Reynolds Price on the impossibility of ‘Dynamic Equivalence’

The following paragraphs are reproduced from the General Preface to Reynolds Price’s book Three Gospels (New York: Scribner, 1996), pp. 20-25.

Despite such a likably humane doctrine as what might be called the universality of the human heart in all times and places, it remains beyond doubt that human beings alive on the same day in the same city block — not to speak of different countries and centuries — will witness, reflect on, and respond to equal stimuli in ways as divergent as an infant’s and a leopard’s. Can any of us claim seriously to feel at all confident of sharing the feelings of a poor Roman Jew — or a Roman senator’s well-heeled wife — as they sat together in a threatened domus ecclesia (a house church) in the mid-sixties AD and listened as Mark or some literate friend read the agony scene in Mark’s gospel — Jesus terrified in the lonely hours before his arrest — while, a few yards away, Nero’s or Galba’s police combed the streets for bodies to feed an imperial craving for scapegoats? Or try imagining the contrary pulls on a young Greek sailor as he paused near the harbor in Ephesus, by the great temple of Artemis with its many-breasted statue of the goddess, and then chose to follow a gently importunate man from the Jesus sect up a blind alley into a dim room to hear the ancient Beloved Disciple recount Jesus’ fourth and last appearance after death. Now try to convey your imagined experience to others less resourceful than you.

Such exercises are both entirely legitimate and also laughable; they smack more of the ludicrous Hollywood fumblings in Quo Vadis or Ben Hur. In fact, we have no firm notion of how it felt to exist in Rome, Palestine, or Asia Minor some two thousand years ago — burdened with all the assumptions and hopes of our past lives; then confronted in words by the flaming demands of a recently dead, maybe resurrected Jew named Jesus with a ravenous will to change us and the Earth. Neither do we know something so initially obvious sounding as how the emperor Nero felt when he kicked his consort, the pregnant Poppea, to bloody death — no more, in all candor, than Cecil B. DeMille comprehended in his Biblical and historical epics the tone and unconscious principles of daily life on the Palatine Hill or in pharaonic Egypt.

Archaeology has often made it possible for us to imagine clearly enough the look of ancient life. What is certain to be lost forever is the feel and the tone of specific moments in prior centuries — the million unexamined assumptions that underlie the thoughts and actions of a particular human being at a given moment. Especially irrecoverable are the thoughts and choices, the fears of and reliance on the realms of angels and demons, of that large majority of people who never read or wrote a word but were sure that they lived at the momentary mercy of overlords, goblins, not to speak of an unimagined world of microbes. Nonetheless, in an understandable effort to bridge the chasms between our minds and those of the gospel writers — as well as the minds of their subjects and their audiences — translators who convince themselves of possessing access to the psychic atmospheres of the first century have frequently lurched into slangy or loose-mouthed approximations that ring suspiciously wrong and pretend to strip from their subjects the immovable screens of age and distance.

Attempts to find, for instance, what some leading students of modern translation have called a dynamic equivalence for first-century Greek are logically suspect in the extreme but have been pursued so often by individuals and groups that we now have in English several popular versions of the gospels that constitute what are well-intended but almost certainly major distortions of their originals. Among gospel versions that have most frequently stumbled in their efforts to make the originals contemporary, I note especially J. B. Phillips’s single-handed effort (often lively but very approximate); the American Bible Society’s immensely widespread committee translation called The Good News Bible (so committed to oversimplifying paraphrase as to lose itself often on errands of its own), long stretches of The New English Bible, The Amplified Bible (which is honest in admitting its expansive method), The New Revised Standard version, and the several editions of the Polebridge Press versions (Polebridge editions result from the work of the notorious Jesus Seminar, a group of American scholars which has recently — and with a straight face apparently — announced that 80-odd percent of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels are later inventions and that the resurrection, of course, never occurred except as a psychic phenomenon).

