T.S. Eliot on the New English Bible

I will give in a few words my reasons for reproducing this review of a Bible version which long ago passed from the scene, the New English Bible New Testament of 1961. The author of the review—Thomas Stearns Eliot—was a prominent man of letters in the middle of the twentieth century, and beyond the grave he continues to be very influential as a literary critic. He was also a Christian. His reaction to the New English Bible is worth reprinting now because of the enduring principles of criticism which he briefly expressed and applied to the ephemeral “contemporary English” version of his day. Some of his remarks will no doubt seem strange to readers in the twenty-first century, after so many years of literary decline in the Western world. Many readers of English Bibles are now accustomed to the trite and inferior style he combats, and have little awareness of how much has been lost in the never-ending pursuit of “contemporaneity.” Upon those who do find it strange, I urge a patient and sympathetic reading of this little essay.

To provide a wider context for Eliot’s remarks, I will quote from his 1948 book Notes towards the Definition of Culture, in which he wrote,

... whether education can foster and improve culture or not, it can surely adulterate and degrade it. For there is no doubt that in our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards, and more and more abandoning the study of those subjects by which the essentials of our culture—of that part of it which is transmissible by education—are transmitted; destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.

Michael D. Marlowe
March, 2005

From the Sunday Telegraph, No. 98 (16th December 1962), p. 7.

There are three points of view from which any translation of the Bible may be examined: that of doctrine, that of accuracy of translation, and that of English prose style. In what follows I am concerned only with the question of style.

The translation of the Bible undertaken over 350 years ago at the suggestion of King James I was made by the best scholars in the kingdom. It was a revision of previous translations; the task was parceled out between six committees, and a general committee spent over two years in revising the work of the six.

In the preparation of the New English Bible, of which only the New Testament has been completed and published, an equally careful procedure has been followed. There have been four “panels,” of which one has been responsible for the New Testament, and another is responsible for “the literary revision of the whole.”

Again, the committees have been enlisted from among the best scholars in the kingdom, and, this time, with complete freedom of choice; for denominational considerations have played no part.

Errors of Taste

The age covered by the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I was richer in writers of genius than is our own, and we should not expect a translation made in our time to be a masterpiece of our literature or, as was the Authorized Version of 1611, an exemplar of English prose for successive generations of writers.

We are, however, entitled to expect from a panel chosen from among the most distinguished scholars of our day at least a work of dignified mediocrity. When we find that we are offered something far below that modest level, something which astonishes in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial, and the pedantic, we ask in alarm: “What is happening to the English language?”

I shall give a few quotations in illustration, before examining the principles of translation adopted by the translators, as set forth in the Introduction: principles which seem to me to take us some way towards understanding the frequent errors of taste in the translation itself.

The translation of a passage may be subjected to criticism on several grounds. I can illustrate this very well by examining a sentence in St. Matthew (hereinafter referred to as “Matthew,” in conformity with the New English Bible) the earlier version of which will be a familiar quotation to many even of those who are ignorant of the Scriptures: “Do not feed your pearls to pigs.”

We notice, first, the substitution of “pigs” for “swine.” The Complete Oxford Dictionary says that “swine” is now “literary” but does not say that it is “obsolete.” I presume, therefore, that in substituting “pigs” for “swine” the translators were trying to choose a word nearer to common speech, even if at the sacrifice of dignity.

I should have thought, however, that the word “swine” would be understood, not only by countryfolk who may have heard of “swine fever,” but even by the urban public, since it is still applied, I believe, to human beings as a term of abuse.

Next, I should have thought that the sentence would be more in accordance with English usage if the direct and indirect objects were transposed, thus: “Do not feed pigs upon your pearls.” To make “pearls” the direct object is, if I am not mistaken, an Americanism, and my belief is confirmed, rather than dispelled, by the examples of this usage given in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The most unfortunate result, however, is that the substitution of “feed” for “cast” makes the figure of speech ludicrous. There is all the difference in the world between saying that pigs do not appreciate the value of pearls, and saying, what the youngest and the most illiterate among us know, that they cannot be nourished on pearls.

Too Literal

This is not the only instance in which a figure of speech, or illustration, has been ruined; though in some other places rather by literalness, as “no man can be slave to two masters,” which ceases to carry any admonition, and becomes merely a flat statement about the condition of slavery.

“Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is that plank in your own?” may be literally accurate but will certainly, if it is read in church, raise a giggle among the choirboys. As for the house built upon sand, “down it fell with a great crash!”

As for clarity, I find some passages more puzzling in the New English Bible than in the Authorized Version. Surely others besides myself will take no comfort from being told, as the first beatitude: “How blest are those who know that they are poor.” (The translator of Luke is more nearly in accord with the Authorized Version here.)

And the unlearned, on being told that “a man who divorces his wife must give her a note of dismissal,” will marvel at the apparent facility with which the Hebrews could get rid of their wives. “Bill of divorcement,” even though it gives no clear notion of the process required by Jewish law, at least sounds ceremonious.

The foregoing examples are all taken from “the Gospel according to Matthew,” an Evangelist who seems to have been especially unlucky in his translator. The other Gospels, however, conform to the same style (or absence of style) in their monotonous inferiority of phrasing.

