The NIV hits another home run

LA to correspondent:

The Gospel of Mark 4:21, King James Version:

Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed, and not to be set on a candlestick?

The Gospel of Mark 4:21, New International Version:

Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand?

Correspondent replies:

You are kidding! You are making that up!

- end of initial entry -

Paul T. writes:

Yea, though I walk with a Valley Girl, I shall fear no evil!

That translation is just a hoot. Perhaps a still newer version will change “don’t you” to the more democratic “dontcha.”

LA replies:

Some people think that the reason I and others prefer the King James Bible to all the modern translations is that we are stuffy types who prefer archaic language for its own sake. In my case, that is not so. I would love to see a good modern translation. But the modern translations, without exception, are not just inadequate in this or that way, they are DREADFUL—STAGGERINGLY HORRIBLE. They are written by people who have no feeling for language—people who, over and over, seem to go out of their way make the ugliest, most inappropriate, and even most ludicrous word choices possible. And that goes most of all for the New International Version, which is the most widely used translation today.

If you want proof of the hopeless intellectual and spiritual decadence of modern culture, all you have to do is look at the modern Bible translations and remember that they are the work, not of secular left-liberals seeking to destroy Christianity, but of Christians. And the same goes for recent translations of the Jewish scriptures.

Thus, notwithstanding the serious flaws of the King James Version, including some word choices and passages that are awkward and clunky (something that I’m more aware of than I used to be, as I have recently been memorizing Gospel passages, particularly the Gospel of Mark), it remains an incomparable literary masterpiece. What impresses most of all is the care with which the KJV translators chose their words. The KJV is beautifully and thoughtfully composed. This sense of composition is what the modern English translations most notably lack. The modern translators simply have no feeling for language. It’s as though the need for fitness and appropriateness, not to mention beauty, of language did not occur to them at all. It was not on their horizon. They had very narrow scholarly concerns, aiming at some dry scholarly notion of correctness, combined with the modern-democratic imperative never to use language that rises above the ordinary, and zero concern about how the language would work as language.

June 3

LA writes:

A few weeks ago, in the pleasant treatment room at the doctor’s office on Long Island where I receive chemotherapy, I recited to the friend who drives me there the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. I got to this passage:

And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed. And Simon and they that were with him followed after him. And when they had found him, they said unto him, All men seek for thee. And he said unto them, Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also: for therefore came I forth.

When I had recited the last line, my friend, with a smile of deep satisfaction on his face, as though he were savoring a particularly delicious meal, repeated the words, “For therefore came I forth,” and added that you just don’t hear language like that now.

The King James Version does what literature is supposed to do: in addition to telling a story and conveying meaning (in this case, divine meaning), it produces great pleasure. Can anyone honestly say that any of the modern English Bible translations produce pleasure?

Buck writes:

From the preface of God’s Secretaries, The Making of the King James Bible, by Adam Nicolson (typed):

[The] virtual anonymity is the power of the book. The translation these men made together can lay claim to be the greatest work in prose ever written in English. That it should be the creation of a committee of people no one has ever heard of—and who were generally unacknowledged at the time—is the key to its grandeur. It is not the poetry of a single mind, nor the effusion of a singular vision, nor even the product of a single moment, but the child of an entire culture stretching back to the great Jewish poets and storytellers of the Near Eastern Bronze Age. That sense of an entirely embraced and reimagined past is what fuels this book.

The divines of the first decade of seventeenth-century England were alert to the glamour of antiquity, in many ways consciously archaic in phraseology and grammar, meticulous in their scholarship and always looking to the primitive and the essential as the guarantee of truth. Their translation was driven by that idea of a constant present, the feeling that the riches, beauties, failings and sufferings of Jacobean England were part of the same world as the one in which Job, David or the Evangelists walked. Just as Rembrandt, a few years later, without any sense of absurdity or presumption, could portray himself as the Apostle Paul, the turban wrapped tightly around his greying curls, the eyes intense and inquiring, the King James Translators could write their English words as if the passage of 1,600 or 3,000 years made no difference. Their subject was neither ancient nor modern, but both or either. It was universal text.