By contrast, I have tried to work in much the same manner as the forty-seven committee members who worked at the most successful English version of all — the Authorized Version of 1611, commonly known as the King James. Though its translators express, in their preface, the same hope that enlivens even the most egregious of paraphrasers — “we desire that the Scripture may speake like it selfe, as in the language of Canaan, that it may bee understood even of the very vulgar” — and though their result derives heavily from older English versions by Wyclif, Tyndale, and others, in general King James’s translators proceeded under a single guiding principle (one word of the original in the fewest equivalent words of English, with the preservation when possible of at least some suggestion of the Greek word order), it is debatable how much “the very vulgar” in Canaan or elsewhere in western Asia would have understood some of the more archaic language of the Hebrew scriptures or of Mark’s and John’s later Greek gospels.

Five minutes spent even today in the Bible section of an ordinary bookstore will show that no later version has equaled the King James in popularity; and in many conservative churches still, it is the only version consulted, as it is in a thousand college courses on “The Bible as Literature.” And while it is customary to say that such enduring popularity derives from the King James’s sonorous diction and stately syntax — the diction of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson — a close comparison of its language to that of the originals will very often show that the power and memorability of the King James is an almost automatic result of its loyal adherence to principles of literalness and the avoidance of paraphrase. Nearly four centuries of Greekless readers have sensed, unconsciously perhaps but with considerable accuracy, that the very strangeness — the sober exoticism — of the language of the King James is truer to its strange originals than any of its successors. Unfortunately for its present readers, the passage of time has made it inevitable that much of the diction of the King James is now obscure; and the subsequent discovery of new and better manuscripts has made its text occasionally unreliable.

Nonetheless a straightforward conversion of one word of Koine into the scholar’s best estimate of its contemporary match is likely to come, in the hands of a watchful craftsman, as near as we can get to a sense of the weight and tone of such ancient texts. The rest is left to our personal reaction — the resources, or lack of resource, that an individual reader brings to the task. Reading the gospels, in whatever language or era, is the same perilous and incessantly demanding transaction that we conduct by the moment with our nearest kin and loved ones. What do you mean? How have I failed you? What do you demand of me?

Whatever my own translations may offer by way of legitimate freshness, then, derives from a working fidelity to the by no means simple or always possible aim of word-for-word conversion. Such a method hardly makes for idiomatic modern English, but again neither of my originals is written in a suavely idiomatic nor always lucid Greek. A lingua franca like Koine Greek or twentieth-century English acknowledges no authoritative standard for the measurement of idiomatic ease. Alexandrian Jews, Roman prefects, tribal chieftains in Macedonia, merchants in Galilee, and priests in Jerusalem all employed a Greek that could look to no particular dialect as “correct.” Likewise, the English of educated London, New York, or Washington is hardly a standard against which we judge, say, the English of a U.N. diplomat not born to the language. So the pursuit of idiomatic translations of ancient texts is illusory on yet another score.

And in fact, since my attempts on Mark and John have developed over a stretch of twenty years, they show minor differences of approach from one another. In the hope of conveying the supreme originality and strangeness of Mark, my version of him is the more earnestly literal of the two. With the more fluent John — alien to Greek and idiosyncratic as he is — I have taken a very little more liberty in diversifying his small vocabulary, though I have awarded myself nowhere near the license taken by such recent and church-endorsed translations as The New English or The New Revised Standard versions that, again, resort to loose paraphrase and occasionally conceal instances of gendered language which, as evidence of the kinds of energy that moved the gospel writers, should not be concealed. In the discourses which John attributes to Jesus, I have hewn close to the original’s relentlessly limited battery of words and to the original order of the Greek when feasible (it is, after all, the order in which an early reader or listener encountered the writer’s images and ideas). In that respect at least I think my translation gives the reader perhaps the fairest sense of any modern version of the stern limitations John strained against to express his complexity.

Reynolds Price (b. 1933) is a Professor of English at Duke University and the author of several books of fiction, poetry, and essays.