The Art of Translation

A fascinating essay in the New York Review of Books chronicles the creation of the King James Bible, which just celebrated its 400th anniversary. The article by Robert Pogue Harrison is subscriber only, but I will provide a short excerpt here, which I think is particularly applicable to the debate over the new Mass translation:

Fifty-four men—among them the best biblical scholars and linguists in England—were put in charge of the project. At least forty-seven of them took active part in the work, which began in 1604 and concluded in 1611.


The great virtue of that translation committee was its determination not to undertake an entirely new translation but rather “to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.” With all the previous English versions at their disposal, they did not disdain to consult, adopt, or adapt whatever they deemed worthy from the previous translations. The result of their judicious work of appropriation and revision was a version that did indeed make “one principal good one” out of the many good Bibles that had come before.

I will offer just one example of how the King James Bible made many good translations even better. Here is Tyndale’s version (in our modern spelling) of the famous definition of faith that occurs in the first verse of chapter 11 of the pseudo-Pauline Letter to the Hebrews (“pseudo-Pauline” because Paul was not in fact its author):

Faith is the sure confidence of things, which are hoped for, & a certainty of things which are not seen.

The Geneva Bible version:

Now faith is the ground of things, which are hoped for, and the evidence of things which are not seen.

The 1611 King James Version:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

The King James Version both retrieves and improves on its predecessors in two ways. By eliminating the words “which are”—which occur twice in the earlier versions—it gives a much cleaner and poetically compact rendition of the verse. Tyndale’s “sure confidence” is a very loose translation of the Greek hypostasis, which means literally “standing under” (hypo, under + histasthai, stand, middle voice of histanai, cause to stand). The Geneva version’s “ground” is a much closer approximation, yet the KJB‘s choice of “substance” is brilliant. Not only does “substance” mean literally “standing under,” it also comes with a host of religious associations and connotations—especially in the context of the Reformation’s vexed debates about the “transubstantiation” of the Eucharistic wafer by the priest during Mass.

Meanwhile the KJB retains the Geneva Bible’s “evidence,” an English word that stretches the meaning of the Greek elenchus, to be sure (elenchus means, among other things, refutation of an argument by proving the contrary of its conclusion), yet the word “evidence” preserves, if only latently, the dynamic interplay between proof and refutation in the context of a definition of faith. Faith is the evidence of a truth that faith cannot show to be true, since it cannot be seen in the demonstrative mode. In that respect it is the evidence of what can neither be proved nor refuted by what Paul, in the passage cited from I Corinthians, calls “the wisdom of the wise” and the “understanding of the prudent.”

The King James Bible is widely considered to be one the finest works in the English language; so there is no disputing there are lessons to be learned from its creation. Two ideas here are worth emphasizing. First, that there is great virtue in "clean and poetically compact" prose. I am afraid the new Mass translation fails in many respects on this score. Second, translation can in fact improve and sometimes add new layers to the original text, as demonstrated by the example of the word "evidence." As an editor and writer, I have no doubt that the English language could in many ways build upon the original Latin of the Mass, rather than simply mimic it. The art of translation is a subtle one. Perhaps we as a church need to have further conversation about how that art can best be used to aid our prayer life.

Tim Reidy

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