N.T. Wright: Lost and found in translation

N.T. WrightABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, has published an interesting essay by Bishop N.T. Wright entitled Lost and found in translation: From 1611 to 2011. This includes a well balanced critique of the Tyndale and KJV heritage and some interesting material on Bible translation principles, on which he seems much better informed than many biblical scholars. But there is no mention of Wright’s own forthcoming New Testament translation, now renamed The Kingdom New Testament.

Here is a taster of what Wright writes:

Translations must be concerned with accuracy, but there are at least two sorts of accuracy. The first sort, which a good Lexicon will assist, is the technical accuracy of making sure that every possible nuance of every word, phrase, sentence and paragraph has been rendered into the new language.

But there is a second sort of accuracy, perhaps deeper than this: the accuracy of flavour and feel. It is possible, in translation as in life, to gain the whole world and lose your own soul – to render everything with a wooden, clunky, lifeless “accuracy” from which the one thing that really matters has somehow escaped, producing a gilded cage from which the precious bird has flown.

Thanks to Eddie Arthur for the link.

29 thoughts on “N.T. Wright: Lost and found in translation

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    John, I must say I was surprised that the figure was that high. It may refer to the New Testament only, given Wright’s specialism and that Tyndale never completed his translation of the Hebrew Bible.

  2. Theophrastus says:

    A simple glance at Tyndale’s and the King James New Testament reveals that they do not 87% identical verses. I am not sure what lexical level (letters? words?) this claim is made.

  3. JKG says:

    What Wright says about translation with respect to Jewishness and Christianness (highlighting the first until the second comes along) is fascinating:

    “This is, and remains, a deeply Jewish message, rooted in Israel’s scriptures, but it is a Jewish message that in its very nature demands translation…. Translating the message into the world’s many languages is therefore organically linked to the central claim of the gospel itself. Not to translate might imply, perhaps, that Jesus belonged, or belonged specially, to one group only – a dangerous idea which some of the earliest New Testament writings strongly opposed.

    The fact that the New Testament is written in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic, tells its own story: this, the early writers were saying by clear implication, is the Jewish message for the whole world. To translate is to imply that, just as the gospel of Jesus is for all people, so the early Christian writings which bear witness to Jesus are for all people.

    No doubt all human languages will find it a challenge, this way or that, to express in their own idiom what the early Christians were trying to say in theirs…. Translation is difficult, but it is the same sort of difficulty as we face in discipleship itself.”

    What Wright completely misses is the Septuagint, also “in Greek,” and quite obviously both Jewish (not Christian at first) and translation. Yes, I know, many Christians claim the LXX, and many Jews refuse to claim it for that reason. But Israeli historian Sylvie Honigman (in her wonderful work, The Septuagint and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria) makes the claim that the LXX was as sacred as the Hebrew original to its original Jewish readers in Alexandria. Likewise, Jewish American scholar Naomi Seidman (in her Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation) shows Talmudic support for the argument that the LXX was a thoroughly Jewish rendering from Hebrew to Greek, valued as a Jewish, not a Christian, translation. Seidman’s argument is that Jewish translation often has been, and has had to be, political and, if universal for the whole world, then still retaining an element of Jewishness that is quite distinct and a message that not the whole world gets or is willing to get.

    Does Wright’s “Jewish message that in its very nature demands translation” lose the Jewishness of translation?

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk asks:

    Does Wright’s “Jewish message that in its very nature demands translation” lose the Jewishness of translation?

    It should not, if translators are meticulously accurate as they translate. I do not consider some of the Christianizing of the translation of the Hebrew Bible and LXX done by some recent English translation teams to be meticulous translation. I say that we should let each original text say what it said in its original context. So we should translate the Hebrew Bible as it was written by its authors within their contexts. And we should translate the New Testament, including Christianizing of some Old Testament (usually LXX) quotes, as it was written by its authors within their context. When a N.T. quote does not exactly align with an Old Testament original text, I believe we should leave that non-alignment alone and not try to harmonize translation of the O.T. to agree with the N.T. quote. My opinion is in line with my belief that translation should be “pure,” never biased by external factors, including ideology, theology, or non-standard “dialects” of exegetes/translators.

    Unfortunately, the nearly exclusive use of the LXX for the Old Testament, whether for direct reading in liturgy or in translation, by some portions of the historical Christian Church, may be related to longterm anti-Semitism in some of the Church, including the attempts by some to remove as much of the Jewishness of the Old and New Testaments as possible.

  5. Peter Kirk says:

    Theophrastus, I would assume that Wright is discounting purely orthographic and punctuation changes, especially as even editions of KJV vary widely here. But any kind of computer check would find these differences. I don’t suppose this is how you were doing your “simple glance”, but it is an important factor if anyone else tries to research this matter.

