Books > The Bible

21 August 2014 | by Nicholas King, reviewed by Richard Bauckham

The Bible

Lost and gained in translation

Very few people have singlehandedly translated the whole Bible into English. Even William Tyndale did not manage to complete the task. So Nicholas King’s translation is a remarkable achievement. It is also distinctive in that the Old Testament (which includes the “deuterocanonical” books) is translated from the ancient Greek version (the Septuagint), rather than from the Hebrew. The Septuagint is often called the Bible of the early Christians, most of whom knew Greek but could not read Hebrew. Most quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament follow the Septuagint, though it is clear that many of the New Testament writers did also study the Hebrew and could draw on it when they wished. But only recently have good English translations of the Septuagint become available, Nicholas King’s along with a couple of others. While not likely to replace translations from the Hebrew, it will certainly be of interest to many readers.

With regard to the New Testament, there are so many recent English translations – most of them good in different ways – that there has to be something specific to recommend yet another. What seems to me most characteristic of King’s translation is that it attempts an exact expression of the precise meaning of the Greek, without resorting to paraphrase, but rather by means of close, sometimes very literal renderings. As a result the English is often quite unnatural. The Good Samaritan is described by the lawyer as “the one who did the mercy on him”. The language is often colloquial (“a fair old crowd”) but there is no consistency of register. The robbers in the parable of the Good Samaritan are, appropriately, “muggers”, but Zebedee’s employees are “hirelings”, which is surely now archaic. The aim is not a translation that reads well but one whose very awkwardness reveals the contours of the Greek text. In the gospels, narrative sentences constantly start with “And”, as they do in the Greek, and the historic present, translated literally, mingles with past tenses. I guess this is partly what is meant by the description of the book as a “study Bible”. It would be best used alongside a translation that gives the sense in more natural English.

The translation is also justified by its freshness and inventiveness, though these qualities vary from book to book (I found them much less in evidence in Revelation than in the gospels and Paul). To give just one example, in 1 Corinthians 1:12, other translations and commentators take the slogans (“I am for Paul”, etc.) all to belong to parties in the Corinthian church, including the last (“I am for Christ”), but King takes the last to be Paul’s own comment: “Well, I’m for Christ!” This is the kind of translation that can make readers familiar with other translations think again.

Unfortunately, there are some careless mistakes. Merely in the first half of Luke’s first chapter I spotted these: “six months” (1:24: it should be “five”) and “house of David” (1:33: it should be “house of Jacob”), while there is no basis in the Greek for the difference between “advanced in their days” (1:7) and “advanced in her years” (1:18: Greek has “days” in both cases). These are the kind of blemishes to which a one-person translation is more liable than one that passes through a committee. But it is regrettable that some process of checking was not devised.

The New Testament (unlike the Old) is accompanied by an expansive running commentary. But I found the lack of some other features strange in a “study Bible”. There are no footnotes providing variant readings or alternative translations, such as are standard in almost all modern translations. (Nor does King ever explain the textual basis of his translation. Does he always translate the text of one standard edition or does he make his own judgements between variant readings?) The lack of variant readings is particularly regrettable. Anyone studying the New Testament needs to be aware of the cases where it is difficult to be sure which of the significantly different readings in the manuscripts represents the original text. Also strange in a study Bible is the fact that individual verse numbers are lacking (again, this is only true in the New Testament). We are just given the range of verses covered by each section. So if someone wants to look up, say, Matthew 6:34, to which they have found reference somewhere, they have no way of identifying that verse within the whole section Matthew 6:19-7:23.

The other sort of footnote that is conspicuously lacking is the sort that identifies the Old Testament source of a quotation in the text. Romans is made an exception “because the Old Testament is so important to the argument”. But so it is in many other parts of the New Testament. The omission is particularly odd in a volume that combines the New Testament with a translation of the Septuagint. King gives as one reason for translating the Septuagint the fact that it is “the version most used by our New Testament authors”. Yet his readers have no way of turning from the New Testament quotations to their sources in the Septuagint.

The Old Testament is treated differently from the New in a variety of ways. The translation of the Old by King seems more in the style of the NRSV or the NIV than is his New Testament. A quarrel I have with it is King’s occasional habit of emending the Greek version in the light of the Hebrew. This practice makes no sense. If the Greek translator misunderstood the Hebrew or read a corrupt Hebrew text, the English translator’s business is to translate what Greek readers read, not what the Greek translator should have written but didn’t.

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