Translated correctly

Jana Riess comes to us as one of the regular Dialogue participants.

Recently on the AML (Association of Mormon Letters) list, there’s been an interesting discussion of Bible translations, including the merits and demerits of the King James Version. My own feeling is that the KJV, however magnificent its language, is not always the best translation to help us understand the scriptures. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it. I wish we Mormons would get out more.

When I was teaching Gospel Doctrine, I routinely brought in other translations, my favorite being the NRSV, to demonstrate places where the KJV needs supplementation. In Psalm 145, the last of the nine acrostic psalms in the OT, the KJV is missing an entire verse. In fact, most translations are missing it, and what’s more, scholars have always known it was missing. That’s because in an alphabetical poem, each letter begins its own verse, and the whole nun (N) verse was never in the Masoretic text that our modern translations have as their root manuscript. I told my class that its absence is as obvious to Hebrew-literate hearers as it would be if someone today were singing our song to help children learn the alphabet, and they skipped a letter. Everyone in the room would know immediately that it was incomplete.

The Qumran (Dead Sea) version of the psalm has the nun verse, which confirmed a couple of isolated (but much later) versions that differed from the Masoretic text. The NRSV is one of the first modern translations to restore the verse, which ironically enough, is about how the “Lord is faithful in all his words.” I’ll say!

But that’s the most clear-cut example I can think of; most others are less obvious. The problems start right off the bat with Genesis 1:1. What we translate as “In the beginning, when God created” could be more accurately rendered from Hebrew as “when God began to create.” (Interesting that this more correct translation is more in line with Mormon theology anyway.)

Most of the problems with the KJV are with the Hebrew OT, not the Greek NT, because by the time of its translation, classical scholarship was very well established in England. People really knew their Greek. Hebrew was a slipperier and less systematic language, and it was new to them. The KJV translators weren’t exactly schooled in Rashi and Hillel, as they most certainly were in Herodotus and Euripides. Understandably, they made a lot of mistakes.

I must object to the argument, which someone raised on the AML list and which I have also heard at church, that other translations were done by committee for political purposes, but the KJV was simply inspired. Are people thinking that it sprang full-blown out of nowhere, like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus? It most certainly was done in committee. Well, actually, in six. There were two committees at Oxford, two at Cambridge, and two at Westminster. All in all, there were more than 50 people working on it.

And if we’re somehow imagining that the KJV had no political agenda, look at whose name is still on the translation. It’s certainly not Jesus’. This version was authorized by King James because he sought to bring the scriptures into the English vernacular, thus carrying out one of the most significant religious reforms of the previous century. He was also, not coincidentally, firmly establishing England as a Protestant state. What’s not political about that?

That’s not to say the KJV isn’t lovely. It’s got some of the most gorgeous English around, and its influence on Western poets, writers, and musicians is inestimable. But if we’re really serious about the notion of restoration, and we take Joseph at his word that the Bible is true insofar as it is translated correctly, then we Latter-day Saints carry a particular spiritual burden to seek out the most accurate translations possible. And the KJV, however beautiful, is not the very best tool out there to accomplish that.

Comments

  1. As I understand the history of the text, the large majority of the KJV New Testament, as well as a substantial chunk of the KJV Old Testament, consist of unattributed copying from William Tyndale’s previously-published work. Perhaps the KJV committee was inspired to plagiarize Tyndale, or perhaps Tyndale himself was inspired. But I think Mormons would probably resist the latter suggetion, since Tyndale’s theological commitments differ dramatically from our own.

    This is a wonderful post, Jana. I think that the NRSV is actually quite beautiful in its own right, and dramatically easier to understand than the KJV.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Anyone interested in Jana’s point about Gen. 1:1 could check out Kevin L. Barney, “Six Key Concepts to Joseph Smith’s Understanding of Genesis 1:1,” BYU Studies 39/3 (2000) at 109-110, where I give a detailed explanation of the grammar. I would link to it, but BYU’s online collections site isn’t working right now.

    I think “love/hate relationship” is a great way to put it, Jana. I too like the NRSV.

    (BTW, I’m thrilled you’re here. I’m a fan. My daughter won a copy of your Buffy book at Sunstone for successfully answering your Buffy trivia question. Through her influence I watched all seven seasons of Buffy on DVD.)