I wish nevertheless to quote one brief passage in order to give the translator of “Luke” his due (Luke 3:14-15). To the soldiers who ask what they should do John the Baptist replies: “No bullying; no blackmail; make do with your pay!”

I admit gladly that lapses of taste are less offensive when committed against a “Letter”—that is to say, against what we have known heretofore as an “Epistle”—than when committed against a Gospel. And there is much more justification, I will even say need, for modern translations of the Epistles than for modern translations of the Gospels.

A Difficult Writer

Some years ago Dr. J.H. Oldham lent me the translation of St Paul’s Epistles made by Gerald Warre Cornish (who fell in action, I believe, in the first World War). It struck me as admirable and very useful. To imagine, however, that a modern translation can make St Paul’s meaning clear is an exaggeration: what it can make clear is what the familiarity of the Authorized Version may disguise from us—the fact that St Paul is a difficult writer.

A modern translation makes it easier for us to get to grips with the thought of St Paul: it does not relieve us of the necessity of using our own minds, any more than can a translation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

And if the translations of Paul in the New English Bible did not offend our taste with Boeotian absurdities similar to those in the translations of the Gospels (e.g. Paul “formulated the charge” that Jews and Greeks alike are all under the power of sin) they might take a respectable place among the modern translations.

I do not propose to prolong my inventory of verbal infelicities in the New English Bible. The Times Literary Supplement of 24th March, 1961, had an excellent article on “Language in the New Bible”; and the Trinitarian Bible Society has issued, as a leaflet, a useful list of specimens of bad taste, compiled by the Rev. Terence H. Brown and available at the price of one penny.

Translators’ Aims

The instances I have given will suffice to prepare the way for an examination of the principles which the translators have set before themselves. These find their statement in the Introduction. I do not think that this Introduction has yet received enough attention.

According to the Introduction, the translators have set before themselves several aims: fidelity to what the author wrote; clarity; finer shades of idiom (than in the Authorized Version); to say in their own native idiom what they believed the author to be saying in his; and contemporaneity.

We are told that the language of the Authorized Version is “even more definitely archaic, and less generally understood, than it was eighty years ago” (when the Revised Version was prepared) “for the rate of change in English usage has accelerated.”

I put this clause in italics, because it seems to me significant—and ominous. The English usage of eighty years ago, we are told, is out of date. And if the rate of change has accelerated, is it not likely to continue the acceleration? What is likely to be the fate of the New English Bible eighty years hence?

We are then told that for a version more modern than that of 1881 “an attempt should be made consistently to use the idiom of contemporary English to convey the meaning of the Greek.” This requirement of contemporaneity is emphasized at the end of the same paragraph: “The present translators have been enjoined (italics mine) to replace Greek constructions and idioms by those of contemporary English.”

Change for Worse

No attempt is made to substantiate the assertion that the rate of change of English usage has accelerated, or to inform us in what respects English usage is changing. It does not seem to have occurred to the mind of the anonymous author of this Introduction that change can sometimes be for the worse, and that it is as much our business to attempt to arrest deterioration and combat corruption of our language, as to accept change.

Nor are we given any definition of “contemporaneity.” Is it to be found in the writing of the best contemporary writers of English prose, and if so, who are they and who is to decide who they are? Or is it to be found in colloquial speech, and if so at what level of literacy?

Will the readers who find “sweated all day in the blazing sun” suits them better than “borne the burden and heat of the day” be the same as those who find “extirpate” more “contemporary” than “destroy”?

When we turn to the description on the jacket we find that the aim was “to be in style neither traditional nor modernistic.” If style is to be contemporary without being modernistic, the words “contemporary” and “modernistic” should be carefully defined.

For Whose Use?

At the time when the New English Bible was published, it seems that Dr. Dodd appeared in a television programme and explained the purposes for which it was designed. As I did not hear him on that occasion, I quote from the article in The Times Literary Supplement to which I referred earlier:

In a helpful television programme ... Dr. Dodd, the director of the enterprise, told viewers whom the new Bible was intended for: it was, he said, for people who do not go to church, for a rising generation less well educated than formerly in classical and literary traditions, and for churchgoers so well accustomed to the language of the Authorized Version that they may have come to find it soothing rather than meaningful.

So long as the New English Bible was used only for private reading, it would be merely a symptom of the decay of the English language in the middle of the twentieth century. But the more it is adopted for religious services the more it will become an active agent of decadence.

There may be Ministers of the Gospel who do not realize that the music of the phrase, of the paragraph, of the period is an essential constituent of good English prose, and who fail to understand that the life of a reading of Gospel and Epistle in the liturgy is in this music of the spoken word.

The first appearance of the New English Bible in churches has, I believe, been in the reading of the Epistle for the day. Nothing will be gained, for the new version will be just as hard to grasp, when read in church, as the Authorized Version, and it will lack the verbal beauty of the Authorized Version.

To understand any version we must study it at home, or under direction. And if use of the New English Bible “Letters” in churches is followed by adoption of the New English Bible Gospels, must we not look forward to the day when the Collects of Cranmer are revised for use in Anglican churches, to make them conform to “contemporary English”?

It is good that those who aspire to write good English prose or verse should be prepared by the study of Greek and Latin. It would also be good if those who have authority to translate a dead language could show understanding and appreciation of their own.