The Word of God Is Living and Active (unless your translation philosophy emasculates it)

In Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, Peter Leithart writes (3ā€“6),

“It is easy for Christians to blame secularists for ‘letting the Bible go,’ but the church is at least as culpable. As [Clive] James points out, translation is a key symptom of our willingness to emasculate our own Scriptures.
[here Leithart presents two renderings of Psalm 23, first the KJV then the Message, then discusses a few differences between the translations]
The most crucial difference, though, is a difference in authority: which language, which idiom, determines the rendering of the Hebrew into English? For the KJV, the Hebrew text forces itself on the English. ‘Valley of the shadow of death,’ now an English cliche, was introduced by Bible translators, as was ‘my cup runneth over.’ Older translations refreshed the target language (English) by bringing in the Hebrew as much as possible. The KJV enlarged not only the language but also the conceptual apparatus of English speakers, as more or less common words and concepts like table and cup and staff took on the religious aura of the psalm. For The Message, by contrast, contemporary English dictates what the Bible may and may not say.
Leithart continues:
“This example from The Message is far from the most egregious example that could be found. But it does go some way toward justifying Dwight Macdonald’s complaint that modern Bible translators turn down Scripture’s ‘voltage, so it won’t blow any fuses.’
My point is not merely aesthetic, and it is not at all nostalgic. I am not pining to hear the echoing, arching rhythms of the KJV ring from pulpits everywhere. My point is theological, and one of the main themes of this book. For The Message, the crucial thing about the Bible is the substance of what it teaches us, and many readers and interpreters come to the Bible with the same interests. For translators, commentators, preachers, and theologians, the idioms and cadences, the rhetoric and the tropes, the syntax and the vocabulary of the original have been reduced to mere vehicles for communicating that message. If the vehicle fails to reach its destination, we change vehicles. We substitute, add, or subtract words to make the Bible sound normal. We change idioms to be more familiar. We turn God’s names into generic terms of divinity. We fiddle with the Bible’s rhetoric so that it fits our rhetoric, rather than letting the Bible’s rhetoric shape ours. Once we think we have found the spirit of the text, we feel free to mold the letter as we will.
As the comparison of the two translations indicates, students of the Bible have not always treated the Bible this way. Older translators recognized that no translation can completely capture all the features of the original text. But the goal of Reformation and post-Reformation Bible translators was always to carry over as much of the original text as possible into the target text. When Tyndale found no word for a Hebrew concept, he invented one–atonement–which is having a remarkably fruitful career in the English language, not to mention English theology, psychology, anthropology, and political theory. When the KJV translators found the Hebrew redundant, they made the English redundant: ‘dying, you shall die.’ When they found a vulgarity, they (sometimes) kept it in English: a vulgar man is one who ‘pisseth against the wall.’ For most earlier translators, and for commentators, preachers, and Bible scholars, the original Bible set the agenda, while the target language and the target culture were expected to make room for it. They did not believe that the Bible needed to adjust to our prior concepts and institutions.
Scripture once transformed the world precisely because Bible students clung to the letter. Once the letter is reduced to a malleable vehicle, Scripture loses its potency. It no longer shapes our imaginations, our poetry, or our politics, because it is not allowed to say anything we do not already know.

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