  3. Aaron Brown says:

    My sense is that many members of the Church just take the default position that everything under the sun that involves the Church is “inspired” unless they have some specific and authoritative reason to believe otherwise. Thus, while everybody knows that the Bible isn’t necessarily “translated correctly” (never mind that what we probably really should be saying, if recent trends are any guide, is “compiled completely”), since we have a JST that allegedly purports to “restore” anciently excised text (another arguably problematic assumption), people conclude that any portion of the Bible that Joseph didn’t personally revamp must be God’s preferred rendering. Granted, the history of LDS afinity to the KJV has a lot to do with J. Reuben Clark’s influence, but most members don’t know this. Thus, I think what I’ve said above is the basic explanation for why folks insist on seeing the KJV as “inspired.”

    If anyone can help, I’d be interested in a recommendation for the best book or books on the history of the KJV. Can anyone tell me what I should pick up?

    Aaron B

  4. Mark Pickering says:

    The NRSV also has an extra verse in Kings or Chronicles. I am dumbfounded that people seem to think that nearly 400 years of archaeology, philology, etc. cannot improve on the KJV. I have been carting my NRSV to church for a few years now, and everyone seems to think that I’m eccentric.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Aaron, on JRC’s influence re: the KJV, this BCC post is relevant.

    On a book to read, there have been several recent ones, which Jana no doubt has read for her day job. I browsed God’s Secretaries at the bookstore and thought it looked good; maybe Jana can weigh in on whether that’s the one you want.

    Mark P., when I did my first GD teaching gig at the University of Illinois student ward in the early 80s, there was one student there who would always bring his RSV (pre-NRSV days) and read from it when called upon. This generally freaked everyone out, since as they followed along the wording wasn’t the same. I absolutely loved it, because it provided the best teaching moments imaginable.

  6. Prediction: DKL is going to show up any minute to decry the notion that KJV English is “beautiful.”

    If you really want to freak people out in GD, pull out the New World Translation. For maximum effect, try to have the following seating arrangment: black, white, Asian. Then smile really broadly. Try also to have some people weeping in the background. Oh, and wear a blue sweater.

    As we all know, the NWT is the most correct of any book.

    Whoops, wrong blog…

  7. I’ve never read any translation other than KJV — then again, I’ve never properly read the KJV, either, and am open to the idea of reading a more correct translation.

    But I am curious on one point.

    In my experience translating Russian poetry, I’ve found that the most literal and direct translation doesn’t always convey the same meaning — that is to say, the more exact my translation in the literal sense, the more I lose out on the feeling of the verse.

    For example, in a literal translation of Lermontov’s “iron verses,” it’s nearly impossible to maintain the sense of romanticism in them — the frustration with the present, the longing for something newer, better, more exciting, etc, that manifests in the original.

    So my question, after perusing a bit of the NRSV, is: which translation is better at capturing not only the meaning of the words, but also the feeling conveyed by the Hebrew?

    And, I guess that raises another issue: to what extent is that important or even necessary if we’re just trying to get the meaning out of the verses? And to what extent does that help convey the meaning?

  8. Floyd the Wonderdog says:

    I just finished reading Misquoting Jesus. It’s a wonderful book about how the current Bible has been altered both accidentally and intentionally. To me it emphasised why we need a prophet to fill in the blanks.

    In the book he quotes a fellow as saying that reading the Bible in English is like seeing it in black and white, while reading it in Greek is like seeing in color. Perhaps we should teach biblical Greek in Primary.

  9. Harold Curts says:

    I remember an apocryphal story from when I was at Chicago. A visitor complained to somebody at Church HQ about so many of these grad students using different Bibles.
    Next time a GA came out to the stake, he asked about it. The response from the Stake Presidency, including a member of the Hyde Park ward, was to open up the tithing, temple recommend stats, etc and ask if he really thought there was a problem.

    I know not the veracity of the story, but it helped us who had different translations feel more comfortable.

    These days, I have several versions I use on a consistent basis–I really like the bible.org and the Jewish Study Bible, right now. But at church I only use the Standard Version, they think I’m wacky enough anyway.

  10. Re: 7, I would recommend reading Nabokov’s discussion of his critically despised but brilliantly literal translation of Eugene Onegin. It’s somewhat relevant here. Nabokov’s argument was that translation is a pernicious fraud. He hoped to rise above it by providing detailed research notes to anyone who would follow and then documenting furiously all of the contextualization that would be required. He also, as I recall, was a huge partisan for _en face_ comparison of the original text and the “translation” which he saw primarily as a literal gloss for the text. Perhaps literary translators should adopt the nomenclature of musicians: variations on a theme by Lermontov or what-have-you.

