Audiences and the KJV

Audiences and the KJV

. . . or any Bible translation, for that matter.

My post on reading from the KJV elicited a response from Iyov, who doesn’t agree with a number of things, some of which I haven’t said. But some of them I have said, so I want to clarify just a bit.

Note that I will make a couple of comments that are direct responses, which will be headed by quotes from his post as linked above. Where I am not directly responding to one of these quotes, I am making general comments, and these comments should not be read as directed at Iyov. I agree with a number of things he says, and would prefer that readers not assume disagreement where it doesn’t exist.

I related my experience with young readers who did not comprehend passages from the KJV, and Iyov responds thus:

Neufeld’s argument is odd. Certainly we expect young people to learn material substantially more difficult than the KJV. I do understand that Shakespeare and Milton remain in the high school curriculum, and those works use language far more complex than the KJV.

I’m afraid I find his counterargument odd. I cannot comment on his hypothetical young people who have supposedly studied more complex English literature in High School, but the actual young people in front of me were not comprehending the KJV. Further, when I asked them to read from the not-so-good NASB they were quickly able to comprehend things that they did not from the KJV. The NIV was even better.

Now I don’t want to make assumptions as to Iyov’s position, but I have had many people argue that I should teach the young people to read and understand the KJV. So in response to those who have made such an argument to me, I must say that I find it ridiculous. I also like the French Louis Segond version. Should I perhaps teach them French before I teach them a Bible class? Whether the educational system should prepare them to read Jacobean English or not (and I would say NOT as a general rule), when I teach Bible class I need to start from a text they can read. If I’m going to teach them anything about a language that is foreign to them, it will be about Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, as appropriate.

Of course there are varying levels of difficulty in the Bible, but that is hardly the point. In general use, a translation should not make the text more obscure than is necessary in order to convey the intent of the writer.

Iyov states further:

The Bible, even to those who have access to Biblical languages, is difficult. The Hebrew of the Bible is often obscure and difficult. Translations that hide this fact from readers (and this category includes the vast majority of all translations) are not accurately reflecting the text.

Again, I find this argument odd. One of the difficulties with the Hebrew text is that we lack cultural context and knowledge of the usage of certain words and constructions. In order to translate at all, one must make decisions on these matters and convey the result. There is no particular value to maintaining obscurity, except by indicating in a footnote that there are alternatives.

I’m not sure what Iyov expects translators to do with these obscure texts. Perhaps they should translate obscure Hebrew words with nonsense syllables in English so that the English reader can experience the frustration of trying to work through a difficult passage. No, that would be a bad idea. On of the tasks of a translator is to work through that sort of difficulty. He is a specialist, presenting a text to non-specialists.

Quoting Iyov again:

Even stranger is the claim the implication that the KJV allows religious leaders to “infuse meaning” through interpretively biased readings in a way that more modern translations do not.

It may be strange, though I think it is actually quite plain, and I have observed it many times. This is not, as Iyov seems to have understood me to say, the fault of translators. In fact, I regard the KJV as the greatest single achievement in English Bible translation. I fault the translators for practically nothing. Most criticisms are based, in my view, on applying a later standard to their pioneering work.

But in many modern congregations, some very near to where I live, the majority of the people do not understand the KJV, and the KJV-Only preachers tell them that the KJV is the sole word of God, superior even to the source texts in Hebrew and Greek. They then use the fact that the congregation is ill-equipped to question them as part of the process of manipulation.

The KJV was once a great translation for use in church. It is not so in present day America. In fact, I have not seen it used in any church where I would say the choice of the KJV was appropriate to the congregation in question. Hypothetically, I believe there could be such congregations. I have simply never encountered them.

One of the things I found after I left seminary, went to work in the secular market for some years (also dealing with language), and then returning to the church was that I am simply not the best judge of what a text means. I started learning Biblical languages in my teen years. I have been fascinated by history, geography, and sociology since I could read. What I read in scripture is heavily influenced by this broad exposure to the backgrounds.

When I first started teaching after returning to the church scene, I tried to teach based on what I assumed people were understanding. I found out very quickly that my assumptions were wrong. So I did something that seems to escape many people, especially scholars–I started asking my audiences what they were hearing or understanding from the scripture texts I used.

What I found was that they were very often not hearing the same thing, especially from formal equivalence versions such as the NASB (which was once a favorite of mine) or even my much favored NRSV. The situation became much worse when they used the KJV.

