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Preserving Literary Quality?

Bryon’s Weblog has a quote from Leland Ryken and some commentary, followed by some rather silly comments by an obvious troll.

What I found interesting here, however, was the idea of preserving the literary qualities of the Bible.  Let me reproduce the quote Bryon used:

“If your essentially literal translation is the RSV, the ESV, or the NKJV—in other words, if your essentially literal translation rides the literary coattails of the matchless KJV—you can trust it to preserve the literary qualities of the Bible that the KJV gave to the English-speaking world for nearly four centuries.” [I did different emphasis than Bryon–HN]

My hope here is that he means that the KJV passed on literary qualities of the Bible to the English speaking word, though I think he would still be wrong.  Since I don’t have the book I can’t check the context, but is it possible he’s praising literary qualities introduced by the KJV?  There was a time when I would have dismissed such an interpretation out of hand, but now I don’t know.

Let me assume the best, however.  Even so, there seems to be a very strong tendency to regard representing something like the literal forms of the source language in words in a new language as somehow reproducing those literary qualities.  But that is not correct.  A similar combination of grammatical forms in one language need not, and in fact likely does not, mean the same thing to a reader.  And if the reader doesn’t read or hear the form in the way it would have been read or heard in the source language, has it been passed on?

Creating some new literary quality that pleases certain academics or people of particular literary tastes is easy.  Actually producing a form that has a similar impact is much harder.  To support the value of literal translation over dynamic or functional, other than as a sort of crib sheet for the source language, requires more than finding badly done dynamic translations of which there are plenty.  It requires demonstrating that the nuances and literary features presented by the literal translation both occur in the source language, and are conveyed to the target audience by the literal translation.

Other than amongst the advocates of these literal versions, I don’t see that happening.  In fact, most of the people who “get” the literary nuances do so not because they were actually conveyed by the translation, but because that person knows enough of the source languages to recognize the construction and thereby reads that literary quality into the English.

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  1. It looks to me (from just reading your post) as if Ryken is saying this: 1. The KJV translators created great literature as the form into which they moulded the Bible text; 2. It is important to preserve in translation this great literary form as well as the meaning of the text.

    Now #1 might be debatable but I will not dispute it here. The point I will dispute is #2, that the Bible should be presented now in this great literary form. To my mind we need to separate out two very different things which have become confused in Ryken’s mind, the great literature of KJV and the word of God. If we try to combine them in a modern translation, we necessarily distort both – or I suppose Ryken could improve on the first if he is indeed a better literary author than the KJV translators.

    So, it seems to me, if we want to admire KJV as a work of literature, we should do so through KJV without any updates, just as we still use Shakespeare in the original; and if we want to read the Word of God and allow God to change our lives through it we should make it as clear as possible, which in the modern world means freeing it from the mould of KJV.

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