    Nabokov’s standards were rather elitist–his point was that the “translation” ought to inspire the reader to seek out and read the original. He had no interest in being the final destination of someone interested in Onegin, rather he hoped to provide research notes for someone interested in actually reading the Russian text.

    The part of me that isn’t horribly overextended wants a Nabokov “translation” of the Old Testament. Perhaps the current solution is to read the Anchor Bible, which takes an awful lot of time but really gets you into the text, though the Anchor Bible (aside from requiring a dump truck to carry it to church) still relies on translations of the relevant texts.

    My current practice is to use web interfaces to get alternate readings for KJV, which is currently normative in my church community, and when I actually want to read a book, I buy or borrow the Anchor Bible volume(s).

    I think the point that is elided, rather gracefully if strategically, in Jana’s perceptive post, is the theological role of the KJV as artifact, which is the basic premise underlying JR Clark’s volume staking the claim for the LDS KJV. As artifact KJV represents the American Protestantism of the 18th and early 19th centuries, before it was spoiled by higher criticism, before scholars quibbled with the masoretic canon or started hypothesizing about documents. This seems to be the Christianity that is culturally closest to us (even as Nibley attempted to draw us back to primal Christianity theologically).

    There’s another point that ought not to be ignored. The KJV was the Biblical language employed at the time that God returned to earth. The sacred time (Eliade’s “illud tempus”) for Latter-day Saints is ca. 1820-1850 (see central argument of Jan Shipp’s _Mormonism: New Religious Tradition_), and KJV was how the Bible was phrased then. Holding onto KJV is a way to maintain ties with a proximate visitation of God, a way to immerse oneself in the language of the Joseph Smith revelations.

    Finally, if you end up getting rid of KJV, for literalists, the JST can be a little confusing, as portions of the JST are clearly quite closely wedded to the KJV.

    So, after a long ramble (and having stalled enough at work this rainy morning), I vote for retaining the KJV but supplementing it with fairly serious study aids, and brining the language of the ancient Hebrews closer to our awareness, if only as a nod to the sacred time at Kirtland when church leaders anxiously sought out a Hebrew teacher so that they could understand the sacred texts.

  11. smb, I vote for using the KVJ for ceremonial purposes only and getting a better translation for all others–to get us closer to our other, far more sacred time, when Jesus lived and then did the Atonement.

    Sometimes we forget that the whole point of the Joseph Smith stuff is to restore our ability to have a proper relationship with our Lord. But that’s still the point, and the New Testament is still our most proximate source for His teachings…

  12. RT (#11): a reasonable proposal that I wouldn’t resist too aggressively. You may be underestimating the role of the Restoration in resetting the cosmic clock though. Arguably the core message is the proximity of God and his direct involvement in human affairs, as reflected by Atonement but also by Restoration. I’m aware this de-emphasizes our move toward mainstream Christianity and could be taken as slighting a deeply moving theology of Atonement, but there is precedent in Mormonism for taking a view that’s less mainstream Christian. (I personally side with you on an Atonement-centered faith, but I don’t think it’s required by Mormonism per se and think it’s reasonable to stay open to other views.)

  13. Mark N. says:

    Is part of the fear of moving away from the KJV the idea that maybe all those “Isaiah parts” in the BofM won’t match up as well any more?

  14. Mark–we’d lose a lot more matching in the Book of Mormon than the “Isaiah” parts. King James language and phrases are intimately interwoven into the existing text of the Book of Mormon in virtually every major verse, whether a direct quote or not. This is most probably an artifact of Joseph Smith’s process during the translation project, but obscuring this fact somewhat might well be for the benefit of the church. Many people who notice the intimate interrelationships between King James phrases and the entire Book of Mormon develop doubts about the book’s origins as a result…

  15. Rosalynde says:

    Very nice post, Jana. Your final theological claim—“we Latter-day Saints carry a particular spiritual burden to seek out the most accurate translations possible”—is provocative; I’d never thought of the article of faith in that way. Neither, apparently, have church leaders, since that sort of seeking has not been an important mission of the Church so far! ;)

    I wouldn’t mind the Church’s adopting a new version, since a more correct translation would facilitate the kind of scripture study I enjoy (and, in fact, can’t really avoid): that is, an historical-critical recovery of the original meaning (or, in my case, a bumbling attempt to do so). But I don’t think this is the way most Latter-day Saints approach the scriptures, and I’m not sure that a more correct translation alone, without training in history and critical textual practices, would make many Saints proficient in this kind of reading, even if they wished to be. Frankly, a purely devotional sort of reading, in which isolated verses, phrases or even words are decontextualized and applied to one’s current circumstances under the guidance of the Holy Ghost—what we call personal revelation—may be the more worshipful way of approaching a sacred text, anyway. And an argument could be made that, if this is the desired use of scripture, remoteness of language may actually enhance the sacred “aura” (in a Benjamininan sense) of the scriptures. I dunno.

