Inside take on a Folger, Bodleian, and Ransom Center exhibition on the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

Posts tagged “Bible translation

The Translator’s Dilemma, or How DO You Say That in English?

Pastor Earl Steffens, Manifold Greatness lecture

Pastor Earl Steffens, Manifold Greatness lecture

The Manifold Greatness exhibit provides a great deal of information about how the King James Bible came into being. We are told that the translators were instructed to work from the wording used by the Bishops’ Bible (1568), unless the wording used in the Coverdale or Geneva Bibles, for example, was judged to be closer to what the older Greek and Hebrew texts intended. It seems at first as though it would be easy enough to determine which translation was more accurate and arrive at a Bible that ticked all the boxes for the various interested parties.

On Thursday, May 2, Pastor Earl Steffens, pastor of Peace Lutheran Church, gave a presentation he called The Translator’s Dilemma or How DO you say that in English? The lecture outlined the problems that Biblical translators through the ages have had when attempting to either make a new translation of a Bible from “original” sources, or to translate a Bible from one language to another.

Plantin Polyglot Bible, multiple languages, 1568-1572. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

Plantin Polyglot Bible (includes Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, Aramaic, and Latin), 1568-1572. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

What is the most basic problem for people attempting a new translation?  Having to decide which documents to use as a basis for that translation. Which of the texts in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin are the closest to what the original authors actually wrote? The primary documents, called autographs, are long gone. All that is left are copies. And copies of copies. And copies, of copies, of copies. Needless to say, there are plenty of discrepancies between various copies of the scriptures that have come down to us. A good translator looks at all the variations on the text and decides what is the most likely original wording and meaning—in an ideal world, without tinting that decision with political or theological agendas.

George Abbot, a King James Bible translator (detail). (c) University College, Oxford.

George Abbot, a King James Bible translator. (c) University College, Oxford.

The second problem for a translator is “How DO I say that in …”—how to convey, as closely as possible, what the original author of the text intended. Word for word translations are stilted and awkward. Pastor Steffens used the example of the three words that Greek authors use for three completely different kinds of love and how, in order for English speakers to understand the difference between them, translators use phrases to clarify the meaning.  And, of course, translators want the result to sound good, to convey the correct meaning, and to be relevant to the intended audience. Translation is more of an art than a science.

The audience asked some great questions.There was some discussion of how oral tradition might have impacted translation—it seems quite possible that, if you had heard a Bible story one way all your life, you might add bits of the story as you know it to your copy of the text as you sat in the scriptorium scribbling away. There was also some discussion of the merits of various English translations, with the King James Bible being the hands-down favorite of a number of the participants.

Vickie Horst is the Manager of Tifton-Tift County Public Library in Tifton, Georgia.

To learn more about the Plantin Polygot Bible shown above, consult the Early Bibles image gallery; you can learn more about George Abbot (above) and other King James Bible translators in our Meet the Translators online feature.


Three New Looks at Manifold Greatness

Manifold Greatness banner

Tifton Museum, Tifton, Georgia

Looking for a new way to explore the King James Bible and its history and influence? As Manifold Greatness opens at a trio of new locations, all three continue the traveling exhibit’s growing tradition of impressive—and highly varied—programming (scroll down for a look at some standout events at our most recent host sites, as well):

Today, April 17, marks the opening of Manifold Greatness at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, including a convocation by Professor Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Tomorrow, April 18, Centre presents a talk by Amos Tubb, associate professor of history, on “The History of Publishing in England and the King James Translation,” with several more lectures in the weeks ahead.

Or, you could visit the Renaissance. This Saturday, April 20, the Tifton Museum and the Tifton-Tift Public Library in Tifton, Georgia, welcome Manifold Greatness with a “Renaissance Faire in Library Lane,” including period crafts and foods, weapons and armor displays, and a look at Manifold Greatness! Upcoming Tifton events (same link) include a multimedia presentation by Dr. Brian Ray, a family quarto-making event, a talk by Reverend Earl Steffens on “the translator’s dilemma,” and a family Bible workshop featuring some of the jewels of Emory University’s Bible collection.

Scott Fisk on letterpress printing

Scott Fisk on letterpress printing, Tuscaloosa

On Monday, April 22, Manifold Greatness opens in Bel Air, Maryland, at the Hays-Heighe House on the Harford Community College campus. An event-filled opening includes a talk by religion and philosophy professor Gary Owens on “Catholicism, Protestantism, Blood, Guts, Ink, and the King James Bible” and theatrical readings from Shakespeare and the Bible. Hays-Heighe House has extended its regular hours throughout the Manifold Greatness run and more talks, readings, and a salon are planned.