Many languages scholars assume that ambiguity from the source text that is translated by ambiguous English text is more faithful, giving the audience the option of choosing for themselves. (My uncle, Don F. Neufeld, who started me on both Hebrew and Greek, made this argument to me, and it took me some time to realize it was not so.) But the audience doesn’t hear the same set of options that the scholar does.

A much better approach is for the expert to make a choice, and indicate alternatives in footnotes. Now the audience can comprehend the text with a probable reading, and those who are willing to put in a very small amount of work, much smaller than would be required to learn the source languages or Jacobean English, can get good alternatives.

I recommend to my students now that they use a variety of translations, and read those footnotes. If they want to get closer to the source languages, a standard battle cry of the formal equivalence advocates, they need to learn the source languages. Formal equivalence has its place, in my view, but it does not better reflect the meaning of the text.

The meaning of a text is only properly reflected in translation if that translation is understood by the target audience. There is no such thing as accuracy without understanding. If the target audience for a translation is scholars who have some knowledge of the source language, then perhaps formal equivalence will work as it is claimed. For the vast majority of the people I teach on a regular basis, formal equivalence fails to meet that promise.

4 thoughts on “Audiences and the KJV

  1. The meaning of a text is only properly reflected in translation if that translation is understood by the target audience. There is no such thing as accuracy without understanding.

    Brilliant. As a former “literal is best” advocate, it’s been a revelation of sorts to actively engage with functional translations and have the satisfaction of understanding a passage of scripture, rather than wrestle with a foreign syntax while believing that my struggle is bringing me closer to God’s message because the words are supposedly closer to the original languages.

    After years of using only the NASB, I’m finally realizing why the NIV is so popular, regardless of whatever flaws it may have, though I still prefer the REB for all of my reading.

  2. Henry:

    I want to apologize again for confusing a statement of E-S Shaddai’s with yours — and I hope my post is correct in attribution now (if it is not, please let me know.)

    I want to clarify my positions. I have also stood before young people (perhaps a bit older than your groups) and found them perfectly capable of comprehending language from the KJV. But my main point here is that the problem in understanding the Bible is not dealing with the language, but understanding the underlying concepts. When a translator interprets for his audience, he is not reflecting the Bible. Moreover, large parts of the Bible are simply difficult. As I mentioned in my post, consider a basic question [for Christians] such as works vs. grace. Now, this material is written in a far simpler language than Hebrew — Koine. And yet, there is no consensus among Christians about what this means. This suggests to me that there are difficulties in understanding the material, and those who believe they “understand” the Bible after reading a translation such as the NIV have a faux understanding.

    Now, I do not doubt that preachers are able to impute meaning into passages that you find are not there. However, I very much doubt that this is a function of the language. I claim this is just as easy to do with the NIV as with the KJV. Indeed, I can say from personal experience, people do this all the time with English texts from Beowulf to the latest best seller: simply look at contemporary literary criticism. (In fact, I would claim that this is even easier to do for works in a modern idiom.)

    Finally, I am a bit reluctant to say that reading meaning into the Bible is necessarily bad. All Judeo-Christian traditions I am aware of this do this all the time. For example consider — what did Jesus do:

    Doesn’t the New Testament read meaning into the Hebrew Bible with its quotations?

  3. In passing, I might note C. S. Lewis’s comment that the beauty of the language of the KJV can sometimes be an obstacle – paraphrased, if you’re getting literary enjoyment out of a passage that should strike you with something akin to horror, the message isn’t getting across. Also, I’d suggest reading the Lewis essay “Before we can communicate” from “God in the Dock” – Lewis agrees with you on the necessity of actually finding out what texts and vocabulary actually communicates to people, and actually suggests that a test on translating theologese into ordinary language be a required part of ordination.

    The big problem is often that most people really aren’t good at listening, particularly at listening to someone whose background and perspective is different from their own (and given “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and My ways are not your ways”, that’s pretty much what you’re dealing with when reading the Bible). If you’re going to have a prerequisite to a Bible class, it probably should be a class on just plain listening. Getting a handle on understanding what other people are trying to communicate, even when their communication style, background, and perspective are different from your own, will go a long way in understanding what God is saying in His Word.

    Personally, I still prefer the NASB (which I refer to as the ‘hair-splitters version’), but I went through a period where I pretty exclusively used the NIV. I found the NIV better for getting across flow of thought than the occasionally stilted NASB. On a personal level, combining the attention to flow of thought learned from the NIV with the formal precision of the NASB is valuable. On the other hand, you can’t expect something like that for someone who is just starting.

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