Friday, August 8, 2014

C.S. Lewis on Modern Bible Translations

(Originally published as an introduction to J.B. Phillips’s Letters to Young Churches, the precursor to Phillips's acclaimed New Testament in Modern English)
C.S. Lewis begins, “Do we not already possess,” it may be said, “in the Authorised [King James] Version the most beautiful rendering which any language can boast?” Some people whom I have met go even further and feel that a modern translation is not only unnecessary but even offensive. They cannot bear to see the time-honored words altered; it seems to them irreverent.

There are several answers to such people. In the first place the kind of objection they feel…is very like the objection once felt to any English translation at all. Dozens of sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of turning the time-honored Latin…into our common and (as they thought) “barbarous” English…. The answer then was the same as the answer now. The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose…by being modernized is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language; it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken…[as] a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language. Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us.  The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby…and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other.  The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion. When we expect that it should have come before the world in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorised Version, we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King. The real sanctity, the real beauty and sublimity of the New Testament (as of Christ’s life) are of a different sort: miles deeper or further in.

Outgrown Clothes, Outgrown Translation
In the second place, the Authorised [King James] Version has ceased to be a good (that is, clear) translation. It is no longer modern English: the meanings of the words have changed. The same antique glamour which has made it (in the superficial sense) so “beautiful,” so “sacred,” so “comforting,” and so “inspiring” has also made it in many places unintelligible…. The truth is that if we are to have translation at all, we must have periodical re-translation. There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing. If your son is to have clothes, it is no good buying him a suit once and for all: he will grow out of it and have to be re-clothed.

And finally, though it may seem a sour paradox—we must sometimes get away from the Authorised Version…simply because it is so beautiful…. Beauty exalts, but beauty also lulls…. Through that beautiful solemnity, the transporting or horrifying realities of which the Book tells may come to us blunted and disarmed, and we may only sigh with tranquil veneration when we ought to be burning with shame or struck dumb with terror or carried out of ourselves by ravishing hopes and adorations…. We ought therefore to welcome all new translations (when they are made by sound scholars).

C.S. Lewis's translator friend J.B. Phillips is perhaps best known as the author of Your God Is too Small.

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