    Those Saints who wish for a more readable translation are, of course, participating in the Protestant tradition of vernacular scripture that relocates spiritual authority from the ecclesiast to the text (and thus to the individual reader)—this, as Jana points out, was (part of) the impetus for the KJV and the earlier English versions on which it drew. I wonder, though, to what extent Mormonism itself really participates in this tradition: it seems to me that an argument could be made that Mormonism reverses the Protestant move, at least partially, and puts the authority back into the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

  16. Rosalynde, provocative thoughts. I’m especially intrigued by your idea that Mormonism removes authority from the text to the hierarchy and as such renders the comprehensibility (and accuracy?) of the text less important.

    One might argue in response that Joseph Smith’s lifelong emphasis on the clarity of translation and the revision and retranslation of the Bible to enhance its communication to a 19th-century audience speaks in the opposite direction. The distinctively Mormon scriptures are in fact emphatic about the need for scripture to speak according to people’s understanding and in their own language (2 Nephi 31:3, D&C 1:24). So in fact it could be argued that the search for a clearer Biblical text has deep roots in the Mormon tradition.

  17. Rosalynde says:

    Nice points, RT. The passages you cite both refer to God’s communication with prophets, don’t they? So they could cut both ways: prophets get the message clear and ungarbled from God; but latter-day prophets seem to receive revelation in qualitatively the same ways that the rest of us do, so we should get the messages clear and ungarbled, as well. What to do when those messages don’t agree?

    The centripetal and the centrifugal both exert pressure on the shape of Mormonism, that much is sure.

  18. I feel that the conversation is drifting into rather deeper waters than the mere question of which Bible translation we ought to use, wouldn’t you say, Rosalynde? Funny how weighty the subtexts in Mormon chit-chat have become in recent weeks…

    With reference to the discussion of Bible translations, I’d point out that the texts in question both specifically characterize our canonical texts. So there may be good reason to apply them as a standard in evaluating Bible versions, as well.

    With reference to the moral and ethical question about divergent revelatory messages, well, as Bill Clinton would say, I feel your pain. All I have to offer on that point is that I’ve never found a way to feel right about acting on anything other than the light I’ve been given. (While, of course, hoping that more light will eventually be forthcoming.)

  19. That’s not to say the KJV isn’t lovely. It’s got some of the most gorgeous English around

    Which is why I still love it.

    But I’ve been reading my NET bible and really enjoying it.

    If the Anchor Bible books were cheaper, I’d own more than I do, but they make a nice backstop.

    One of the big issues is using quotes and excerpts and getting permissions. You can use the KJV any time, any place, and no one has to give you an approval. Quote a different bible and you’ve got permission issues.

    That was one issue the NET bible was aimed at solving, btw. It is also a major barrier to the adoption of a different bible than the KJV for public discourse and a reason why the KJV survives as a heavily cited source even by people who are not otherwise using it.

  20. Seth R. says:

    Forgive me if I’ve brought this up before, or it’s already been hashed out …

    But I’ve been thinking. What if the very act of Joseph Smith, and all his successors, adopting the KJV as a reference point for their own teachings has added an independent quality of authoritativeness to the KJV, regardless of whether it is an accurate translation?

    To break it down:

    1. KJV is inaccurate in translation. Maybe even doctrinally mistaken in a couple places.

    2. Joseph Smith, et al, are inspired prophets.

    3. They all utilize the KJV in their own teachings. Maybe ever, gasp, the incorrectly translated portions.

    Since they are prophesying, does that now make the linguistically incorrect scripture now suddenly “inspired” sheerly by prophetic endorsement of that scripture.

    Or even, if we’ve got a KJV scripture that is considered doctrinally incompatible with the correctly translated scripture, is that verse now doctrinally correct via prophetic fiat?

    My feeling is that we’ve been using the KJV so long, that it’s taken on a theological life of its own which may make it difficult to disentangle ourselves from it.

    Thoughts?

  21. Seth R. says:

    Alas, all thoughts are apparently being squandered on the gay marriage thread…

    [tragic sigh]

  22. My feeling is that we’ve been using the KJV so long, that it’s taken on a theological life of its own which may make it difficult to disentangle ourselves from it.

    Seth, I think you’re right.

