If you didn't catch Nicholas King's talk on Bible translation at CRE, Sandown earlier this month, then you will have missed one of the highlights of the whole event; delivered with humour, humility and zest, I was inspired to put on my theology hat for a bumper blog post! Below the respected New Testament scholar and Oxford University lecturer talks New Testament 'freshness', Hebrew, learning Zulu passed 40, 'elderly gym antics' and the 'impossibly difficult task' that is Bible translation!
At a recent talk given at CRE, Sandown you said you began by translating two Gospels simply 'just to see what it was like'. You've also been quoted as saying that Bible translation happens because 'the community has forgotten the language of the sacred texts'- do you think subconsciously you were feeling this when you chose to translate?
I don't think that was what was going on inside me; I sat down to translate Mark and John because I had to give a summer school about the two of them, and there is no better way of getting a 'feel' for a document than to translate it. And it was certainly a great education. Nick signs copies of his latest book 'The Prophets'
What age did you begin learning Hebrew, how long did it take you to master and also what advice would you give to someone wanting to learn the language?
I started learning Hebrew in my mid-20s; and my advice is that the brain works better the younger you are. I learnt Zulu when I was past 40, and that was really hard work. The only advice is that learning a language is very hard work, and you must never give up. Do a bit every single day; do new stuff in the morning, and familiar material last thing at night before you go to sleep.
Presumably you've read the bible simply as a reader and believer in God as much as you've read it as a scholar...how much do you think personal beliefs inadvertently 'cloud' a translation...would having no belief in God take some of the feeling out of the text?
Many non-believers have worked on the biblical texts (though I sometimes wonder why); so it is certainly possible to work on them without believing in them. As for being clouded by 'personal beliefs', any translator is the person they are and not some other person, and what you do as a translator is greatly affected by the person you are.
Before you began each of your translations did you have an idea of what you didn't want to produce...what you didn't want it to sound like and also how you'd strike a balance between literal renderings and paraphrase; about pitch of discourse, style and format?
Before I started the translation, I thought translation was easy; I thought, for example, that every word in the source language would always be translated by the same word in the target-language, and that I could control the effect of what I was doing. I found in fact that the translation dictated itself, and that it was out of my hands. The one quality that I wanted the NT to have was that of 'freshness' which is there in the 27 documents that make up the original; and I am pleased to notice that several reviewers have used that word. Now I know that translation is an impossibly difficult task.
Did you find yourself seeing, in your minds eye, the various people in the Bible - was there enough there in the text to get that kind of clarity?
One always forms an impression of the people who are part of the narrative; how accurate the impression is, must be, of course, another matter.
You spoke of avoiding 'puréed sludge'; translating the various voices in a way that they all retained their uniqueness rather than sounding like one and the same. Are you able to summarise in one or two words the personalities/character traits of say, Matthew, Mark and Paul?
Matthew: a school-teacher, with all that implies Mark: young and vigorous Paul: a great lover
Have there been many sleepless nights during the course of translating the Bible and has there been anything that was particularly difficult to translate?
The hardest bit was Romans; at times I found that the closer I looked the less I understood what Paul was saying.
Are there any parts that seemed 'easier' than others to translate and why do you think this was?
Perhaps Joshua to 2 Kings, the 'Deuteronomic History', because it is mainly narrative. Ruth, because it is a breath of fresh air after the appalling narratives with which the book of Judges ends.
Who or what kept you sane throughout... I read that you're a big cricket fan so perhaps watching/playing?
Playing cricket and squash, as well as some running and downhill skiing, until osteo-arthritis brought retirement upon me. Now I content myself with elderly antics in the gym.
Did you check your translations with other readers?
For some reason I felt very private about the translations, preferring to wait and see how readers reacted. However I had an excellent copy- editor in Peter Dainty, who was incredibly vigilant, and a former student, Yolande Trainor, who read every word of the text with her Ladies' Bible Study group in South Africa, and preserved me from many blunders.
With regards to the things left unspoken in the Bible, for instance in Mark 16:8...why do you think that some translators have felt the need to fill in the gaps- do you think it's because they didn't trust the reader to get the nuances in the text or simply because they wanted to put their own stamp on it?
It is probably a bit of both; biblical narrative operates by understatement, such, for example as the terrible story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, which is simply crying out to fill in the gaps. And quite often later authors have been unable to resist the temptation to fill them in.
You have said "The Greek text of the New Testament is only a scholars' guess, and what we have in our modern editions is not a manuscript that ever existed; all the manuscripts that we possess have mistakes in them, so we do not even know what the original text was"...does this conflict in any away with your belief that god's voice is just below the surface - do you believe that this voice will get harder to hear/find?
This is where the Church comes in; we get the Bible from the Christian community, and not the other way round. However (and this is really important) it is also true that the Church is subservient to the text, as well as being its source, and we all have to listen to that voice of God which is there below the surface of the text, whatever the quality of the translation, and whatever the state of the manuscripts.
You mentioned the biblical narrative has 'a certain fullness' would you say that in distilling/ editing this 'fullness' in your own translations you've done away with poetics? Was there a chance that the translation would not only have been ineligible but twice the size if you'd left the 'fullness'?
"A certain fullness". I can't quite remember saying this, nor what precisely what I might have meant by it! However I have tried to be faithful to the text, and where it was poetic I have tried to be poetic, and so I don't think that I distilled it in a way that would have made my final text notably shorter than the original.
At CRE, you spoke of your affinity with Ronnie Knox (a theologian who amongst other things translated the Latin Vulgate Bible into English, using Hebrew and Greek sources) - remarking that you said a prayer at this grave in 'allegiance'. Are there other people you admire/feel an allegiance to?
The list is too long, but those who taught me above all. In different places, Peter Hardwick (and he would be surprised by that), and Geza Vermes, both of whom have died this year; Robert Murray SJ, Professor Christopher Rowland - and many many others. Father Ronald Knox d. 1957
Has translating the Bible changed your understanding of it in any significant way? And would you say it's strengthened your faith?
One thing that it has taught me is how much I love the bible. And, yes, I think that my faith has gone deeper.
And finally, what advice would you give to someone wanting to translate the bible?
Think twice about it.
With special thanks to Nick for this interview!
The books featured in this post are available from all good Christian bookshops or direct from the Kevin Mayhew website or by telephone: +44 (0)845 3881634