  6. Theophrastus says:

    Peter, both Tyndale and KJV are in print, so it is easy to compare them.

    It is particularly easy if one uses Luter Weigle’s New Testament Octapla which I suspect you can find at any local library. You can make the check yourself by casually picking a few random pages. While it is clear that the KJV is an adaptation of the Tyndale, it is not the case that 7/8s of the verses are identical, even if one allows for varying punctuation and spelling. In fact, it is clear that the majority of verses have at least some difference.

  7. Theophrastus says:

    Wright quotes T. S. Eliot as saying, “Words, as T.S. Eliot observed sorrowfully, will not stay in place: they change their meaning, lose old resonances and pick up new ones.”

    Anyone who is familiar with T. S. Eliot’s view on Bible translation will immediately sense a disconnect here. Eliot strongly opposed new Bible translations, famously turned down the opportunity to participate in the New English Bible translation (claiming that he saw no reason for a new translation), and skewered the New English Bible translation in a widely reprinted book review after it appeared.

    In fact, if you recall your high school English classes, you’ll remember that Wright is quoting from Eliot’s section V of the “Burnt Norton” portion of Four Quartets, where he was speaking of something entirely different — in fact, it was part of an extended religious metaphor (“The Word in the desert
    Is most attacked by voices of temptation”). Here is the entire stanza:

    Words move, music moves
    Only in time; but that which is only living
    Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
    Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
    Can words or music reach
    The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
    Moves perpetually in its stillness.
    Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
    Not that only, but the co-existence,
    Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
    And the end and the beginning were always there
    Before the beginning and after the end.
    And all is always now. Words strain,
    Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
    Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
    Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
    Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
    Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
    Always assail them. The Word in the desert
    Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
    The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
    The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

    I wonder why Wright quoted Eliot so badly out of context.

  8. Peter Kirk says:

    Note also the following from Wikipedia:

    The Authorized Version New Testament owes much more to the Vulgate than does the Old Testament; still, at least 80% of the text is unaltered from Tyndale’s translation.[117]

    Note [117] is a reference to p.448 of

    Daniell, David (2003). The Bible in English: its history and influence. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300099304

    This seems to imply that Daniell’s 87% figure refers to the whole Bible or perhaps only to the OT, as a lower figure is offered for the NT.

  9. Theophrastus says:

    Peter: Since Tyndale translated less than half of the text of the Bible (only the NT, Pentateuch, and Jonah — and no accurate copy of his Jonah survives), a claim that “80% of the text is unaltered from Tyndale’s translation” is rather surprising. Perhaps the ever-authoritative and holy Wikipedia means that 80% of the words in the KJV were also in the Tyndale. (As you will note above, I anticipated this point with my comment about “lexical level.”) However, this fact would hardly be surprising, since the core vocabulary of English is surprisingly robust — it is not which words you use, but how you arrange them.

    However, being whimsical for moment, I could argue that the statistic that Wright uses is on the lexical level of letter, since arguably 88% of the letters used by the KJV were used by Tyndale. (“j” did not then exist in the English alphabet and was written as “i”, “u” was just being created [usually written as “v”], and “w” was sometimes written as “vv.”)

    This shows the absolute poverty of web posts as scholarship — someone makes a claim which is manifestly misleading — based on an Amazon comment and an Wikipedia citation which is almost certainly incorrect to a book with no corresponding page number.

    I own the Daniell book that is referenced, by the way, so if you find an exact page citation, I am happy to check it. However, you should know that Daniell is an iconoclastic thinker far out of the mainstream; Daniell believes, for example, that most of the Matthew Bible (specifically the NT, Pentateuch, Jonah, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles) was penned by Tyndale. This view is not accepted by scholarly consensus.

    So, what modern scholarship has come to — a professor at St. Andrews who publishes astonishing claims (without citation) and quotes a famous poem out of context. The ease at which this claim is accepted in this comment thread shows that we clearly live in the age of Internet-fueled urban legend.

  10. Theophrastus says:

    someone makes a claim which is manifestly misleading — based on an Amazon comment and an Wikipedia citation which is almost certainly incorrect to a book with no corresponding page number

    I regret the phrasing of this comment; my point was not to criticize Peter (who has done yeoman work trying to find Wright’s uncited sources), but to criticize Wright, who should have included a citation with his quote.

    To be sure, Wright is not a professor of literature or a literary expert, but still, I would expect a certain level of citation for a surprising (and seemingly incorrect) claim.

