Beauty vs. Accuracy in Biblical Translations

Specifically the King James version (beauty) versus translations like NRSV (accuracy) or Jewish Publication Society (JPS which is a Tanakh not NT obviously). [Though there are serious problems with the NRSV, even more so with the NIV]. (I’m assuming in this post the inability to read Koine Greek and/or Biblical Hebrew, which of course are superior to any English translations).

As Camille Paglia (among others) has correctly pointed out the King James Bible was the fount for two springs of American art: music via the Psalmic hymnals of the Puritan era leading through revivalist call and response, through gospel, to jazz, blues, rock, funk, and now hip-hop/rap; writing, via the King James being the literary guiding light of Cooper, Whitman, Melville, and Dickinson.

Theologically there are serious issues with the King James Version. Particularly in its translations of the Psalms. It reads them as Christian documents, which they are not. The translation is suffused with a Christian-reading of non-Christian texts. Theologically this is called supersessionism and has had horrific historical and moral consequences on the Jewish community.

[Sidenote: The New King James Version is the worst of both worlds incidentally. It’s non-artistic and piss poor theologically.]

I don’t know what this does or doesn’t do to Paglia’s call for (non-proselytizing) religion being at the center of university humanist education (which otherwise I’m sympathetic to in many ways). The KJV is a genius religious document–albeit Christian one. It’s also a genius artistic document.

Recall this translation:

“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil…”

But given what we now know about Judaism, it’s not a good translation. Theologically. In my understanding the work of historical criticism of the Bible is an actual religious undertaking, often a devotional one. From my reading of Paglia, she misses that point completely. [Matthew has helpfully put some of her writings up on the Polysemy Bookshelf. The ones I have principally in mind are The Mighty River of Classics and Religion and the Arts in America]. She’s focused on the artistic side, I’m just pointing out the theological for a moment, which is not her strong suit imo, so that has to be taken into account as well.

Perhaps one way around this seeming impasse would be when studying Christianity to study the KJV version (as an interpretation) and then when studying Judaism read the Jewish Tanakh (JPS) translation. The ordering of the books is the most apparent difference. Not to mention certain books in and others out. But the reading of the text through the traditions is profound. In Judaism, the so-called “Fall” is a non-issue basically. The story of Adam and Eve is nowhere near central in Rabbinic reading.

I guess it comes down to becoming clear-er about the purpose(s) of reading the Bible. If a person is reading the Bible for personal meditation, prayer, or literary study, then the KJV is one way to go. I actually prefer the New Jerusalem, but that’s probably my Catholic (as opposed to evangelical or Calvinist Protestant) prejudice talking. (The NJ is a Catholic-led translation).

If one is reading the Bible to try to understand (as best as can be reconstructed) what the authors meant and what their words conveyed theologically in their historical context, then the KJV (or the NIV) have serious theological flaws. The NRSV has its own, but on the whole, I think are not as bad. But I would agree with Paglia, the greater accuracy comes at the cost of literary quality (of which none of the translations has any).

The beauty/accuracy polarity is just another (for me) in the series of Narrative (Post-liberal) versus Liberal theologies.

Jack Miles has a helpful analogy here. The Bible, he says, is like a Rose Window.

The historical, theologico-religious, sociological, contextual liberationist readings want to look through the window out onto the world.
The literary-narrative school seeks to study the Rose Window as is.

Seen, from the view of consciousness, both are devotions to God. Even though many practicioners of both styles are professed atheists. (Though atheism is its own form of often advanced belief, so even this categorization breaks down).

Both are kinds of devotion that open to God different functions of our being. We need both imo. Or at least the realization, if one is stronger in one kind than the other, that the other is equally necessary and valid. Not to be disparaged, not to be viewed as enemy.

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Published in: on November 16, 2007 at 5:09 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. [Narad’s Five Songs and the Theme of Evolution in Savitri
    by RY Deshpande on Sun 18 Nov 2007 09:01 PM PST | Permanent Link
    In the Book of Fate with which we are presently concerned, there is almost at its beginning a description of the evolutionary destiny of this creation. Narad is on his way from his home in Paradise and during the course of his journey to earth he sings five great sings, as to how things began, and about the cherished expectations of the divine glory and marvel taking birth here. We have already seen this theme in some details earlier, but let us have the complete passage for comparison with other passages connected with the concept of evolution that appears with different suggestions in different places in Savitri: (pp. 416-17)…]
    http://www.sciy.org/blog/_archives/2007/11/18/3363001.html

    [Savitri in Mother’s Voice]
    http://www.sciy.org/blog/_archives/2003/3/26/2837553.html


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