Bible translations are often framed in a debate similar to church music preferences. Why develop new things when our old things work perfectly fine?
That’s the problem. Sometimes, our old things don’t work perfectly fine. They simply fit our tastes.
In God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, the Oxford don explains why it is we cannot simply rest on the King James Version or any other previous translation—and this coming from a man who championed the reading of older books.
In “Modern Translations of the Bible,” he gives three defenses of modern Bible translations, provided they are the result of quality scholarly work.
1. We’ve heard it all before.
The critiques leveled at newer translations by supporters of the KJV were the same ones used against translating the Bible into English.
Dozens of sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of turning the time-honored Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) “barbarous” English. A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours and put into “language such as men do use”—language stepped in all the common-place associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street.
He reminds (or perhaps, informs) his readers that the Greek of the New Testament was not a formal, flowery Greek. It was common and basic, composed by men who did not grow up in the language.
For Lewis, having Scripture come to us in “vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language” is less of a shock than the Incarnation itself is.
To assume that God must give us His word in a classically beautiful form, is to make the same mistake many of the first century Jews made in assuming God must send His Messiah as a conquering military King.
2. Translation requires re-translation.
The English which was spoken when previous translations were crafted is no longer spoken by modern individuals.
[The KJV] is no longer modern English: the meaning of words have changed. The same antique glamour which has made it (in the superficial sense) so “beautiful,” so “sacred,” so “comforting,” and so “inspiring,” has also made it in many places unintelligible. … The truth is that if we are to have a translation at all we must have periodical re-translation. There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing.
Remember, he is saying this about the King James Version decades earlier, in the middle of the 20th century. How much more is it the case today?
He compares refusing to change a translation to attempting to buy clothes for your child “once and for all.” That is a pointless exercise because the child will grow and change. The clothes are designed to only fit them at a certain stage of their life.
The same is true for a translation. It was translated with a certain audience in mind—those that were alive and speaking the language when the translation was first released.
No translator can make a version that is perfectly suited for an audience 100 years in the future. He translates for his own age and trusts those coming after him to do the same.
3. Poetic language can dim the impact.
There is no denying that the King James Version is a beautiful translations, but Lewis argues that is, in at least one sense, a strike against it.
[T]hough it may seem a sour paradox—we must sometimes get away from the Authorized Version, if for no other reason, simply because it is so beautiful and so solemn. Beauty exalts, but beauty also lulls. Early associations endear but they also confuse. … Does the word ‘scourged’ really come home to us like ‘flogged’? Does ‘mocked him’ sting like ‘jeered at him’?
The beauty of the prose may blind us to the brutality of the story. Are we truly grasping the depth of the crucifixion story if we are merely left marveling at the way a translations turns a phrase?
This can be true for any section of Scripture, not simply the Passion narratives. When we begin to take our eyes off of the subject of the words and become consumed with the arrangement of the words themselves, we have missed the point.
This does not negate the value of older translations like the King James Version. There are times when the beauty of it does exalt the text and the One portrayed in it.
Lewis’ point should also not be misconstrued to mean that all modern translations are good and all previous translations are bad.
Some newer versions confuse and cloud the meaning of the original more than previous translations. Newness does not automatically equal usefulness.
As he said, there should be perpetual re-translations. Each generation is tasked with the Great Commission, which clearly enough means, each generation is tasked with the role of translating and proclaiming the Bible in a way that their hearers will understand.