The book they created was consciously poised in its rhetoric between vigour and elegance, plainness and power. It is not framed in the language, as one Puritan preacher described it, of ‘fat and strutting bishops, pomp-fed prelates’, nor of Puritan controversy or intellectual display. It aimed to step beyond those categories to embrace the universality of its subject. As a result, it does not suffer from one of the defining faults of the age: a form of anxious and egotistical self-promotion. It exudes, rather, a shared confidence and authority and in that is one of the greatest of all monuments to the suppression of ego.

Robert S. writes:

I have to agree with you. The Authorized Version is hard to beat. Its language is the language of religion. However, it is not alone.

The Revised Standard Version of 1952 is pretty good. It has the advantage of being approved by all the Christian denominations, including the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. It is early enough that it is not contaminated and disfigured by malignant, deliberate heresy.

The New Revised Standard Version is, however, an abomination, as are almost all modern translations.

Other translations that are respectable include the Jerusalem Bible (Catholic), the New King James Version (fundamentalist Protestant) and even Douay-Rheims, which predates the Authorized Version, but whose language is pretty archaic. There is also The Sacred Scriptures-Bethel Edition. This is the American Standard Version of 1901, and it is the predecessor of the Revised Standard Version. It has the unique claim that it restores the actual Names of God to the translated text instead of using Lord.

Keep up the good work.

LA replies:

Respectfully I cannot agree with you about the Revised Standard Version. Its language is lifeless, deliberately lifeless. In fact, in many passages, in does not translate the original language into English, but changes the language into something else, in order to make it lifeless. So in these instances it cannot even be called a translation.

Here is an example I’ve given before:

Psalm 17, verse 10 in the King James Version says: “They are enclosed in their own fat,” which is close to a literal translation of the Hebrew (“They are locked up in their fat”).

The Revised Standard Version renders that as “Their hearts are closed to pity.”

The RSV eliminates that magnificent line, “They are enclosed in their own fat,” which conveys the idea of men who are so filled with themselves and their self-love that nothing can get through to them, and replaces it with the hackneyed sentimental idea of hearts being closed to pity. Now the original could mean closed to pity, but it has many other meanings as well—closed to truth, closed to reality. And it’s not just their hearts that are closed, but their whole being. “They are enclosed in their own fat” is rich with metaphorical meaning. But the RSV translators, like men in a polite boardroom recoiling from the concrete metaphorical aliveness of the original biblical language, changed that great poetical image into a cliché. This is unforgivable.

LA continues:

Also, this example shows how the RSV translators were not honest in their statement of purpose. They said that they only changed the King James where the KJV was not understandable to modern readers, or where more accurate meanings of biblical words had been discovered. But with the passage under discussion (and others I could show), they simply eliminated a perfectly understandable phrase and replaced it with one of their own invention. So they weren’t just aiming at better clarity for the modern reader; they were reducing poetical, biblical language to flat, modern, prosaic language, stripping the Bible’s text of meaning because that meaning was considered too “high” for modern people.

Alan Roebuck writes:

How about the English Standard Version, which renders Mark 4:21 as :

And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand?

The ESV was published in 2001, so it’s even newer than the NIV.

Then there’s “The Message,” which gives Mark 4:21 as

Jesus went on: “Does anyone bring a lamp home and put it under a washtub or beneath the bed? Don’t you put it up on a table or on the mantel?

“The Message” is acknowledged to be a paraphrase, not a translation, but many people treat it like a Bible.

LA replies:

The ESV is ok, but what exactly is a “stand?” Yes, it’s something on which a lamp is set. But the word does not convey a clear image. The larger problem is, there’s not enough contrast between “under a basket, or under a bed” and “on a stand.” The translation is not bad, but it lacks vividness.

