From Darkness to Light? The Trouble with Contemporary Translations

Advocates of new, contemporary “translations,” or rather, more often, paraphrases of the Bible insist that Scripture must speak with a fresh and authentic voice to each generation, in plain language readily understandable to its readers. After all, they point out, when the Bible was originally written, it was written in a contemporary idiom, in the way that normal people would’ve written and spoken in its time.  It wasn’t written, we are told, in a deliberately grand, archaic, dignified style that would make it feel more “holy” and Word-of-God-ish, which, frankly, is part of the appeal of the widespread enduring appeal of the KJV.  Indeed, such stilted language blunts the force of Scripture, lolling us into a sort of false comfort with the familiar rhythms and lofty-sounding thoughts, instead of allowing ourselves be jolted awake by its uncomfortable, real-world message.  

Now the fact is that these arguments, at least when applied to many parts of Scripture, have real force.  When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he spoke using normal vocabulary and idioms, the normal patterns of everyday speech.  He didn’t adopt a style that was four centuries old, or intone as if he was dictating a theological tome.  But many of us, I think, have trouble taking these arguments seriously, and tend to harbor a deep bias against any translation that adopts more contemporary language or a more paraphrasing approach–at any rate, I generally have.  The following passage, I think, encapsulates why many serious Bible-readers recoil from the very thought of a “contemporary translation”:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

For those who lived in a land of deep shadows— light! sunbursts of light!

You repopulated the nation, you expanded its joy.

Oh, they’re so glad in your presence!  Festival joy!

The joy of a great celebration, sharing rich gifts and warm greetings.

The abuse of oppressors and cruelty of tyrants—all their whips and cudgels and curses—

Is gone, done away with, a deliverance as surprising and sudden as Gideon’s old victory over Midian.

The boots of all those invading troops, along with their shirts soaked with innocent blood,

Will be piled in a heap and burned, a fire that will burn for days!

For a child has been born—for us! the gift of a son—for us!

He’ll take over the running of the world.

His names will be: Amazing Counselor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness.

His ruling authority will grow, and there’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings.

He’ll rule from the historic David throne over that promised kingdom.

He’ll put that kingdom on a firm footing and keep it going

With fair dealing and right living, beginning now and lasting always.

The zeal of God-of-the-Angel-Armies will do all this.

This is surely a travesty if there ever was one.  At the beginning, it’s almost tolerable, though “sunbursts of light!” certainly strikes a bad note.  But once you get to “He’ll take over the running of the world” in place of “and the government shall be upon his shoulder” and “He’ll put that kingdom on a firm footing and keep it going with fair dealing and right living” in place of “to establish it and uphold it with justice and with righteousness,” it’s hard not to be writhing in aesthetic agony.  

 

The problem here of course is that it’s not true that the whole Bible is written at the level of plain speech–far from it.  Much is written at the level of high poetry, and Isaiah is among some of the richest and highest of all.  I suppose that someone determined to translate Scripture into contemporary idiom, so that it would strike us the way it struck the Hebrews, might attempt to render Isaiah in the form of really excellent contemporary poetic style, but I guarantee you that whatever that style might look like, this is not it.  The form as well as the content of Scripture matters, and indeed, this is the strongest argument in favor of a more contemporary translation–the argument that the “form” of overly formal, archaic speech betrays those parts of Scripture that are written in pedestrian, almost conversational prose.  But here, the form of high poetry is utterly dissolved into the anti-rhythms of casual speech.  

In the process, words that are to our cultural consciousness pregnant with meaning (indeed, meaning in many cases largely given to them by centuries of being steeped in their Scriptural usage), are chucked out the window in favor of vapid and banal pseudo-equivalents.  E.g. “fair dealing” in place of “justice”; “right living” in place of “righteousness” and “keep it going” in place of “uphold.”  In one case, Peterson has attempted to actually capture richer shades of meaning in his word choice, attempting to be more faithful to the Hebrew original—in his translation of shalom as “wholeness.”  But how is this an improvement on “peace”?  Even in contemporary usage, “peace” has not quite become a flat term; it is still imbued with great depths of longing and hope, a term onto which we project all kinds of ideals.  In its canonical context, the resonances are profound.  “Wholeness” might possibly, in terms of pure denotation, capture more, but it certainly cannot in terms of connotation.

 

While The Message might be enough to turn off even an advocate of contemporary translations, N.T. Wright’s recent The New Testament for Everyone (or, in North America, The Kingdom New Testament), is enough to win over its staunchest opponents.  For Wright is committed to working with the grain of the text—that is to say, adopting casual and pedestrian speech when the original Greek would’ve been casual and pedestrian to its original hearers—not forcing lofty language down to the lowest common denominator.  The result is that the words of Jesus spring to life in delightfully fresh new ways—suddenly we hear the voice of a man, of one of us, and are struck as his original hearers would’ve been with the incongruity between his appearance and the authority and profundity of what he had to say.  Wright is also committed of course to capturing the full theological nuance of the text, in a way that most contemporary translations rarely seem to be.  The following passage (chosen almost at random), Luke 12:22-32, highlights the virtues of Wright’s method: 

“So let me tell you this,” he said to the disciples.  “Don’t be anxious about your life—what you should eat; or about your body—what you should wear.  Life is more than food!  The body is more than clothing!  Think about the ravens: they don’t sow seed, they don’t gather harvests, they don’t have storehouses or barns; and God feeds them.  How much more will he feed you!  Think of the difference between yourselves and the birds! 

Which of you by being anxious can add a day to your lifetime?  So if you can’t even do a little thing like that, why worry about anything else?  Think about the lilies and the way they grow.  They don’t work hard, they don’t weave cloth; but, let me tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory was dressed up like one of them.  So if that’s how God clothes the grass in the field—here today, into the fire tomorrow—how much more will he clothe you, you little-faith lot!

So don’t you go hunting about for what to eat or what to drink, and don’t be anxious.  The nations of the world go searching for all that stuff, and your father knows you need it.  This is what you should search for: God’s kingdom!  Then all the rest will be given you as well.  Don’t be afraid, little flock.  Your father is delighted to give you the kingdom.”

It’s hard to see, really, what more an advocate of contemporary translations could ask for.  This is eminently clear and accessible, it’s fresh and authentic.  Jesus really comes to life in this version, but he still seems like Jesus, like a teacher who spoke as one having authority, and not like some dude off the streets.  And all of the theological content of his words is completely preserved, even amplified.  Contrast this again to The Message, which feels the need to go much further in its search for authenticity and accessibility, to the detriment of both in my opinion: 

“He continued this subject with his disciples. “Don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your inner life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the ravens, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, carefree in the care of God. And you count far more.

Has anyone by fussing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can’t even do that, why fuss at all? Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t fuss with their appearance—but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you?

What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.”

3 thoughts on “From Darkness to Light? The Trouble with Contemporary Translations

  1. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks for the link, Lue-Yee—that's exactly the sort of thing I would like to see translators trying to do more. I think that N.T. Wright captures some of those style variations in his translation (though not nearly as dramatically as that), but I haven't read enough of it to say for sure.

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