INTERPRETING THE WORD
APRIL 4, 1996
This is a week when Jews and Christians alike turn to scripture to explore the mysteries of their faith, but which version of the scriptures, which translation will be read? More than 40 versions are now available, the largest number in history. Elizabeth Farnsworth talks to four Biblical translators about their differing translations of the holy book.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: To explore this phenomenon and to talk about the enduring popularity of the Bible, we turn now to three translators and a novelist; Everett Fox's translation of the first five books of the Old Testament, The Five Books of Moses, attempts to restore the rhetoric and poetics of the Hebrew original, Fox is director of the Jewish Studies Program at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts; Reverend Susan Thistlethwaite is one of a group of translators who have produced The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version--this work replaces gender specific words like God the Father with more inclusive language--Ms. Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and Culture at Chicago Theological Seminary; Reverence Barclay Newman headed the group of translators of the American Bible Society who produced the contemporary English version, a simplified rendition meant to be readily understandable [Holy Bible: Contemporary English Version], a Baptist minister, Reverend Newman is senior translation officer of the American Bible Society; and Reverend Walter Wangerin is author of The Book of God: The Bible as a Novel, which interprets the Bible as a single narrative from Abraham to the birth of Christianity, a Lutheran minister, Reverend Wangerin is Professor of English and Theology at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Welcome to you all. Dr. Fox, your translation is something of a return to the original Hebrew. Why did you want to do this? What was lost, in your view, in the translations to English that exist?
EVERETT FOX, Clark University: (Boston) Well, I felt that a good deal was lost in terms of the rhetoric, the connections between words and passages, the wonderful flow of the language, the imagery, and the illusions back and forth between stories. So I felt there was a richness in the original that we somehow lose in English.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why had it been lost? What had happened in those translations?
EVERETT FOX: Well, for one thing, the goal of translation has often been to make the original sound, to make the text sound as if it is written in English, preferably contemporary English, and so it's like taking the ancient, the ancient ideas and bringing them into our world and clothing them in our own thoughts. And I really wanted to, to move back toward the ancient thoughts and give them an opportunity to speak.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Read something for us, would you?
EVERETT FOX: The, the opening lines of Genesis, indeed, of the whole Bible: "At the beginning of God's creation of the heavens and the earth, when the heart was wild and waste, darkness over the face of the ocean, rushing spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters, God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light. God saw the light, that it was good. God separated between the light and the darkness. God called the light day and the darkness He called night. There was setting, there was dawning one day."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. I'm looking at the King James Version. The first thing that really strikes me is "And the earth was without form and void."
EVERETT FOX: Yeah.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why do you like this other version, your version, better?
EVERETT FOX: Well, the Hebrew uses some unusual words which rhyme, tohoo a vohoo, and it seems to me that the intent there, at least a possible intent is to try and portray in sound an idea which is very hard to convey in mere words the primeval chaos at the beginning of creation, and so I attempted through wild and waste to evoke some of that sound and some of that mystery.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We'll be back with you in a minute. Rev. Thistlethwaite, your translation is called an inclusive version. What does that mean?
SUSAN THISTLETHWAITE, Chicago Theological Survey: (Chicago) Inclusivity is the attempt to render in any way that is consistent with the original meaning of the Greek or the Hebrew the most inclusive language that we can possibly offer. So instead of saying mankind or man, et cetera, as a generic, we use human being, human one, uh, person, and so forth. So inclusivity, though, is not only limited to human beings. We also try to look at ways in which texts have been misunderstood or misused in order to, uh, do actual harm to people and to, umm, apparently exclude them from the realm of God.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For example, in the treatment of Jews in the New Testament?
SUSAN THISTLETHWAITE: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you want to read something about that?
SUSAN THISTLETHWAITE: Yes, I do. I thought since it was Holy Week, I would read this passage which is about when Jesus is brought before Pilate. "Pilate went out again and said to the crowd, 'Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.' So Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, 'Here is the man.' When the chief priest and the police saw Jesus, they shouted, 'Crucify, crucify!' Pilate said to them, 'Take him yourselves and crucify him. I find no case against him.' The religious authorities answered Pilate, 'We have a law, and according to that law, he ought to die because he has claimed to be the child of God.'"
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you used religious authorities instead of the King James says, "The Jews answered him, 'We have a law.'"
SUSAN THISTLETHWAITE: This is correct, and, you know, what modern Christians forget is that these are in composing these texts, this is an intra-Jewish conflict--some people who are Jewish seeing Jesus as the Messiah; others who are also Jewish saying, this is not the Messiah. So they disagree. And those who opposed identifying Jesus as the Messiah were mostly the temple priests and so forth, as it says in the text, and we render that the religious authorities so it will not give warrant to saying misstatements such as the Jews killed Jesus, when, of course, it was, in fact, the Romans who nailed Jesus to the cross.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You--how do you deal with the Lord's Prayer, "Our Father?"