Samson J. writes:

I can’t agree with you, Lawrence, about the NIV. I read the opening post and thought, “Um, I don’t get it.”

Needless to say, like most of your contributors I am far from uneducated, but the King James Bible, like Shakespeare, is unreadable to me. I have never found the modern translations to be lifeless, and in fact I have a great fondness for the CEV.

The example you use, of Psalm 17:10, makes my point, as far as I’m concerned. “They are enclosed in their own fat”? That is meaningless to a modern English speaker.

LA replies:

This is what you’re saying:

“I, Samson, have very limited reading comprehension. Though I am far from uneducated, I have no ability to understand metaphorical or poetical language. Even fairly simple poetic imagery is opaque to me. The most important writer in our language, Shakespeare, is incomprehensible and unreadable to me. The most important and most widely read book in the English language, the King James Bible, is incomprehensible and unreadable to me. I am not embarrassed by this fact, I boast of it. In fact, I believe that the standards of our culture and literature should be organized around people like me with limited reading comprehension. I, with my defective abilities, should be the standard on which our culture, literature, and education are based.”

In effect, your argument is an argument for our culture to be dragged down to the lowest level, in order to accommodate the least capable among us.

Obviously I disagree. A high and vital culture is not built and maintained by accommodating people with defective abilities and making them the standard. People with good abilities are the standard.

Sure, there can be simplified Bibles for people with no ability to understand metaphorical and other difficult language, just as there are simplified Bibles published for children. But if such people become the norm and standard, then our culture is dead and we should recognize that fact.

D. Edwards writes:

Samson J. wrote:

The example you use, of Psalm 17:10, makes my point, as far as I’m concerned. “They are enclosed in their own fat”? That is meaningless to a modern English speaker.

I think the term “fathead” suggests something similar.

June 4

Warren N. writes:

I hate to disappoint you, but I also find the KJB and Shakespeare difficult to read. :(

Perhaps I’m too “left brain” dominant!

LA replies:

Well, of course. I too find much of the KJB and Shakespeare difficult to read. Many Shakespeare plays are almost impenetrable, filled with words that have to be looked up. His better known plays, though, are easier. Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, these and others are quite readable, and you only need the footnotes for an occasional word.

The narrative parts of the King James can be heavy going, and the Epistles of Paul (difficult in any translation) are rough, and modern translations such as the Revised Standard help with those. However, the more poetical parts of the King James, particularly Chapter 1 of Genesis, Psalms, and the Gospels, are unmatched. Any person who reads the Bible regularly needs several translations at hand.

Samson J. writes:

I admit it: I have limited reading comprehension in a foreign dialect, which 17th century English is. I have trouble with Haitian Creole, too, despite my reasonable fluency in French.

Of course obscure passages are not really meaningless if you know the meaning, but I maintain that in context, to a person reading through Psalm 17 without any aids, the KJV “fat” verse is fairly opaque. Look at it!

Hear the right, O Lord, attend unto my cry, give ear unto my prayer, that goeth not out of feigned lips. Let my sentence come forth from thy presence; let thine eyes behold the things that are equal.

Thou hast proved mine heart; thou hast visited me in the night; thou hast tried me, and shalt find nothing; I am purposed that my mouth shall not transgress. Concerning the works of men, by the word of thy lips I have kept me from the paths of the destroyer. Hold up my goings in thy paths, that my footsteps slip not.

I have called upon thee, for thou wilt hear me, O God: incline thine ear unto me, and hear my speech. Shew thy marvellous loving kindness, O thou that savest by thy right hand them which put their trust in thee from those that rise up against them.

Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings, From the wicked that oppress me, from my deadly enemies, who compass me about.

They are inclosed in their own fat: with their mouth they speak proudly. They have now compassed us in our steps: they have set their eyes bowing down to the earth; Like as a lion that is greedy of his prey, and as it were a young lion lurking in secret places.

