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THOUGHTS ON THE REVISION OF THE AUTHORIZED
EVERY few years the press teems with discussions of this subject; with pamphlets, speeches and letters about it; the controversy
then dies away, and in a year or two revives again. The reasons of the periodic resuscitation of the topic are very obvious. Every thinking person must, we suppose, admit, (however paradoxical it may appear), the two statements on which the disputants on both sides chiefly rest; one of which leads to the perpetual renewal of the strife, and the other to doubts of any practicable method of settling it. The first is, that it must be, and ought to be, the wish of every Christian to remove every speck and flaw from the mirror which reflects Divine truth to us; and that therefore, if there be any such in the common version, it can never be our duty to perpetuate them. The second is, that though this is undeniable, our common version is so near an approximation to fidelity, and is so masterly in point of expression, that it may be feared that any extensive tampering with it would deteriorate instead of improving it; and that any gleam of stronger light that might be thrown on an insulated point here and there, on some small angle of truth, might be more than counterbalanced by a frequent, though it might be slight, impoverishing of the expression. To this it is added, that the fabric of popular association, which has gathered, in love and reverence, for more than two centuries about the Bible as it is, ought not to be lightly touched; that the very words and phrases, over which our fathers lingered, which consoled them in sorrow and sustained them in death, and which are diffused through the vast extent of our religious literature, are consecrated to the popular ear, and that no substitutes can have an equal charm. We confess that much is to be said on both sides of this controversy.
Whenever the controversy is renewed, we are sure to find the customary exaggerations. Men speak as if there were the most urgent reasons for an instant decision of it; extravagant state ments are indulged in as to the magnitude of the errors to be corrected in the old version, and the wonderful advantages to be secured by a new one.
One would imagine, to hear some good folks talk when under the polemic orgasm, that there was some danger of a plain man's missing his way to Heaven, unless he had a more accurate chart of the voyage than that laid down in the old Bible, which nevertheless has brought so many millions in peace to their “desired haven.”
At present, as we have said, men's minds seem to be more calm, and to feel that it is a controversy which need not be decided in a hurry; that whatever increase of accuracy might be attained by a new version—even though it were absolutely perfect-is but infinitesimal as compared with the approximate accuracy of the version already in every
. body's hands; that it can but give circumstantial exactness to what already has substantial fidelity; that the little gold-dust of truth which a new translation would give us, when summed erer 80 scrupulously, must be but a very minute fraction compared with the entire mass of shining bullion which the common version faithfully secures to us. Freed from all exaggerations, however, the subject is of sufi
, cient importance to deserve and demand repeated discussion; and we are not sorry to take an opportunity of recording our own views of it, when, as we have said, there is a temporary pause in the gusts of controversy, a lull in public feeling. In such a moment, we shall best keep our own mind, and the mind of the reader, free from the exaggerations incident to a controversy in full flame, as well as from all impatient solutions of the problem submitted to consideration ?
We shall endeavour, without prejudice, and with the utmost sobriety, to state the reasons for and against alterations in the current version ; the limits within which any such alterations are either desirable or necessary; and the modes in which, as we conceive, they may be most unobjectionably attempted ; attempted not only without any injury to the Authorized Version, but, (which is most desirable), so as not even to involve any solution of continuity in the associations of love and veneration with which the people regard it, or any abrupt transition of feeling in passing from the old to the new. To avoid this evil, even if for no other reason, we should deprecate, in the strongest terms, any proposal to commit to any body of men (be they who they may), the task of giving us an entirely new translation of the whole Bible as a
common version.” We shall endeavour to show, before we
have done, that, in all probability, though they were more learned, as they might very well be, than King James's translators, they would give us a translation, on the whole, much inferior,-certainly inferior in popular power and idiomatic energy,—to that we already possess.
The utmost that any reasonable man would ask is, that unquestionable blemishes should be removed and proved errors corrected, leaving the substance of the sacred volume untouched. Certainly in our judgment nothing but unnecessary risks could ensue from attempting a new translation altogether, if, for the reasons we are about to state, the probability is that a new translation, even though it might successfully achieve the rectification of some trivial errors, or the recovery of some stray particles of circumstantial truth, would be less idiomatic in its general expression, and, consequently, less forcible. The little gained here and there, in a particular passage, would be too dearly paid for by a generally-diffused deterioration of form.
But even were a new translation abstractedly equal in point of expression, it would be mere folly needlessly to disturb the charm of association with which, in millions of minds, the very words of the present version are regarded, and which wanton innovation, even though the diction were not deteriorated, must, according to a universal law of our nature, impair.
