Trading poetic expression for bald prose has the effect of shrinking the range, “not just of expression, but of thought itself.”
[The following are excerpts from Martin Cothran’s article What the King James Bible Hath Wrought?
In the first excerpt Cothran is referring to a character, Syme, from the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984.]
Syme, the editor of the Newspeak Dictionary, explains to the novel’s protagonist Winston Smith the purpose of the Dictionary. The word “bad,” for instance, is redundant, and should be replaced by “ungood.” Likewise, words like “excellent” and “best” are to be replaced by the “plusgood” and “doubleplusgood.”
“You think, I dare say,” says Syme, “that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words — scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone …”
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he says, “the destruction of words.”
Traditional language, which Syme refers to as “Oldspeak,” has no role in the brave new utilitarian world, where all things must be judged at the bar of efficiency. It lacks simplicity. It contains too many words with too many shades of meaning. “Don’t you see,” asks Syme, “that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?”
Syme explains where it will all lead:
By 2050 earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be.
The antidote to Orwell’s Syme is Aldous Huxley’s ironically named John the Savage. In his novel Brave New World, Huxley introduces us to an illegitimate child born into a world where pregnancy is no longer allowed, and who lives with his mother on a reservation for people who have violated the law and given birth. Both birth and books are banned. One day, John opens his mother’s trunk and discovers a volume entitled The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. He reads it over and over. The poetry of its words take root in his soul, and the literary vocabulary he acquires not only equips him with words to express feelings he formerly had no words to express, but helps him to discover feelings he didn’t know he had because he had no words even to think them. While the effect of Newspeak acts to “narrow the range of thought,” the effect of the literary language of Shakespeare is to widen the range, not just of expression, but of thought itself. So it is too with the King James Bible.
The translator of 1611 wrote with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond. The modern translator writes with Word, published by Microsoft. And it shows.
Both modern Protestant and Catholic translations suffer greatly from the misguided attempt to serve two masters. There are two selling points on modern translations: their readability (or understandability) and their accuracy. But any attempt at being “understandable to the modern reader” can become a threat to accuracy—at least if by accuracy we mean sticking with the original words of the text. All this talk is a vain oblation, Greek scholar N. T. Wright seems to suggest. Remarking on its lack of fidelity to the original Greek, he has called one of the most popular Protestant translations “appalling.” The favored modern Catholic translation is no better.
The problem seems to be that modern translators simply do not understand poetic expression, and since much of the Bible—even in what is otherwise prose—is given in poetic expression, they are ill-suited to translate it. If they did understand poetic expression, they would not assume that non-metaphorical language is somehow more “accurate” or even “understandable” than metaphorical expression.
Removing the poetry of the Bible, far from making it more understandable, does the exact opposite. This is why good writers like C. S. Lewis use frequent metaphors. People who write with clarity use more, not fewer, metaphors. Read more…