". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Bible Translations

I love the King James Bible. Maybe it is due to my general interest in language and literature and my particular affection for the English Renaissance--I also love Milton and Shakespeare and Donne--but I find the language of the KJV simply beautiful to read. If I am going to Sunday School or engaging in more in-depth study, I pull out my NIV (New International Version) because I have a study edition containing a multiplicity of footnotes and explanatory material. But if I simply want to read for the sake of splashing around in God's glorious word, there is nothing like the KJV for pure beauty of language. I know there are translations that are supposed to be easier to understand and more faithful to the original text (such as the new English Standard Version, or ESV), but there are just so many Bible passages that seem to lose something when I read them in a translation other than King James.

For example, in my Christmas Day post the King James translation was a no-brainer. As I compare it to the ESV, here is one notable contrast:

"And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. . . . He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. He came unto His own, and His own received him not." (John 1: 5, 10-11, KJV)

Here's the same passage in ESV:

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . . He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him."

There are several things I like better about the King James version. For one, it has fewer words (and in my English teacher world, if you can say the same thing with fewer words you should). Second, I prefer the word "comprehended" to "overcome" because it seems to better capture the total emptiness and desolation of the darkness as well as the utter inability of that darkness to see or understand the light of Christ. And this reflects my Lutheran belief in the sinner's helplessness to come to Christ on his or her own. Finally, I love the parallelism as well as the emphasis that results from the multiple uses of "not" as the final word in the sentence: ". . . the darkness comprehended it not . . . the world knew him not . . . His own received Him not." The sinner is again well reminded of his hopeless condition and his natural inclination to say "no" to his Savior.

Another example of why I love the KJV can be found in one of the table prayers our family likes to use at mealtimes. (I have previously written about our mealtime custom here. ) The prayer is from Psalm 145 (verses 15 & 16) and is the one included in Luther's Small Catechism for asking a blessing before eating. Here it is in the King James translation:

"The eyes of all wait upon Thee, [O Lord,] and Thou givest them their meat in due season. Thou openest Thine hand and satisfiest the desire of every living thing."

Here's the same text from the NIV:

"The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing."

From the ESV:

"The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing."

The Living Bible:

"The eyes of all mankind look up to you for help; you give them their food as they need it. You constantly satisfy the hunger and thirst of every living thing."

And The Good News Bible (yes, I even have one of those on my shelf):

"All living things look hopefully to you, and you give them food when they need it. You give them enough and satisfy the needs of all."

All I can say about the Good News version is yuck. The word "hopefully" suggests to me not faith or trust but doubt (we hope God will provide, but we aren't sure).

The NIV is in my opinion also lacking. "Food at the proper time" just sounds so clinical--kind of like we're patients in a hospital bed waiting for the orderly to come around with our lunch trays--whereas "due season" suggests our Lord's provision for us in all things. Notice, too, that both the Good News and NIV versions speak of God satisfying needs and desires (plural), whereas the ESV and KJV turn the plural into a singular (desire). To me that is an acknowledgment that human beings truly need only one thing to be satisfied, and that is the salvation of their Lord Jesus Christ.

The ESV is quite similar to the KJV in vocabulary and phrasing, but I still like the KJV better. Eyes that "look" seem to me to be more active, whereas eyes that "wait upon" are totally passive and dependent upon God to act. And the word "meat" seems to better symbolize that the prayer is speaking not just of physical food but of all that is essential to the life of the believer.

The ESV is the translation officially appointed for use by my church body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. In time an ESV Study Bible will probably replace my NIV. But for me nothing will ever replace the KJV, which has well served the Church for almost 400 years and which I predict will continue to do so for many more years even as other translations may come and go.

1 comment:

elephantschild said...

I love the ESV. I grew up with the RSV, before I knew there were some issues with it, and the move to the ESV has been comfortable for me.

I find that the KJV, like Shakespeare, has to be read outloud. For private study, I do find the language, beautiful as it is, gets in the way of following the text. (My attention span ain't what it used to be.)

That shouldn't be taken to mean that I endorse dreadful things like The Message:

"All eyes are on you, expectant; you give them their meals on time. Generous to a fault, you lavish your favor on all creatures."

(Ducking and running....)