But for just a moment before we embark with enthusiasm on these new events, we’d like to bid farewell to the most recent Manifold Greatness host libraries, too, whose doings you’ve been reading about on this blog thanks to their writing and photography:

  • Cameron Village Regional Library in Raleigh, North Carolina, mounted a Scottish-themed opening, followed in subsequent days by a family Bibles workshop, a talk on the Bible in Art, and a closing lecture on Bible translation.
  • Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Missouri, kicked off the exhibit with a presentation a “best-seller like no other,” then followed up with talks on Shakespeare, Blake, and the Bible, and on American literature and the King James Bible. They concluded with a delicious-sounding Last Feast exploring foods of biblical times and the King James Bible era.
  • Tuscaloosa Public Library began Manifold Greatness with a family-friendly opening event that included pen and ink crafts and a talk on early Bible translator William Tyndale. The library offered its own curated displays on  books and printing and held public events that included a letterpress printing lecture and demonstration and more.

Talking About “The Book That Changed the World”

The Rev. Dr. Charles Sumners. Image courtesy Pikes Peak Library District.

Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado Springs, CO planned an ambitious month of programming to celebrate Manifold Greatness. Our events were varied, including a concert, lectures, public discussions, and several film screenings built around KJB: The Book That Changed the WorldThis dramatized documentary by actor John Rhys-Davies retraces the history of the King James Bible.  

The first screening brought so many people that we couldn’t fit them in our largest community room. We quickly realized that the demand for this programming was higher than we had anticipated. We asked our local city-run senior center and faith-based organizations to lend us space and technical assistance for additional screenings, which we ran through the month of June.  

Some of our Manifold Greatness scholars hit the road with us and facilitated lively public talks directly following each screening.  The Reverend Dr. Charles A. Summers (retired) led two programs that featured films and discussions about the King James Bible.

“Even though the KJB is specifically part of my heritage as an Anglican/Episcopal priest, I was glad we could utilize resources from other faith groups to understand its history,” he commented.

Audiences actively participated in programming around KJB – the Book that Changed the World, including a recitation from memory of the King James Bible version of the Twenty-third Psalm while it was read aloud.

“They were surprised that they could do it but then commented that it was almost subliminal,” Sumners said.

Other interactive activities included discussions about the process of Bible translation in general, and the process of creating a documentary about the Bible.  

The Reverend Dr. Charles A. Summers received his B.A. from Davidson College, earned his Master of Divinity degree from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary in Kentucky, and his Doctor of Ministry degree from Columbia Presbyterian Seminary in Atlanta, GA. He did post-graduate work in Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.  Rev. Sumners is also an accomplished producer of Christian and secular documentaries for over 35 years.  

 Dr. Scott Munger also offered a humanities perspective on the King James Bible. He was the topic of an earlier post.

We are sharing our experiences in the hope that other communities hosting Manifold Greatness can use it to enhance their celebrations while the exhibit is on display in their cities.

Rachel Stovall is a Community Relations Specialist at Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado Springs, CO.


Going Global

Dr. Scott Munger. Courtesy Pikes Peak Library District.

Dr. Scott Munger is culturally adventuresome Biblical translator who has overseen Bible translation work in some 40 languages around the world. That international experience helps provide a unique perspective on American religious, social, and political life. Scott is currently Vice President of Biblica, the producer of The Holy Bible: The New International Version. He and his family—wife, children, and grandchildren—now live in Colorado.

Here is an interview that Pikes Peak Library District, currently hosting the Manifold Greatness traveling exhibition,  recently conducted with Dr. Munger about Bible translation.

Question: How do you feel about the King James Version of the Bible? 
Answer: I treasure and revere it like I would a famous ancestor—but one who lived in a different age and time.

Question: Biblica has created the NIV translation of the Hebrew Bible. How did the Biblica processes differ from the processes of King James Version translators’?
Answer:  The processes are remarkably similar. Both began with the call for a fresh translation, both were supported by dedicated people from various Christian denominations, and both were undertaken as a group project.

