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Translation and the Degradation of Language

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series

"Conservative Christianity and the Authorized Version"

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Not all languages have the same natural facility at expressing all ideas. Some of these restrictions are in vocabulary: a language might have a word or phrase that readily communicates a specific concept that another language might require several words (or it might have to borrow a word) to say the same thing.

Other distinctions are matters of syntax and morphology. Hebrew, for instance, not only allows for nouns to be singular or plural, but there is also a dual form, which (as expected) signifies that there are two of that noun. We can communicate that there are two of something in English, but not as simply.

These kinds of distinctions in communicative power not only exist between languages; they can exist in the same language as it changes over time. This brings us to the next conservative argument for the use of the AV: that the past three hundred years have not been kind to the English language, such that the AV more accurately expresses biblical content than a modern version is capable of doing.

It is not hard to see how this argument is rooted in a basically conservative outlook. Do we live in an era in which communication is degraded? Is it possible, maybe even likely, that English suffered linguistic deterioration since Shakespeare? It seems obvious to me that something like this is the case.

The most cited example of this downgrade is that Elizabethan English distinguishes the second person singular and plural with you and ye. There is no dispute here: the 1611 bests modern versions in communicating this difference; the latter are typically reduced to footnoting relevant instances of the plural pronoun for clarity.

It is always my purpose, when evaluating an argument that I don’t agree with, to try to see it in its best light before responding to it. But here, other than the pronoun issue I’ve mentioned already, I simply don’t see specific ways in which modern English is incapable of or even handicapped in expressing the meaning of the Greek and Hebrew it is translating.

To be sure, there are modern translations that purposefully avoid the use of (possibly unfamiliar) theological terms. Such translation are forced either to substitute unwieldy phrases for those terms or else to use a simpler word that will miss the point of the original text. And I am also willing to concede that recent developments in English grammar that capitulate to progressive distortions about gender have made their way into some translations, distorting in places in the original intention of the author.

But these still do not represent structural defects in contemporary English itself. The mere existence of modern translations that do suffer by attempting overly simplistic or ideologically motivated translation is no argument that such defects are intrinsic to every modern English translation. Is there something in the language of the ESV and NASB that renders them incapable of adequately translating the Hebrew and Greek of our Bibles? I fail to see what it might be.

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About Michael Riley

Student of theology, apologetics, and Christian affections. Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Wakefield, Michigan.