In fact, however strong reasons justify a doubt whether, in the present condition of the language, even the best taste and the most severe self-control on the part of modern scholars could give us, as a whole, so magnificent a specimen of English as our present version. Every cultivated language has its historic development, and there are epochs when, and when alone, relatively to given purposes, it is in perfection. Perhaps the period in which the translation of the Scriptures was made was the one in which not only the sinewy strength of the vernacular was unimpaired, but also in a condition of receiving, in relation to popular expression, the maximum aid from the foreign and classical elements. A generation afterwards, we may see, in the diction of Jeremy Taylor, Donne, Thomas Brown, and a host of similar writers, how a pedantic (or unconscious) imitation of classical terms and idiom had impaired their use of the vernacular; and how, if they had been among the translators of the Bible, it might have coloured and tinctured their diction. In our own day, though the ancient pedantry be gone, yet the infusion of the foreign element, owing to the demands of increasing knowledge and science which, in the altered structure of our language, could not be supplied from the vernacular sources, is so enormous, and literary taste is so familiar with that element, that it is very probably not in the power of any body of Englishmen to turn out such a piece of genuine English as our common version—at least, not naturally ;—it could only be by a perpetual vigilance, an incessant artificial care which would impart coldness and constraint to their work. That our vernacular tongue is as strong as it is, is owing, in no small measure, to the common version of the Bible
. Amidst incomparably higher benefits it has conferred upon us, its literary value has not been small. It has maintained the AngloSaxon element in its vigour; it has acted as a breakwater against those encroaching restless waves of change and caprice which are perpetually undermining and breaking down portions of a language, and rendering words, and idioms, and constructions obsolete or obsolescent.
For these reasons, a modern translation of the entire Bible might be more minutely exact; and yet, on the whole, a less luminous and powerful reflection of Divine Truth.
It is observed by astronomers that the planet Venus sometimes shines brightest, not when she is in that part of her orbit where she presents to us her fullest disc, but when she is at that nearer point where she is most intensely illuminated. We see somewhat Iess of her, but she shines brighter. It is much the same with the translations of a book. A little less of the original may be seen in one than another; nevertheless, preserving substantial accuracy of meaning it may, in addition, be so strongly illuminated—may, by felicity or energy of diction, so influence the imagination and affections of the reader, as to be incontestably superior, and preserve the essential spirit of the book incomparably better.
If any one wishes to see the extent to which infelicities of diction and style may dilute even the spirit of the Bible, wonderfully as it is constructed to aid the translator, and naturally as it clothes itself in the most idiomatic forms of every language into which it is rendered, let him compare some of the passages of the New Testament in the common version with those in the Catholic translation of the Rheim's New Testament. Most thankful, indeed, ought Protestants to be that such a translation is in circulation among British Roman Catholics; for faulty as a translation of the Bible may be, it is impossible for any translation, (if tolerably faithful), to disguise its essential facts and doctrines. Notes and glosses can alone do that, and not, even then, effectually. The “ candle of the Lord” shines through even the dullest horn-lantern into which the clumsiest translator may stick it; though it will shine indefinitely brighter in proportion to the transparency of the medium. Similarly, the light may be made dim and ineffectual by the lack of such transparency in the medium, and it is often just so with the renderings in the afore-mentioned version.
It is as
though our friends of the Roman Catholic Church feared there would be an explosion if they did not fix the light of truth in a “safety-lamp,” and interpose between its flame and the eye an obscuring gauze. Take the following examples :
“Who will reform the body of our lowness ?”—Phil. iii., 21.
“In like manner, ye young men, be subject to the ancients. And do ye all insinuate humility one to another.”—1 Peter V., 5.
"God is charity, and he that abideth in charity abideth in God,"1 John iv., 16.
“ And every spirit that dissolreth Jesus is not of God.”—1 John iv., 3.
In like manner, the frequent substitution of Latinistic terms for the strong and homely vernacular; as "solicitude” for “care, ” “longanimity” for “long-suffering," "recede” for “go back," "injustice” for “unrighteousness," " divesting” for “spoiling," "obscenity" for “filthiness," " benignity" for "gentleness," and so on, gives the whole version a certain foreign air, and produces an impression, as we read it, as if a thin veil had been drawn over the words. *
We cannot say that there are many cases in which the meaning is unintelligible, even in this version; but it is made much less vivid by the diction employed, which, even in the last revised edition of the version, is far too full of book-words. The style of the Bible is so marvellously constructed for transfusion of its thoughts into all the dialects of the world; it has such strong affinities with whatever is most energetic, simple, and idiomatic in them, that only a translator very skilled indeed in translating badly can render the histories of the Old Testament or the Gospels of the New very faulty as regards diction. But, nevertheless, one version, even of those parts, may be indefinitely better or worse than another.
But dismissing the idea of an entirely new translation, or, which would come to much the same thing, the consigning of the entire
common version” to the unlimited tinkering of any man or body of men on their sole authority, it must be confessed that a revision rigorously restricted to the passages in which error or other grave defect, (as obsolete forms), is charged, is a totally different thing. No such sweeping changes as might, and pretty certainly would, attend an entirely new version need be introduced in a cautious revision of the old. Comparatirely few, (however numerous absolutely), are the passages which require any alteration, and the
* An amusing collection of portentous Latinisms are given from the Rhenish Version in Trench's “ English, Past and Present.” Impudicity," "ebrieties,” “commessations,” and “longanimity” would certainly need a dictionary for the bulk of common readers.