Posted by: chuckbumgardner | November 16, 2012

A Difference in Authority

I just started in on Peter Leithart’s Deep Exegesis, and found some thought-provoking material on Bible translation.  He is considering the sort of language that translations use when they bring Scripture over into another tongue, and his take on the matter is not a positive one; in his view, “translation is a key symptom of our willingness to emasculate our own Scriptures” (3).  He walks the reader through translations of Psalm 23 in the KJV and The Message, and concludes that “the KJV can be faulted for being more formal than the original Hebrew and earlier English translations . . . , but the slanginess of The Message is no solution.  The “most crucial difference” between the two, as Leithart sees it, “is a difference in authority: which language, which idiom, determines the rendering of the Hebrew into English?”  In the KJV, “the Hebrew text forces itself on the English,” bringing the translators to “enlarge not only the language but also the conceptual apparatus of English speakers” (4-5).  On the other hand, “for The Message . . . contemporary English dictates what the Bible may or may not say” (5).

To put it a slightly different way, “the goal of Reformation and post-Reformation Bible translators was always to carry over as much of the original text as possible into the target text”; “they did not believe that the Bible needed to adjust to our prior concepts and institutions.” (6).  But for many modern-day translators, “the idioms and cadences, the rhetoric and the tropes, the syntax and the vocabulary of the original have been reduced to mere vehicles for communicating that message. . . . We substitute, add, or subtract words to make the Bible sound normal.  We change idioms to be more familiar. . . . We fiddle with the Bible’s rhetoric so that it fits our rhetoric, rather than letting the Bible’s rhetoric shape ours.”



  1. I read this book about three years ago, and ever since then I have been glad that Leithart threw this learned provocation onto the scholars playground. While I’m not persuaded of all of his approach, this is a great book to shake things up a bit.

    In the section you quoted from, I like this sentence: “[The Bible] no longer shapes our imaginations, our poetry, or our politics, because it is not allowed to say anything we do not already know.”

  2. Yes, isn’t that true? I liked that as well.

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