My Latest at First Things

Leroy HuizengaBlog4 Comments

My latest at First Things, on the mass proliferation of Bibles and the need for good ones which will only be brought about by bringing poets into the translation process. I’m actually somewhat sanguine on this point, odd for me, since I’m usually melancholy if not saturnine about cultural moments and artifacts. Excerpt:

Having one truly common English Bible might not be desirable, even were it possible (think of how this totalizing impulse led to bloodshed in the English Reformation). But I do think that English Bible translations should never start from scratch but rather should engage in what Alan Jacobs calls “deference to existing excellence” and thus stand in the great stream of English Bibles going back to Tyndale, so that the tradition of our noble and lively tongue might steer a middle course between wooden literalism and sloppy paraphrase, between elite prescriptivism and populist descriptivism.
Doing so might also reintroduce poets to the task of translation, a necessity if we are to produce better Bibles. As Jacobs observes, the great English Bibles were made in an age before “the divorce between literature and theology,” the age of the seventeenth century in which one finds “figures in whom literary excellence and theological acuity would be comfortably blended,” an age in which “the men of letters and the men of God were the same men.”

Jacobs is pessimistic; I’m more optimistic, but, in any event, if we don’t produce beautiful Bible translations, it’s a good thing we already have some.

4 Comments on “My Latest at First Things”

  1. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod adopted the use of the English Standard Version for our hymnal, catechism and other books and devotionals in 2004. The ESV is a conservative revision of the RSV and retains many of the theological terms which were abandoned in the NIV. Who would you say best fits the description of a theological poet?

  2. Comments working again. Yay!

    Theological poet…Oh goodness, you’d probably have to look back to the 16th-17th centuries. I mean, Luther does really well in his translation(s). May not have been a poet, but he was a musician, which I think does matter…

    A lot of Catholics are excited about the reissue of the Knox Bible (, history here:

    I think that translations done by a single person, like the Knox Bible, are really fascinating, for all their potential pitfalls, because you avoid the lowest-common-denominator effect functioning in committees.

    I suppose in calling for poets, I mean I want the people translating the Bible not only to be experts in Greek and Hebrew, but also experts in English. Most Bible scholars are the former and not the latter. Why not consult good contemporary writers of poetry and prose when doing translation?

  3. I guess talking about Bible translations opens a can of worms. I recall the late Rev. Neuhaus was very vocal about his likes and dislikes. My favorite is the “New American Bible, Revised Edition.” I like the way it reads, and it satisfies me that it is a good-faith attempt at balancing reading aloud with reading privately. For me, the American bishops at last have done something right. I doubt if Father Neuhaus would approve.

  4. The revised NAB is much better than the original, but in my opinion, still somewhat clunky. I am glad they’re moving in the right direction. I think what’s happened (to restate my basic point) is that we reduced Bible translation to some sort of science and left it up to philologists, many of whom lack skill in English (or mutatis mutandis French, Spanish, whatever). I think a translator needs be an expert in both the ancient and the modern language.

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