SUSAN THISTLETHWAITE: What we have used as a consistent metaphor for God the Father is God the Father-Mother, trying to, again, in modern English create something that can only be understood as a metaphor, that is, there is no such thing as a Father-Mother. That would be like saying something is a rooster-chicken. And so we have used that to try to say this is a metaphor and the metaphor means parenthood. And in the late 20th century, we don't understand the family as patriarchal, with father as the only authoritative parent, and so that's the way we've tried to render that. It's not as poetic as Mr. Fox's work, and I greatly enjoyed reading his translation. However, we are trying to be as dramatic, I think, as we can to try to get people to hear this as a metaphor. People know Lamb of God is a metaphor because they know it's not a literal statement about Jesus being a sheep, but they don't understand many times that the God the Father language is also a metaphor.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Barclay Newman, your bible, the contemporary English version, strives for simplicity and clarity of language, is that right?
BARCLAY NEWMAN, American Bible Society: (Springfield, MO) That is correct. We take in consideration the fact that more people hear the scriptures read than read them for themselves, and we tried to create a text that a person who is unfamiliar with traditional biblical jargon can read aloud without stumbling, can hear without misunderstanding, and can listen to with appreciation and enjoyment because the language is lucid and lyrical.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Can you just give me an example of words that you have left out that might be words that, that people were brought up hearing, like "grace" or--
BARCLAY NEWMAN: Well, the word "grace," of course is absent. It was brought into the text by John Witcliff, 1384, when he transliterated the Latin term "gratia." The problem, of course, the word grace today is that it means charm, poise, beauty, loveliness, and you cannot even create a contemporary English sentence using "grace" in the sense that it's used in the biblical terms, you're saved by grace. And so we looked at the meaning of the Greek word rather than trans--you know--rather than continuing with the, uh, traditional terminologies.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Please read something.
BARCLAY NEWMAN: This comes from Psalm 29. "The voice of the Lord echoes over the oceans. The glorious Lord God thunders above the roar of the raging sea, and His voice is mighty and marvelous."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So that is a simplification of "The voice of the Lord breaketh the seeders, yea, the Lord breaketh the seeders of Lebanon."?
BARCLAY NEWMAN: No, you--that's Verse 5.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Where are you?
BARCLAY NEWMAN: I'm in Verses 3 and 4.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Oh, yes. I see. "The voice of the Lord is upon the waters. The God of glory thundereth. The Lord is upon many waters."
BARCLAY NEWMAN: Right. You see, you have a series of clauses there, I think, five of them in most traditional translates, beginning with "the," which is a very unpoetic way to handle a text.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What did your research for this involve? How did you--how did you decide what was understandable to people?
BARCLAY NEWMAN: Well, we did a lot of research with children. We did a lot of research with persons who were not familiar with traditional biblical jargon, persons who are almost street people as a matter of fact, and then we tried to simply listen to the way that people speak. As Luther said, we did not have to listen to the literal Latin to translate German, rather we listen to the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace. We got it by their language, the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. That's the kind of thing we tried to do.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Walter Wangerin, you're doing something quite different, aren't you? You've translated the Bible into a novelistic narrative. Why?
WALTER WANGERIN, Valparaiso University: (University Park, Il) Well, first of all, to translate means, carry it over and not just in terms of words and language.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That's how I mean it.
WALTER WANGERIN: Yeah. To select the story out of the Bible and to tell that story with as much detail as possible, that's what I've done. I've done it partly because my experience in the past has been that the story within the scripture, itself, has great power as a story and that when I was a child, I would sometimes read long novels and find myself dwelling in the world of that novel fully as much as I dwelt in the world that was around me. From the beginning, these stories with their power as stories have been able to gather people together, and have been able to draw their experience, not just their thought, not just their analysis, but their genuine experience of the story. My hope was to tell it in such a way with detail, with background, with character development, with a singular narrative line, that those who read it also may find themselves experiencing this particular world and the development of God's relationship to people.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think of the new translations of the Bible? Just out of curiosity, what translation did you use when you created this?
WALTER WANGERIN: I used several translations, but I worked mostly with the Hebrew and with the Greek, because they gave me insights that almost no translation does all the way through today.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think the new translations are adding something?
