Henry Gifford on the New English Bible

From Essays in Criticism, vol. xi (October 1962), pp. 466-70.

Over the past hundred years literature has been steadily losing ground; it no longer commands the centre, and has now given up a main citadel, the English Bible. Only yesterday the cadences of the Authorized Version controlled our speech, and provided a measure for high seriousness:

He is the rock of defence for human nature; and upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love. In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs: in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed; the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time.

Anna’s soul was put at peace between them. She looked from one to the other, and she saw them established to her safety, and she was free. She played between the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud in confidence, having the assurance on her right hand and the assurance on her left. She was no longer called upon to uphold with her childish might the broken end of the arch. Her father and her mother now met to the span of the heavens, and she, the child, was free to play in the space beneath, between.

Passion and knowledge used that kind of utterance. It was a birthright. Quite suddenly it has ceased to be; and the translators, turning to “the current speech of our own time”—more stagnant than current—have shut themselves in a one-generation culture. The new rendering does not seek to replace the Authorized Version, but with a million copies already marketed, the effect will be to schedule the older Bible as an Ancient Monument (Open on Sundays 11-12 a.m. and 6:30-7:30 p.m. Keys with Vicar). The translators wrote largely for youth, for the man in the street, for the victims of an illiterate Press and of television personalities with a vocabulary of four hundred words. The English language is becoming a dustbowl, the deposits of centuries blown away, and a thin temporary soil remaining. Yet the Authorized Version could still serve as a wind-break. Look now at the denuded scene.

It is principally a loss of rhythm, and thus of the passions and sensibility that were expressed through that rhythm. Tyndale, who moulded the character of the New Testament as we had previously known it, thought and felt with the energy of rural Gloucestershire, and at its pace. This can be shown from the parable of the tares (Mat. 13). First, the new rendering:

When the corn sprouted and began to fill out, the darnel could be seen among it. The farmer’s men went to their master and said, “Sir, was it not good seed that you sowed in your field? Then where has the darnel come from?” “This is an enemy’s doing,” he replied. “Well then,” they said, “shall we go and gather the darnel?” “No,” he answered; “in gathering it you might pull up the wheat at the same time.”

In the Authorized Version it goes:

So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?
   He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?
   But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.

It gains immeasurably through the pauses. After the servant’s question, the householder seems to think before answering: the reader can feel the weight of what has happened. Again there is a pause indicated before the servants put their next question. The new rendering, “Well then,” they said, “shall we go and gather the darnel?” doesn’t allow for the slow process of rural rumination. And the master has no authority, if they can speak to him like that.

The insensibility to rhythm and so to the dramatic tempo of a scene can betray itself in the botching of a single word. Tyndale’s account of Christ stilling the tempest (Mat. 8) has:

Then he arose, and rebuked the wynds and the see, and there folowed a greate calme.

The Authorized Version improves by putting was for followed (was, the “fact presented in the most naked simplicity possible,” as Wordsworth explained a similar use in “Resolution and Independence”). The new translators (advised, no doubt, by that amateur yachtsman who is said to have been called in for St. Paul’s shipwreck) make it “a dead calm,” and so kill the wonder.

It may be that Tyndale and King James’s men (like Rembrandt, in his painting of New Testament scenes) contributed their own solemn chiaroscuro. The present translators have had the benefit of innumerable scraps of papyrus uncovered in the Egyptian sands and are perhaps right to recognize the Greek as more “flexible and easy-going.” St. Paul in the Authorized Version is an impressive though difficult writer (a Carlyle with literary sense). “Be not deceived; God is not mocked ...” Today he rattles this out on the keys of his typewriter: “Make no mistake about this: God is not to be fooled ...” “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.” “Next a word to you who have great possessions. Weep and wail over the miserable fate descending on you.” The Apostle was a busy man, clearly; and like other busy men he is driven to use clichés. “Weep and howl” has the force of a medieval wall-painting; “Weep and wail” is the language of sedentary men who have lost the capacity to see and touch. “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?” Christ asks in the Authorized Version (which follows Tyndale). “Are not sparrows two a penny?” is wrong, because “two a penny” is a cliché; like the pennies that drop, and are offered for thoughts, the coin has no existence. But “two sparrows for a farthing” implies real birds and real money. They must have been cheap food, and today small birds are still eaten in Mediterranean countries.

Translators are perhaps bound to mediate the world of their own time. Here we can recognize the grey, anonymous, oatmeal-paper forms, the ill-phrased regulations, the barren communiqués and reassuring statements from which there is no escape this side of the grave—and not on the other side if the New English Bible is to be trusted. This is a world where “decrees are issued for a general registration”; where “a pupil is not superior to his teacher, but everyone, when his training is complete, will reach his teacher’s level” (see Ministry of Education circular, “Notes towards the definition of postgraduate levels”); where the “existing authorities,” having been “instituted,” proceed to “devote their energies”; where people “meet in conference to plan” an unspeakable crime; and where the Christians at Ephesus “give rise to a serious disturbance,” when the silversmiths, at a meeting with “workers in allied trades,” conclude that if this goes on, their “line of business will be discredited,” and so good-bye to their “high standard of living.” In this world women have “elaborate hair-styles”; “the glitter and the glamour are lost, never to be yours again”; obligations are imposed, moments are critical, rations are issued at the proper time, and “the worldly are more astute than the other-worldly in dealing with their own kind.”

In this world St. Peter escapes from prison, or rather is “rescued from Herod’s clutches” (Acts 12):

All at once an angel of the Lord stood there, and the cell was ablaze with light. He tapped Peter on the shoulder and woke him. “Quick! Get up,” he said, and the chains fell away from his wrists. The angel then said to him, “Do up your belt and put your shoes on.” He did so. “Now wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” He followed him out, with no idea that the angel’s intervention was real ...

It is an exciting narrative; there were a thousand such escapes in the war; if Peter read our newspapers, of course he would have “no idea” that an angel was helping him. But the cell ablaze with light hasn’t (for me) any mystery: someone must have switched on the supply at the mains.

Thus ultimately the tone is at fault. The translators, as we know, submitted their English to a literary panel, dozing brothers of the craft who had neither ears to hear nor eyes to notice the countless infelicities, the substitution on every page of lax, uncompelling speech for what should be direct and vigorous: “What is your opinion about the Messiah?” (not, “What think ye of Christ?”). “What action are we taking?” (not, “What do we?”). The translators have never challenged their reader, never risked an unfamiliar concept or a remarkable word. Earnest and devoted men, they have damaged the Christian myth, so that the cruel paradox emerges: it is possible to believe and not wholly to understand; and some that do not believe can yet understand the essential poetry. They have done wrong to our language, by not stretching it at any point; the richest of all the world’s languages, treated as post-office savings. And finally they have made things yet more difficult for the poet, by their tacit assumption that the marvelous can no longer find words of equivalent beauty to express it. “From him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”