The Pursuit of Knowledge

Translating the Word

The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible has received only muted celebrations in the English-speaking world.

By From the April 2011 issue

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The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible has received only muted celebrations in the English-speaking world, and no celebrations at all elsewhere. This book, which shaped the syntax, the imagery, and the wisdom of everyday discourse among speakers of English, and which has probably been more frequently quoted than any other source, including the Greek and Hebrew originals, is now receding behind the screen on which our ephemeral messages are scribbled. But the history of the English Bible is of great importance to us today, since it reminds us that our civilization is built upon translations. The Septuagint, the Vulgate, the Wulfila Bible (the fourth-century translation into the Gothic language), the Wycliffe Bible, and the translations of early reformers -- the Czech Králice Bible, Luther's Bible, the Geneva Bible, and the seminal translation by William Tyndale on which the King James translation is ultimately based -- all these have brought with them profound and far-reaching changes in the social, political, and religious lives of ordinary people in Christian Europe.

Every new translation has offered a promise of power to some and a threat to the power of others. A society governed by a privileged class of priests and clerks, whose authority derives from a text that only they can read, will be suspicious of translations of that text, and inclined to forbid them. Wycliffe survived only because he was protected by the powerful John of Gaunt, and Tyndale was burned at the stake in Bruges. Still, by the time of King James I versions of the Bible in English were available in every church, and it was no longer a threat to any vested interest to authorize a new and complete translation. How lucky we English-speakers were, that this translation should have been made in the wake of the Elizabethan dramatists, at a time when the English language was at its most muscular and taut, when it could be applied to matters both earthly and heavenly and at once give a fully imagined account of them, gripped in what Gerard Manley Hopkins was to call the "native thew and sinew" of the English tongue. All subsequent translations, set beside this version, are on a downhill path toward banality, and by the time of the New English Bible (completed 1970) it is fair to say that the immediacy and urgency of the King James Bible had been more or less dissolved in watery literal-mindedness.

It is not just the literary merits of the King James Bible that recommend it, however. This was the Bible that the Pilgrim Fathers brought with them across the Atlantic, that the Methodist riders took around the farmsteads and cabins of rural America, the Bible that the merchant adventurers carried to India, Australia, and Africa, the Bible that provided the texts of Handel's oratorios and which inspired the hymns of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. It is the Bible that was planted in the depths of the English-speaking soul during the crucial centuries when the sphere of English-speaking freedom was formed. I doubt that you can understand the motives of the early settlers of America without it. It gave them the names of their towns and villages, the names of their children, the maxims of their daily life and the routines and rituals of their sparse forms of enjoyment. They fought and cursed, made love and sermons, in the language of the King James Bible, and everywhere about us we see the difference that this has made. Ask yourself how it came about that a suburb of Washington, D.C. should bear the beautiful Hebrew name of Bethesda and you will unearth a history that is dependent at almost every point on the King James Bible and its immediate sources in Tyndale and Myles Coverdale.

BUT THERE ARE OTHER and equally interesting ideas suggested by the history of biblical translation. When Christendom was first shaping itself from within the Roman Empire it was by means of the Vulgate, St. Jerome's Latin version of the sacred texts. Those early Christians did not doubt that their most authoritative text, the one which contained the most direct messages yet received from God to man, had been translated from other languages, spoken by other people, in whom God had, for reasons of His own, chosen to confide. A kind of openness to the world and to other ways of life was the natural consequence of this. And this openness has characterized the Christian religion ever since.

I may be wrong, but it does seem to me that this marks out an important cultural difference between Christian civilization and Islam. Ever since the 11th-century triumph of the Asharite school of Islam it has been orthodox to believe that the Koran cannot be translated, that the surahs were literally spoken, as we find them, to the Prophet, and that any attempt to represent their meaning in another language would falsify God's word. Versions of the Koran in other languages are therefore routinely described as "interpretations." A devout Muslim may learn to recite the Koran in Arabic without knowing, except in rough outline, what it means. And it is only Arabic speakers, who today form less than 20 percent of Muslims, who know what nonsense it is to say that this text cannot be translated. Of course, something is lost in translation -- in particular the taut, breathless syntax of the original, and the poetic rhythms of the rhyming prose. But then, something is lost in every translation. And as our Bible teaches us, something may also be gained, and the gain may be more than the loss. It is perhaps true of St. John's Gospel that the Greek original is inferior to Tyndale as literature. But the reader of Tyndale will discover exactly what the writer of the Gospel intended to say.

The official non-translatability of the Koran has had important political consequences. The mullahs and ayatollahs have been able to assert a kind of monopoly over the sacred text, to withhold it and themselves from public scrutiny, and thereby to establish theocratic forms of government in which they hold power in God's name. The downgrading of secular authority and secular law, the claim to absolute and incorrigible justification, follow from this as a matter of course. This is what we have seen in Iran and will no doubt see in Egypt should the Muslim Brotherhood finally fulfill its ambition of ruling that country, its Christian minority included, according to the shari'ah.

The translatability of the Bible has had equally far-reaching political consequences. When the nation-states of Europe began to emerge after the Reformation, it was partly because people were beginning to see that law and language are far more reliable criteria of political loyalty than dynasty and religion, since law and language are instruments of peace, whereas dynasties and religions are always at war. The translations of the Bible brought the Christian religion to heel, contained it within the borders of the linguistic community, and overcame the medieval orthodoxy that, in matters of religion, the real authorities were situated elsewhere and outside the kingdom. They helped to domesticate the religious impulse and who can doubt, looking back at the wars of religion, that Europeans needed, at the time, to identify themselves in some other and more peaceful way than the way of faith?

TRANSLATION OPENS THE WAY to a new kind of scholarship. Granted that the texts we hold sacred originated in Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and Greek, what do we know about the people who first wrote them down, and how can we be sure what they meant by the words they wrote? During the late 18th century this question gave rise to the science of biblical hermeneutics, which led the universities of Europe toward a new kind of skepticism. It became clear that the ancient texts belonged to specific social and political contexts, and that they were not necessarily aimed at the whole of humanity. People began to assign precise dates to them, to draw a map of Jewish history, and to distinguish which parts of the Gospels told the authentic story of Christ's mission, and which were later fabrications.

This scholarship has made it difficult to think of the Bible as God's word -- that is to say, as the word spoken to prophets and others by God. At best the Bible consists of words inspired by God, words which might have been marred and distorted in the process of recording them, and in which the element of inspiration and the element of fabrication might be hard to unravel. (Think of the bloodthirsty book of Joshua, for instance, and the story of Rahab, about whom the best can be said is that she was a whore: did God have a hand in that?) It is impossible that the Bible should now have, for the educated Christian, the kind of authority that the Koran has for the Muslim. The Bible is a text to be discussed and interrogated, whose message does not remain entirely the same from generation to generation, but which responds to the changing circumstances of those who consult it. And one proof of its inspired nature is that it always does respond, that it offers thoughts, arguments, words, and guidance in all the changing scenes of life -- including the changing scenes of our species-life. We can no longer point to the Bible as the final authority in any disputed question. But the Bible is as much a help to us as ever it was to the Pilgrim Fathers. It has persuaded us to take responsibility for our actions, and not to bequeath our problems to humorless old men in beards who pretend that only they know how to read the sacred text.

That makes it the more sad that the King James Bible, which raised us to a higher level of seriousness, should have slipped behind the screen, taking with it so much of the English-speaking soul. 

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About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.