WALTER WANGERIN: I don't know that they're adding anything to scripture itself at all. I do think that they may affect the people and how they read it. I'm, I'm very pleased and, and grateful when somebody writes a book in poetry and somebody, as Everett Fox has done, is aware that language is a power in its song and its rhythm that it has, it has communicative force, not just in the what it says but the how it says it. I think sometimes when we lose that, I think when for certain people the Bible is reduced to the same common level that they think otherwise, they may at the same time lose something of the relationship to God that has been in the past, the grandeur and the glory, something of the distance and the mightiness, as well as the nearness and the mercy relationship.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Newman, what do you think about that? That is the criticism, I guess, of the simplified view that, umm, there's a kind of, a loss of sacredness of language that was in some of the other translations.
BARCLAY NEWMAN: Well, contemporary poetry differs quite significantly from biblical poetry. Biblical poetry has, of course, its own sound, its own rhythm, its, its own rhyme scheme. It also has a form which is quite foreign, though, from English poetry. We tried to have something that produces a text that is more like contemporary English in terms of economy of language, exactness of words. For example, the Genesis passage that you read, the earth was barren with no form of light, it was under a roaring ocean covered with darkness, I think we've captured something of the Hebrew text there as well.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And yet, you've made it more understandable to people who haven't had college degrees or post graduate degrees?
BARCLAY NEWMAN: Right. We are concerned even with the matter of consecutive, unaccented syllables. We never have more than three, "For you, yourselves, admit then that you agree with what your ancestors did," is unacceptable because it's difficult to read aloud. We have even measured the lines of poetry on the page so that they don't break off at the wrong place. "The Lord, my God, lights up, makes my darkness," you're going to pause, you're going to stress, you're going to get a giggle. If we were to translate that, we would make it into two lines, "The Lord, my God, lights up my darkness." So we try to do something that has never been done before. We, we realize that the appearance of the text upon the page facilitates the reading of it, especially in poetry, and so we've been very careful in that matter.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Everett Fox, why are there so many translations now? What's happening? What does this reflect?
EVERETT FOX: You know, perhaps it's due to what's happening in our society in general. We're out of the 80's now, and perhaps the concentration on self has broken down some. The world does not seem to be a very hospitable place right now; between violence at home and violence abroad, there's a lot of doubt, there's disease, and so I think we're in one of those periods which we really didn't expect to be in 50 years ago, when people are trying to gain a foothold, to get an orientation in life, and part of that process is to return to the sources, especially the Bible, and so all of us, with our different but--our different points of view, nevertheless, are united in trying to make this word available and stimulating and to get people to re-think their roots.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Thistlethwaite, what do you think about that? Why so many translations now?
SUSAN THISTLETHWAITE: Well, I, I partly agree with Everett Fox. I also think that it is ironic, and I think each of us in our own way would be on the same side of this discussion that people in trying to return to some kind of eternality want to see the translation they use as the definitive word of God. But words, of course, are uneasy vehicles for the sacred, because, after all, God is infinite; words are finite; and so even all the translations we've worked on are inadequate to the complete infinity of God, obviously, and so everything is always a work in progress. And you get a lot of resistance when people--a new translation comes out and people resist that because they want to see let's say King James as the definitive text. But, of course, King James was met with a storm of controversy when it first came out. The King James translators said with anything that's savored of newness, not meant with nay saying or opposition, it's--they--people didn't want to see the beauty and grandeur of the Latin reduced into the vulgar English, and so they were accused of vulgarity. People want to think that this is something that felt from the sky. I see that as part and parcel of the insecurities of our age. It is both, I think, then a positive trend and it has tremendous liability.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Walter Wangerin, what do you think about that? Why so many translations now? What does it reflect?
WALTER WANGERIN: Well, among other reasons, I think that those who produce bibles with great faith and watchfulness are responding to some of the events in our culture. One of the things happening among us now is that people are identifying themselves according to groups. They find in particular definable groups their identity and their empowerment, and so they declare a kind of a difference between themselves and other groups.
Umm, in faith as well as in an effort to raise money, those who create bibles then direct their various bibles to these various groups, shaping them for sports figures and athletes, shaping a bible, not all these are translations; they are bible helps and studies, but shaping them also for various cultures and ethnic backgrounds. That's done, I think, out of a genuine effort to present this word in a variety of places. But I think then also what Dr.
Thistlethwaite is doing is another polar opposite response and that is to speak the bible in a way that does not neglect a group but embraces all these groups who have defined themselves with particular ways, so to speak in such a way that the bible doesn't define itself out of their group. It's a kind of a double response, and at the same time, I've got to say among bible publishers, it's also a mercenary one.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We have to go now. Thank you all very much.
WALTER WANGERIN: Thank you.
SUSAN THISTLETHWAITE: Thank you.
EVERETT FOX: Thank you.
BARCLAY NEWMAN: Thank you.