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CS Lewis and Embracing the ESV Translation

by randy on September 29th, 2008

I have recently embraced the ESV translation of the bible.  I think it is a GREAT literal translation and have begun to read, memorize, study and teach out of it.  I also found this quote by C.S Lewis in a book I have called “Letters to Young Churches” by J.B Phillips.  He answers many of the criticisms for using new translations:

Introduction to Letters to Young Churches
It is possible that the reader who opens this volume on the counter of a bookshop may ask himself why we need a new translation of any part of the Bible, and, if of any, why of the Epistles. ‘Do we not already possess’, it may be said, ‘in the Authorised Version the most beautiful rendering which any language can boast?’ Some people whom I have met go further and feel that a modern translation is not only unnecessary but even offensive. They cannot bear to see the time-honoured words altered; it seems to them irreverent.

There are several answers to such people. In the first place the kind of objection which they feel to a new translation is very like the objection which was once felt to any English translation at all. Dozens of sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of turning the time-honoured Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) ‘barbarous’ English. A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into ‘language such as men do use’ — language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street. The answer then was the same as the answer now.

The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernized is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the Eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety. In it we see Greek used by people who have no real feeling for Greek words because Greek words are not the words they spoke when they were children. It is sort of ‘basic’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language.

Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense, an incurably irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion. When we expect that it should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorised Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King. The real sanctity, the real beauty and sublimity of the New Testament (as of Christ’s life) are of a different sort: miles deeper or further in.

In the second place, the Authorised Version has ceased to be a good (that is, a clear) translation. It is no longer modern English: the meanings of words have changed. The same antique glamour which has made it (in the superficial sense) so ‘beautiful’, so ‘sacred’, so ‘comforting’, and so ‘inspiring’, has also made it in many place unintelligible. Thus where St Paul says ‘I know nothing against myself,’ it translates ‘I know nothing by myself.’ That was a good translation (though even then rather old-fashioned) in the sixteenth century: to the modern reader it means either nothing, or something quite different from what St Paul said. The truth is that if we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation. There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once for all, for a language is a changing thing. If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once for all: he will grow out of it and have to be re-clothed.

And finally, though it may seem a sour paradox — we must sometimes get away from the Authorised Version, if for no other reason, simply because it is so beautiful and so solemn. Beauty exalts, but beauty so lulls. Early associations endear but they also confuse. Through that beautiful solemnity the transporting or horrifying realities of which the Book tells may come to us blunted and disarmed and we may only sigh with tranquil veneration when we ought to be burning with shame or struck dumb with terror or carried out of ourselves by ravishing hopes and adorations. Does the word ‘scourged’ really come home to us like ‘flogged’? Does ‘mocked him’ sting like ‘jeered at him’?
We ought therefore to welcome all new translations (when they are made by sound scholars) and most certainly those who are approaching the Bible for the first time will be wise not to begin with the Authorised Version — except perhaps for the historical books of the Old Testament where its anachronisms suit the saga-like material well enough. … It would have saved me a great deal of labour if this book had come into my hands when I first seriously began to try to discover what Christianity was.

From → Random Musings

One Comment
  1. To all the King James Version / Authorised Version only people, I would like to quote just one verse to illustrate a point. My aim is not to ridicule or hurt in any way.
    Isaiah 3:22 The changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles, and the wimples, and the crisping pins,
    When language changes over time to become such that no meaning can be carried then it may be time to have another version within reach. Oh and in the English Standard Version it reads as;
    “the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks, and the handbags”
    Quite a difference, wouldn’t you agree? Although I would prefer the New American Standard Version (Quite a confession coming from an Englishman brought up from the milk of the word to the meat, on the KJV) and as way of illustration the same verse in NASB reads;
    “festal robes, outer tunics, cloaks, money purses”
    A slight variation on the ESV, but I a sure you would agree both are very readable and both convey meaning in a clear way.
    I believe the english speaking people of the world have been blessed almost to the point of bewilderment by the number of translations available. I would like to share with you an order of Bibles ranging from a literal word for word translation going to more of a thought for thought translation.
    Just 20 of the more popular versions! One Bible available, is a parallel version which has the NASB and the Message together – could be helpful. One thing to remember is, as you go further down the list you come to paraphrases which strictly speaking are not translations as such and can be coloured by the belief of the writer / writers. The main thing about any version is; does it convey meaning to you and the most important aspect will you read it?
    The J.B. Phillips version is a paraphrase of the New Testament and portions of the Old Testament, one of the first such undertakings and was (excuse the pun) a revelation when it was first published.

    On a note of reflection.
    There are about fifty versions of the Bible and New Testament available to the the english readers of the world and we cheerfully attack each other over which one we should be using to bash people with. There are close to 2,000 language groups of the world with not even a single version to read in their own tongue. The picture isn’t quite as bad as it sounds though as about 800 have at least the New Testament with about another 400 with portions of scripture translated. Please pray for the remaining tribes, that they may have God’s Word translated soon. It is possible for these groups to be reached within our lifetime. – Pray the Lord of the Harvest to send forth labourers. – Please. The time is short.

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