Arise, O Lord, disappoint him, cast him down: deliver my soul from the wicked, which is thy sword: From men which are thy hand, O Lord, from men of the world, which have their portion in this life, and whose belly thou fillest with thy hid treasure: they are full of children, and leave the rest of their substance to their babes.

As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.

If my Bible study group were reading this, we would all be scratching our heads, saying, “Enclosed in their fat? What does that mean? Anyone got a commentary?”

Really, Lawrence, you are sounding to me like defenders of modern abstract art who think that the harder a piece is to understand, the “better” it is. I would prefer that scripture be accessible to everyone, and as clear as possible, even at the risk of sounding “wooden”. In the end, I think this is about personal preference: you believe the KJV’s high prose makes it feel richer and more majestic; I find that the modern translations make the text feel more “real” to me, and consequently the themes underlying the text are easier to absorb (as I said, I particularly like the CEV for this).

Are you going to tell me that at root, my view on the issue is liberal because I think personal preference and personal experience are paramount?

LA replies:

I objected to your original comment because instead of showing any awareness that it is your own reading comprehension that is defective and in need of improvement, you made your defect the standard.

And in your follow-up you once again admit, or rather proudly insist on, your complete inability to understand a metaphor, and a not terribly difficult metaphor at that. So you are saying that you want a Bible that is stripped of all metaphor, all images. Since much of the Jewish scriptures as well as much of the Gospels (not to mention the Book of Revelation) conveys ideas by means of imagery and metaphor, you are saying that the Bible—not just the King James Version, but the Bible itself—is beyond you and must be re-written and bowdlerized for your sake.

As for whether your view is liberal, you said it. Instead of believing in a culture that upholds high standards to which people can and should aspire, you want the greatest things in our civilization to be lowered for the sake of people with lesser abilities and lower standards, people who don’t aspire to be anything better than what they are at this moment. This is what Ortega y Gassett called The Revolt of the Masses.

Again, I am not insisting that people should only read the King James. I’ve admitted its difficulties and flaws, which are many, and said that a variety of translations is needed. You are the one who insists that everything conform to your unsatisfactory level of reading comprehension and your lack of aspiration to anything higher.

A reader writes:

I’m not sympathetic to the position of people who claim they find Shakespeare and the KJV unreadable. They should make the effort as people do in all sorts of things, e.g., computer languages, filling out a tax return, setting up a PC or an iPhone, to acquire facility in reading these texts.

The problem is that I don’t know how to defend my position. An ability to read Shakespeare and the KJV ought to be the goal of education of primary and secondary education, but I can’t think of a way to explain it. It’s hard to defend the important things. That, I think, is why the NIV and all those other nouveau translations exist.

M. Jose writes:

I think that the King James Version is probably the best to read for an in-depth analysis (preferably with a commentary that expounds on the syntax, grammar, and definitions of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words in the original texts and early translations [e.g. the Septuagint]).

However, it does not make a good introductory Bible. That is, the first time you read a passage of any length from the Bible, it’s probably good to read it in a more modern translation. That’s because the difficulty of the language is likely to interrupt the narrative. It would be very hard to understand the story of Samuel if every other line you have to look something up to find out what it means. It’s only after you have the bigger picture, I think, that you can fully appreciate the in-depth study for which the King James is best, because you already understand where each passage “fits in.”

LA replies:

As I’ve said, for narrative sections, modern translations may be better—certainly, as Mr. Jose indicates, for a first time reading. The first time I read the Jewish scriptures through from Genesis through Second Kings and then the major prophets, it was in the Jewish Publication Society translation from the 1960s, which I found readable and understandable. (However, the later versions of the JPS translation became odd, for example, using bureaucratic-sounding language to describe God’s commands to the Hebrews, and I wouldn’t recommend them.)

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 02, 2012 07:02 PM | Send

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