    I have used the NRSV on occassion in teaching RS, to help clarify.

    It’s interesting to note though that many other countries where English is not the first language don’t use the KJV – they use other translations!

  23. Rebecca–excellent, hilarious point about other translations in other countries! In Spanish-speaking countries the church generally uses the 1960 Reina-Valera edition of the Bible. It’s the same bible edition that most Protestants use, but for many members of the church with limited formal education, it’s all but incomprehensible due to its extensive use of highly archaic grammatical forms.

    Of course, our very recent Spanish edition of the Book of Mormon also indulges–for reasons that are entirely beyond me–in extensive archaisms. Imagine the resulting joyful social situations, when two gringos have to sit there and explain to a native Spanish-speaking family what a Spanish scriptural text actually means!

  24. Seth R. says:

    Good point about foreign language Bibles Rebecca. I think I pointed out something similar in another thread on this topic.

    It does make me think that the fate of the KJV place in the LDS cannon may be tied to the general demographics of the LDS faith.

    As non-English speaking Mormons become not just a larger percentage of the total Church population, but a larger percentage of its intellectuals, local and church-wide leaders, faithful parents, and the Church’s prophets, there will be less and less reliance on the KJV. Indeed, the continued use of the KJV is likely to become increasingly problematic as an increasingly larger percentage of faithful and influential Mormons cease to frame their vision of LDS doctrine in KJV prose.

    For now, KJV prose is deeply tied up with how I, and many practicing Mormons, conceptualize God’s word. To me, the English of the modern translations, while doctrinally and intellectually very interesting, seems very sterile and cold.

    The KJV, by contrast holds a richness of language and poetry that endears it to me very much. I would never think of replacing it as my primary source of Bible study. I’m sure many of “the brethren” probably feel similarly.

    But as the Church moves away from its “Utah core” this attachment will likely dwindle to the point where LDS leaders have no problem switching to a more standardized church-wide rendition of the Bible.

    This is good and bad. There is a richness of tradition in Utah, with its pioneer heritage, that isn’t found in many modern communities anymore. It frustrates as often as it endears. But I’ll be the first to mourn any diminishment in the cultural uniqueness of our faith, although I recognize that more standardization of the religion is going to be necessary to take this worldwide.

    Losing the KJV (and I think we, inevitably, will turn from it eventually), like losing Utah culture, will be a loss for us all. But it will also present all the opportunities as diverse world cultures and communities leave their own mark on our Church.

  25. That’s not to say the KJV isn’t lovely. It’s got some of the most gorgeous English around

    One thing that type of English does do is it obscures the differences in the text, both in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, in the voices of the authors.

    One of the dramatic things about the Book of Mormon, is that in spite of Mormon as an editor and Joseph Smith as a scribe, over and over invididual styles and voices stick out. But I think they would stick out more if they were not obscured by the translator’s voice.

    On the other hand, many Bible translations flatten the voice of the different prophets in the Bible even more.

  26. >When I was teaching Gospel Doctrine, I routinely brought in other translations, my favorite being the NRSV, to demonstrate places where the KJV needs supplementation. In Psalm 145, the last of the nine acrostic psalms in the OT, the KJV is missing an entire verse. In fact, most translations are missing it, and what’s more, scholars have always known it was missing. That’s because in an alphabetical poem, each letter begins its own verse, and the whole nun (N) verse was never in the Masoretic text that our modern translations have as their root manuscript. I told my class that its absence is as obvious to Hebrew-literate hearers as it would be if someone today were singing our song to help children learn the alphabet, and they skipped a letter. Everyone in the room would know immediately that it was incomplete.

    >The Qumran (Dead Sea) version of the psalm has the nun verse, which confirmed a couple of isolated (but much later) versions that differed from the Masoretic text. The NRSV is one of the first modern translations to restore the verse, which ironically enough, is about how the “Lord is faithful in all his words.” I’ll say!

    There is good reason to believe that the Qumran’s nun verse version is an interpolation, an attempt to fill an already existing gap.

    Namely, because it is a restatement of the tsade verse, צַדִּיק יְהוָה, בְּכָל-דְּרָכָיו; וְחָסִיד, בְּכָל-מַעֲשָׂיו

    In the case of the DSS, the nun verse reads

    נֶאֶמָן יְהוָה, בְּכָל-דְּרָכָיו; וְחָסִיד, בְּכָל-מַעֲשָׂיו

    It unlikely that the original text had the same verse repeated twice, with only one word differnt. That would be highly anamolous in this poem.

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