Saturday, August 07, 2010

Abounding Bibles and Dumpster Language

"Delboy, Rodney and Uncle Arthur would appreciate the new Cockney translation of The Bible."
(Photo: PA-Daily Mail)
On a hazy summer Saturday morning, we can be assured that members of the clergy all over town are working on sermons, conducting services, or, at the very least, contemplating God’s glorious handiwork from a fishing boat somewhere off the Outer Banks. They should not, particularly those who are recovering lawyers, be working on srategies to conceal evidence.

Yet, as I watch our long-suffering UPS man trundle back down the driveway, I am contemplating how to quietly dispose of contraband in the form of another box with the cheerful label. Like other transgressing sinners, it began with a promise: in this case absolutely, positively will I not bring another book into the house-especially another Bible translation-until I have read those I already have. (I must note that the pledge was made by choice, the choice of compliance or spending a time living the life hermetic in a hut in the back yard.)

Now, I am considering disposing of the hollowed-out husk by setting it afire in the barbecue grill. I think it better to risk the wrath of environmental activists, ozone police and county authorities. After all, my occasional cigar already has gotten me on the Greater Richmond Clean Air Task Force Strike Team hit list.

Hidden in Plain Sight

As for the treasure now carefully concealed in plain sight on the bookshelves? I am working on the following legend as I peer over the stack of books on the desk in my study, “Oh, that Catholic Youth Life Amplified Bible? That’s always been there. Right between the Extreme Teen Bible and The Original 1611 King James (With Apocrypha).” Somehow, I suspect this won’t work with “She-from-whom-no-secrets-are-hid,” and my hut awaits.

In fact, I have been preparing some Bible study material for the post-Labor Day resumption of the Church Year (the Church only some being extant between Labor and Memorial Day) and steeling myself to answer the perennial question, “Why are there so many Bibles?” After all, a request for Bibles at yields 3,990 separate entries without even getting into ancillary Bible materials-Bible covers, Bible highlighters, Bible organizers, Bible verse coffee mugs (“…falling into a trance, yet having his eyes open…” summing up my mornings). We needn’t speak of commentaries, dictionaries, and lexicons more numerous than grains of the sand or stars in the heavens. A single publisher, Zondervan of Grand Rapids, has 350 editions of the Bible in print this season. The upshot of all of this "translation" is that the Word of God becomes invisible--hidden in plain sight of the reader. But, let’s have a look at some of my personal favorites.

"Cheers, Amen!"

First, there is Magnify: The Complete New Testament for Kids A Nelson Biblezine. The description notes that, “Following the incredible success of Revolve for teen girls and Refuel for teen guys, this new Biblezine provides a completely unique format for kids to have a blast while learning about God's Word. The complete New Testament of the International Children's Bible, the first translation created especially for children, will suddenly come to life, applying to kids' lives through this magazine format's interesting articles, thought-provoking quizzes, and interactive games. Even a secret decoder is included to help kids uncover amazing secrets found in the Bible!” I weep when I think of the time that secret decoder would have saved me at seminary.

The advertising blurb caused me to look up Refuel: The Complete New Testament for Boys (NCV), a “Slick ‘n’ sleek sports magazine-like “bodywork”-supercharged with Scripture ‘under the hood’! Give your teen guys some real sourcepower for living with this rubber-meets-the-road New Testament.” I suppose that this is the next step past The Comic Book Bible, which is billed as “Clever, comic-style illustrations bring Bible stories to life with humor, snappy dialogue, and spiritual truths.”

And then, there is Becoming: The Complete NCV New Testament for Women. I am not sure whether this is a Bible translation or a marketing concept. It shouts, “You grow, girl! Wrapping the New Testament in a cutting-edge women’s magazine format, this can't-put-down ‘Biblezine’ brims with practical tips for bringing your ‘faith thing’ into everything.” Perhaps it comes with its own line of accessories.

Of course the “mainstream” publishers are not to be left out of the special interest derby. Witness a new edition of the popular and "gender-neutral" New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) commentary, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, which reinterprets key sections of the Bible to negate or water down orthodox Christian beliefs about homosexuality, Jesus Christ’s sovereignty, and the sanctity of life. Indeed, all of this has made me wary of any Biblical title in which the word "new" appears.

I do have to admit that, at the top of my list, is The Bible in Cockney—well, bits of it anyway. It is a Gospel translation in London street slang which won the backing of the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey. It includes traditional rhyming slang from East London’s working-class community in which common words are represented by down-to-earth rhymes. The book also uses current street idioms so that the last part of the Lord's Prayer comes out as: “You’re the Boss, God, and will be for ever, innit? Cheers, Amen.”

