Because I am one of the many people who cannot read any of the ancient languages the books of the Old and New Testament are written in, I depend on the scholarship of others to translate those books into English.
Translators work hard not just to capture the meaning of ancient words that we no longer have context for, but also to phrase the meaning using a structure readers can understand. It doesn’t take much of a change in wording to change the sense or emphasis of a biblical passage.
The first biblical translation I ever read was the King James Version (KJV). Here is the King James version of Psalm 40: 6-7, part of one of the readings for today.
Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required.
Then said I, Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me,
Here is the same passage from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the translation that I default to.
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required.
Then I said, “Here I am;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
Other than updating the language from Early Modern English to Modern English, the change that catches my attention is the one from ‘Lo, I come’ in the KJV to ‘Here I am’ in the NRSV. This may only be an artifact of my own limited understanding of Early Modern English, as ‘Lo, I come’ might mean exactly the same thing as ‘Here I am’ to a native speaker of Early Modern English. However, to me, there is a difference in the energy of the phrases. ‘Lo, I come’ indicates movement, a sense of departure, and a decision to take action on the part of the speaker; while, ‘Here I am’ indicates stopping, a sense of arrival, and a past decision brought to completion.
The King James Version was published in 1611 and the New Revised Standard Version was published in 1989. In the 378 years that elapsed between these two publications there were advances in biblical scholarship and an increase in the number of original sources discovered that scholars could use. That discovery and scholarship continues to this day.
In 2007, Robert Alter published his translation and commentary of the book of psalms. His commentary includes explanations of his translation choices, notes about the meaning of some phrases, and notes of areas of the text that are fragmentary or challenging to translate.
His offering for Psalm 40:6-7 is:
Sacrifice and grain-offering You do not desire.
You opened ears for me:
for burnt-offering and offense-offering You do not ask.
Then did I think: Look I come
with the scroll of the book written for me.*
The changes of note between this translation and that of the NRSV are the phrases: ‘opened ears for me’, ‘offense-offering’, and ‘the book written for me.’
He notes that: “‘You opened ears for me’ literally means, ‘You dug open ears for [or, to]’–that is, vouchsafed me a new acute power of listening to the divine truth. In later Hebrew, this idiom karah ‘ozen comes to mean ‘listen attentively.’ It is also possible to construe this–because ‘ears’ is not declined in the possessive–as God’s listening attentively to the speaker.”
It is interesting that the other two translations give the ears to the psalmist while Alter shows that the ears have just been opened. There is no clear ruling on whose ears they are. That opens up many possible meanings for this on phrase. The newly opened ears might be those of the psalmist, those of God, or even those of a third party or parties. I love the visceral power of ‘you dug open ears’ giving the sense as it does of a lot of work going into getting those ears to open.
The other change of Alter’s that speaks to me is the change from a book written ‘of me’ and a book written ‘for me’. A book written ‘for me’ by God that I carry with me has a different sense than a book written ‘of me’. If the book is ‘for me’ it is a gift given directly to me, something I can refer to and use as a reference going forward in life. If it is ‘of me’ then it is about me, making me an object of the book rather than an active user of the book.
Spending time looking at different translations made to fulfill different purposes, allows me to embrace and analyze the text from different points of view.
King James gave his committee of translators instructions that “intended to ensure that the new version would conform to the ecclesiology of, and reflect the episcopal structure of, the Church of England and its belief in an ordained clergy.”+
The guiding principal for the New Revised Standard Version was: “As literal as possible, as free as necessary.”
Robert Alter is trying to capture the compact and unique poetical structure of the psalms in English while using modern scholarship.
Each of these translations is impacted by the underlying goal brought to the translation process by the people working on the project. I think there is great value in looking a different translations, not only because it is interesting and expands my idea of what a particular passage might mean, but because this multiplicity of voices reflects how difficult it is to hear the voice of God.
We are so very tiny in the vastness of the Universe and therefore in the Vastness of God. As we see in the the story of Moses in the Old Testament, meeting God face-to-face changes a person irrevocably. God is too big for us to fully comprehend first-hand.
Jesus, coming to us ‘incarnate from the Virgin Mary’ as we say in the Nicene Creed is something we can comprehend, even if we aren’t great at always following his teachings. Through Jesus, God shows us how we can live in relationship with God and with our fellow humans.
For me, translations of the biblical texts, helps add to that faceted nature of God. The Old Testament God is one facet, Jesus another, and the stories humans have told about both of those facets are further expressions of the nature of God. There is a fractal nature to it that allows for infinite expression of our understanding of God.
The book written for me, is not just one book and not just one understanding of that book. My book is is shimmering multifaceted jewel that reflects one understanding of a story when the light hits it one way and another when the light changes.
What does not change is the stone itself, my understanding that while God, while vast, is the at the heart of the book written for me.
*Alter, R. (2007). The Book of Psalms:: A translation with commentary (pp. 142). New York: W.W. Norton.
+Daniell, David (2003). The Bible in English: its history and influence. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09930-4. via Wikipedia
All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gateway unless otherwise noted.
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.