Question: Did that involve translating from the original languages of the Bible?
Answer: Yes, the KJV and the NIV are each done from the languages of the original biblical texts: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Likewise, translators of both versions considered history and tradition (e.g., the KJV relied a great deal upon the work of William Tyndale, killed in 1536), but they also considered present and future needs. And most important, the translators of the KJV and NIV tried to represent the Word of God in the language of their day, that is, with vocabulary and style that would speak to the hearts of their contemporaries.

Question: We know that 48 translators worked on the King James Bible of 1611.  How many translators did it take to come to the NIV version that Biblica publishes now?
Answer: The Committee on Bible Translation is an independent group of 15 scholars from many Christian denominations. The CBT determines the NIV text. But their work builds upon the efforts of over 100 original contributors. Unlike the KJV, the NIV is a “green” text. During the half century since its original conception, thousands of helpful suggestions from readers and scholars worldwide have made the NIV translation what it is today.

Question: What goals did the Biblica translators have while translating the Bible?
Answer: The NIV’s goal, similar to that sought by the KJV, is to create a balance, designed for “the best possible blend of transparency to the original documents and comprehension of the original meaning” (www.niv-cbt.org).

Question: With its soaring language, the King James Bible is very poetic. Do you think that some of the translations today lose the beauty of that poetic edge?
Answer: Beauty is hard to define, and is often in the eye of the beholder. When it comes to language, beauty of both form and content must be considered. A skillfully worded poem about the glories of a microwave meal will never win a Pulitzer. The real, inner beauty of the KJV comes from its content. Note the last two verses of Psalm 23, below, the first from the KJV and the second from the NIV.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. (KJV)

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (NIV)

Modern people are often charmed by older forms of language. The KJV’s “… est” and “… eth” caress our ears. But we need to consider that what sounds quaint to us was common to people in 16th and 17th century England.

Question: With so many new translations available, is the King James Version still important and relevant today?
Answer: The KJV endures as a testimony and example not only of great Bible translation and great English, but of great thought. The former is due to the heart of those who undertook the translation. But the thoughts they conveyed are those of the original authors, men and women—inspired, I believe, by a gracious God—all of them now considered world-renowned prophets, rulers, poets, and reformers.

Rachel Stovall is a Community Relations Specialist at Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado Springs, CO.


Q and A With Bible Translator Robert Alter

The Holy Bible, conteyning the Old Testament, and the New: newly translated out of the originall tongues: & with the former translations diligently compared and revised, by his Majesties speciall commandement. Appointed to be read in churches. London, 1611. New Testament internal title page. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Last week, Dr. Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew language and comparative literature, spoke at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas on translating scripture and the influence of the King James Bible. This interview originally appeared on the Harry Ransom Center’s Cultural Compass blog.

In several interviews you have stated that you appreciate the King James Version. You have also created your own translations of many books of the Hebrew Bible. Are your goals in translating different from  the King James Version translators’?

For me, the power of the Hebrew Bible is inseparable from its stylistic virtuosity—its strong, compact rhythms; its expressive use of syntax; the subtlety and liveliness of its dialogue; the fine precision of its word-choices; the purposeful shifts of levels of diction. Though the King James Version often has its own stylistic beauty (though not as consistently as people tend to remember), the 1611 translators paid attention to none of these considerations and probably were unaware of most of them. Their goal was to provide as exact an equivalent as they could, according to their own understanding, of each word in the original. I share their commitment to a certain literalism but as part of a tight weave of stylistic effects in the Hebrew.

In your book Pen of Iron you examine the influence of the King James Bible on famous American writers such as William Faulkner and Herman Melville. Do you see the same influence in the work of any contemporary American writers?

Fewer American writers now, for rather obvious cultural reasons, are drawing on the King James Version, but its influence has far from disappeared. Two contemporary novelists I discuss in Pen of Iron who reflect the language of the King James Bible are Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy. Another is the late Barry Hannah.

With so many new translations available, is the King James Version still important and relevant today?

Translations that cast the Bible in up-to-the-minute American English are definitely cutting into the constituency of the King James Version because they are easier to read and seem more “accessible.” My own sense is that such translations lack any literary grace and distort the feeling and the meaning of the Bible. Though we are distanced from the 1611 version now because of its archaic language, its beauty is undiminished, and I think it will always have readers as a great literary achievement that altered the course of the English language.

Kelsey McKinney is an undergraduate intern at the Harry Ransom Center and a regular contributor to the Cultural Compass blog. The King James Bible: Its History and Influence, a companion exhibition to Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible, is on view at the Ransom Center until July 29, 2012.


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