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.
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.
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.