"Motivating and Instructive"

We even have 115 entries in the Catholic Bible section. Many of these seem to be more in the line of exciting packaging rather than different translation, such as the Fireside Catholic Youth Bible (NAB). Billed as “motivating and constructive,” it includes “a collection of insightful and thought-provoking articles.” However, I should not ignore the New Jerusalem Bible, which, inter alia, “strives to be faithful to modern expressions of English.”

The International Bible Society, which unabashedly hawks the New International Version and its newer more “gender-neutral” translation, Today’s New International Version and its variations, offers a dandy chart of literal versus “thought for thought translations” over at IBS website, but it doesn’t answer the question of the proliferation of Bibles.

Not feeling terrifically original (probably a good trait in a member of the clergy these days), I posed the question to an on-line search engine, “Why are there so many Bible translations?” The myriad answers far outnumber the translations themselves. There nearly 6 million hits in response to the inquiry.

The good folks over (who, incidentally offer their own “NET Bible” translation), find that three strands undergird the Bible explosion: new more accurate, translations of existing Greek manuscripts (textual influences); archaelogical and manuscript discoveries that “pronounced judgment on some of the renderings in the King James” (informational influences); and the desire for translations directed to particular groups (philosophical influences).

Withering Up

Many more see it simply as a linguistic issue. For example, Fr. Ronald D. Witherup, writes in Choosing and Using a Bible: What Catholics Should Know, The King James Version of the Bible (Authorized Version) is the most common authoritative translation in use by many Protestants. The difficulty is that this 17th-century translation is, according to Fr. Witherup (I do love his name!), "woefully outdated". Not only do we no longer speak the style of English employed in this translation, but also biblical scholarship has "advanced considerably in the knowledge of the ancient biblical languages to warrant new translations." Many Catholics in earlier decades also relied on an older edition of the Bible, the Douay-Rheims translation, based upon the Latin translation (the Vulgate) that at one time was the only official Catholic edition of the Bible. It, too, is out of date according to the inestimable Witherup and the names of some of the Old Testament books may be "confusing". Really.

Like many other commentators, Fr. Witherup, a Sulpician writing for, dodges the question. He simply lists a selection of available versions mostly with “new” in their titles, and urges selection based on purpose of use.

Economics and the Word

Of course, there are more colorful reasons for the Bible bonanza, but at the end of the day, at the root of it all much of it seems to be economics. No one actually knows how many Bibles are sold annually by all publishers, because many guard their sales figures -- but the total is believed be in the tens of millions. The Gallup organization estimated that the United States market alone for the sale of Bibles is at least 20 million copies, with millions more being distributed free.

Hard numbers are anecdotal, and annual reports do not typically break out sales of Bibles as a separate category. Nonetheless, publisher Thomas Nelson, which offers a full line of Bibles, reported net income of $16,165,000 in 2004. That same report touts the Biblezines as a major source of product revenue.

Sales drive the market, and one has to stay fresh and new to make more sales. If people keep thumbing that worn King James or Douay or even the Revised Standard Version (no, one doesn’t burst into flames when reading it), then the Christmas parties over at Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, Abingdon and other Bible publishers aren’t much fun. (Neither are the winter solstice events at Oxford and Cambridge, and other places where publishers’ “mid-winter holiday bonus checks” might otherwise be a bit thin.)

On the one hand, in the Bible market, it’s legitimate to expect a generation to transpire before a new translation really takes hold with the faithful. (Dale Buss, “Battle of Biblical Proportions,”, 23 June 2003) On the other hand, conservative evangelical Christians, who for example, are the best customers for Zondervan’s existing mainstay Bible, the New International Version (NIV), have given that particular translation forty-five percent of the U.S. Bible market since its debut just 30 years ago. As well, the more rapid success of Nelson’s Biblezines raises the stakes for new marketing techniques.

Now, I am fond of having a bunch of choices in the market place. But, I can’t say that I am very comfortable with a consumer driven market for Holy Writ. I am not arguing for lack of honest scholarship or good translation. However, the The Word on the Street takes things to some pretty far reaches. Here’s the majestic language of the 23rd Psalm rendered marketable:

You’re my guide and my guard, my minder, my mentor.
What more do I need?
What’s better at the centre?
You sit me down, put my best CD on,
And my soul remembers who I am again. (vv. 1-3)
Or how about James 1:27? "Religion that means something with Father God is this: looking out for the homeless, empowering those in the poverty trap and keeping yourself from being polluted by the system." Enough already!

