Robert Fitzgerald, the translator of Homer, writes “You must learn Greek if you want to experience Homer….” He’s correct of course, but many of us readers interested in ancient texts do not read ancient Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, or other languages, which forces us to depend on translations or varied editions. Translating a text requires not just supreme knowledge of a language, but a sensitivity to its culture and time. Many modern readers are, sadly, dependent on translators or editors.
This week I read a review of a new edition of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. The new edition of the 1989 NRSV has 20,000 changes that required four years of work by the National Council of Churches and scholars from the Society of Biblical literature. Thus, the work gives modern readers what many scholars refer to as a “living” Bible. For instance, the new edition gives us a feminist reading of Mark 14:69. NRSV reads: “And the servant girl, on seeing him, begin again to say to the bystanders, ‘This man is one of them.’” The new edition offers us, “And the female servant, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, ‘This man is one of them.’”
Now I understand, appreciate, and applaud sensitivity to language. However, I also think that we owe fidelity to a text. Modern readers should bring sensitivity to their reading of an ancient text while understanding that the writers of those text had their own sensibilities expressed in their writing. All of this reminds me of an interview I had with a high school principal in Woodstock, VA. I was applying for an opening the following year to teach 12th grade English, which was I doing then as a long-term substitute. During the interview, the principal asked me why I was requiring my students to read Macbeth in the original language and not use a modern translation. Flabbergasted, all I could respond was, “Well, one of the reasons we read and teach Shakespeare is for the language.” The principal had no understanding of what I said and did not hire me for the next year.
No matter the translation or edition of the Bible read, it must be acknowledged that the original was written by patriarchal men who lived years ago in the Middle East. Their language expressed their beliefs and culture. Thus, just like Shakespeare, their language is different than ours. So does it matter if some of our modern sensibilities are offended by such usage as “man” for humanity and that we change “man” to humanity or human? The updated NRSV has 20,000 such changes.
Yes, such wholesale changes to the Bible or any text sanitizes them. If the language of any text is changed, providing it is a faithful translation, it will change it and that need be acknowledged. For instance, let’s look at a simple “translation” of Ecclesiastes 9:11 from George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, Orwell re-writes the King James version of that verse into modern English. Here is the King James and the Orwell’s modern:
“I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
“Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”
Orwell gives us this example to demonstrate the danger in “government speak.” However, his example is, I offer, a warning to any modern reader who won’t accept the language of ancient texts as written while bringing his or her own to the reading. To read a word in its context that offends today does not mean it is accepted. It just means that the reader is one of understanding and maturity.