users that the literal meaning is not the actual meaning in the thousands of verses in the Bible where that is the case? Or do we translate the original figurative meaning to its equivalent figurative meaning in English, and footnote the literal meaning of the figure? Different translators answer this question in different ways. Part of the answer depends on who we are translating for and how we expect them to use a translation.

The ESV translation using the word "virgin" communicates the meaning of the original Greek idiom more accurately to English speakers than would a literal translation of that idiom. But communicative accuracy is not necessarily the highest priority in Bible translation for everyone. For some it is a higher priority to know literally what the original text says.

There is a place for both kinds of translations. In fact, there is a place for any person to use both a communicatively accurate translation as well as one which literally translates biblical figurative speech.

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This page contains a single entry by Ron Moffat published on March 5, 2006 12:34 PM.

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