Snakebite Speaks

In The Snakebite Letters, Peter Kreeft’s self-described “shameless plagiarism of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters”, there is a very cogent, brief analysis of the dangers of multiple translations. Kreeft, writing in the persona of E. Wormwood Snakebite, a successful tempter in the employ of, well, you know…makes three basic points: first that Biblical language (indeed, liturgical language) is sacred-it describes reality. When words lose meaning for humans, “that aspect of reality does the same, for there are no longer any holding places for it in their mind.” The common and salvific reference points are lost in a whirl of translations.

Second, “fussy emendations” give way to wholesale changes that turn translating into interpreting and confuses translation with paraphrase. Here is the tension between literal translation, and so-called dynamic-equivalance. Exegesis (reading out meaning) becomes eisegesis (reading in meaning), and the end is a “splintering denial of objective truth.”

Third, Scriptural language, in the days of far fewer translations, was musical and memorable-perhaps the language was memorable because it was musical. “Now that there are dozens of translations,” says Kreeft, “no one remembers the words anymore.” In the confusing potpourri of new translations, the words become forgettable and, therefore, are forgotten. Translations come and go with the rhythm of the marketplace, and the Bible, becomes unremarkable and unread.

Perhaps it is a commentary on consumer culture itself, and there is an apt analogy both to video games and consumer software. A developer doesn’t make sales unless a video game is new, exciting and more blood soaked. Similarly, software dies when it becomes outmoded, but attains new life with the addition of new “must have” features that most of us never find before we buy the next upgrade. When we’ve gone for the next new thing, these products recede to the back of our shelves, and eventually are consigned to the trash (usually long after the computer on which they were designed to run has become obsolete).

So too is the case with Bible translations. We fill our shelves with the latest, most relevant thing, to “connect, equip and empower,” when version 1.1 will do the job nicely. At the end of the day, we can no longer focus on the basic language that edifies and saves. Again, from our friend Snakebite:
Once, in King James’ day, Scripture led the English language. Now it follows it--to the dump, just as the American Church[es are] following the world to the dump rather than leading it to the heavens. Their ‘dumpster language’ is an index of their dumpster destination.
I think I’ll send just back my copy of The Word on the Street-the recycling bin is a bit too full this week.


Anonymous said...

Archbishop John Cahoon used to say that even after using The Good News Bible (Today's English Version) as his bible study tool for many years, he still could not quote a single passage from it.

Like Fr. Nalls, I suspect many of us have multiple translations of the holy scripture around us. My own personal guilty pleasure is J. B. Phillips' "The New Testament in Modern English"

Tom McHenry+

Anonymous said...

Please don't forget 'The New Testament in Scots' translated by W. L. Lorimer.
"In the beginnin o aa things the Wurd wis there ense, and the Wurd bade wi Gid, and the Wurd wis God. He wis wi God i the beginnin, and aa things came tae be throu him, and wiout him, no ae thing acam tae be..

I got my copy from Amazon. published by Canongate Classics.

Rdr. James Morgan
Lovin' it!

Fr. Nalls said...

Now you've done it! "The NT in Scots" is clearly a must have translation.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Something about the style of this piece makes me think of the words, "rawwwk! rawwwk!" I wonder what makes me think of that.

AFS1970 said...

There was a move a few years ago to translate the Bible into Klingon. I lost track of the project and do not know if they ever finished. I think the goal was to do the NT first. I would think that to be a wonderfully useless translation, but one that would certainly be a conversation piece on the desk or shelf.

Ken said...

I think an important point is that most new translations are the work of either individuals or corporations. I think it would be nice to know all the translations that were commissioned by churches or on behalf of churches.

The plethoria of translations is the result of the same consumerist mentality that has lead to the plethoria of denominations in this country.

Anonymous said...

I personally think you're croaking up the wrong tree, but I do believe he is quite near by.


(closet rawwwk!-reader)

Anonymous said...

Please don't say that you don't know about the LOLCat Bible (as in "I can haz cheezburger?"), a completed project and in print no less.

On a more serious note, would someone care to say more particularly what the problem(s) with the NET bible is/are? Not casting a gauntlet, just curious.

No One In Particular

Anonymous said...


The Revised Standard Version (RSV) was commissioned by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Christian Churches in the USA in 1946 (NT) and 1952 (OT)

The New English Bible (NEB) was 'Planned and Directed" by representatives of many of the Christian Churches in Great Britain
in 1961

I think most of the others (NASB, NIV, TEV, ESV, etc) do meet the criteria you mention.

Tom McHenry+