Thinking Out Loud

April 25, 2015

C. S. Lewis on Modern Bible Translations

It’s hard to believe this wasn’t penned yesterday. I don’t know the original date it was written, but it first appeared in the collection titled God in the Dock, and we found this excerpt in another anthology tiled The Joyful Christian. Since Lewis died in 1963, we know the material is, at minimum, around 60 years old. I’ve changed the paragraphing and (horrors!) Americanized some spelling.

It is possible that the reader … may ask himself why we need a new translation of any part of the Bible… “Do we not already possess,” it may be said, “in the Authorized Version the most beautiful rendering which any language can boast?” Some people whom I have met go even further and feel that a modern translation is not only unnecessary but even offensive. They cannot bear to see the time-honored words altered; it seems to them irreverent.

C. S. LewisIn the first place the kind of objection which they feel to a new translation is very like the objection which was once felt to any English translation at all. 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 steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street.

The answer then was the same as the answer now. The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernized is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the Eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety.

In it we see Greek used by people who have no real feeling for Greek words because Greek words are not the words they spoke when they were children. It is a sort of “basic” Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language. Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant woman’s breast, and later an arrested field preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine….

When we expect that [the Bible] should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorized Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King.

The real sanctity, the real beauty and sublimity of the new Testament (as of Christ’s life) are of a different sort: miles deeper and further in.

In the second place, the Authorized Version has ceased to be a good (that is, a clear) translation. It is no longer modern English: the meanings of words have changed. The same antique glamor 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…

[He then gives some examples.]

…The truth is that if we are to have 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. If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once and for all: he will grow out of it and have to be re-clothed.

And finally – though 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. Through that beautiful solemnity the transporting or horrifying realities of which the Book tells may come to us blunted and disarmed and we may only sigh with tranquil veneration when we ought to be burning with shame, or struck dumb with terror, or carried out of ourselves by ravishing hopes and adorations.

6 Comments »

  1. Absolutely brilliant essay by the equally brilliant CS Lewis. Thanks for sharing this

    Comment by Ralph — April 25, 2015 @ 7:19 am

  2. That is stunningly accurate and worth printing out for my own future reference.I have never been a KJ only person but I have been an outspoken opponent of some Bible “translations”. The only side comment that I will make is that there are many many more Bible choices now than there were when he wrote this piece, and many of the newer ones do have a political/social/ denominational slant. I doubt Lewis would so beautifully defend them when whole scriptures are eliminated or words manipulated to make a certain point.

    Comment by yokedwithhim — April 25, 2015 @ 9:17 am

  3. very interesting – thank you.

    Comment by Planting Potatoes — April 25, 2015 @ 4:55 pm

  4. Reblogged this on random thoughts from lorne and commented:
    My friend Paul posted this yesterday. I thought it was worthy of passing on. Given the importance of the Bible in our society and culture I think even those who are not Christians might find this interesting and informative.

    Comment by Lorne Anderson — April 26, 2015 @ 6:30 am

  5. […] Read Lewis’ thoughts in this post on Paul Wilkinson’s blog… […]

    Pingback by 4-to-Read April 28 - Everyday Servant — April 28, 2015 @ 7:18 am

  6. I’m not a King James only supporter but it might be appropriate to remind ourselves that CS Lewis was NOT an evangelical and did not, so far as I can see, believe in either verbal inspiration or inerrancy.

    Comment by Ron Bailey — January 23, 2016 @ 3:49 am


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