  11. Peter Kirk says:

    Theophrastus, thank you for your clarification. My point was not to claim Wikipedia as an authority. As for Daniell, I thought he was a recognised scholar in this area, although of course there will always be scholarly disagreements. According to Google Books his book has 899 pages so I am surprised that you say there is no p.448. Of course there may be different pagination in different editions. And I’m sure Wright would have cited his sources in a properly scholarly publication, but this was something for a popular audience – and may even have been stripped of its footnotes by the publisher.

  12. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    But aren’t we also concerned once again about the retention of theologically charged words, those on which doctrine is built. If so, we have to note the significant gap that opens up between Tyndale and KJV. For example, in some contexts, “power” is used instead of “authority,” “secrete” instead of “mystery,” “fear” instead of “respect,” “atonement” instead of “propitiation,” “congregacion” instead of “church” and so on. This is just a beginning.

    The notion that vocabulary from the KJV which is preserved in recent translations is somehow in the “Tyndale tradition” or is somehow “more accurate” is an illusion.

    There is perhaps only one vocabulary change introduced by Tyndale and preserved in the KJV which is of theological importance – that is “repentance” instead of “penitence.”

  13. Peter Kirk says:

    One more clarification, if it isn’t too obvious: When I wrote “Perhaps his 87% refers to words rather than whole verses”, I wasn’t referring to the lexical stock, but rather to the results of a word-by-word comparison of the two versions, disregarding spelling variations. Of course such a word-by-word comparison is possible only if the two versions are rather similar. But if they do contain 87% the same words mostly in the same order, such a comparison can be done and the result would be meaningful.

  14. Theophrastus says:

    Thank you for the page reference. A search reveals that Daniell relied on a 1998 article by Jon Nielson and Royal Skousen, based on the 1994 student paper of the former. Since the journal this was published in is not indexed in the standard scholarly databases, I was not able to read it, but reading comments about it seem to indicate that this was based on a word count method, rather than a sequential word concordance.

    It may be of interest to you know that Professor Skousen, who specializes in mathematical linguistics at Brigham Young University, in his other papers claims to have found linguistic proof that the Book of Mormon was a translated work from “reformed Egyptian” rather than an original composition in English. Since this latter opinion would appear to be somewhat dubious, perhaps we should apply an equal degree of skepticism to a student paper published in a minor journal.

  15. Theophrastus says:

    In any case, the Nielson-Skousen paper only claims 84% of the text matches, leaving open the question of why Wright would claim 87%.

  16. Peter Kirk says:

    Theophrastus, thank you for taking this further. If that is indeed the ultimate source here it is very dubious. But then who made the change from 84% to 87%, and why?

    To illustrate the method I had in mind, let’s compare clause by clause John 3:16 in Tyndale and KJV, at least as recorded by Wikipedia, where the Tyndale orthography has been oddly updated to 18th century standards:

    T: For God so loveth the world,
    K: For God so loved the world,

    T: that he hath given his only son,
    K: that he gave his only begotten Son,

    T: that none that believe in him, should perish:
    K: that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish,

    T: but should have everlasting life.
    K: but have everlasting life.

    Of the 25 words in KJV, only “begotten”, “whosoever” and “not” are not direct equivalents of words in Tyndale, although in some cases tenses have been changed. So, 12% of the KJV words are different, and 88% are the same as Tyndale’s – right in line with Wright’s claim. Of course any results would have to be confirmed at least from a broad range of sample passages. Yes, this is a crude method, but it is a meaningful one which could well give the kind of result that Wright quoted.

    I note that by this method and in this verse KJV is actually closer to Wycliffe’s version, with only two completely different words:

    For God louede so the world that he ȝaf his oon bigetun sone, that ech man that beliueth in him perische not, but haue euerlastynge lijf.

    (Again a strange orthography: were “ȝ” and “j” ever used at the same time?) But I don’t suppose that result would hold up so well on a broader sample.

  17. Theophrastus says:

    Peter, the difficulty I see with you approach is that presumes a degree of concordance between Tyndale and KJV. This is often not the case. Consider Luke 22:56

    Tyndale: And wone of the wenches behelde him as he sate by the fyer and set good eyesight on him & sayde: this same was also with him.

    KJV: But a certaine maide beheld him as he sate by the fire, and earnestly looked vpon him, and said, This man was also with him.

    These two verses are largely different, and yet they both contain a large number of common English words. To illustrate my point, consider these two phrases:

    Tyndale: and set good eyesight on him
    KJV: and earnestly looked vpon him

    I believe that most fair observers would agree that these two phrases are fundamentally different. Yet by your counting method, you would presumably match


    And come to the conclusion that 60% of the KJV was derived from the Tyndale. This cannot help but be a misleading statistic.

  18. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    100 high frequency words make up 50% of most printed material in English.


    “These are the most common words in English, ranked in frequency order. The first 25 make up about a third of all printed material. The first 100 make up about half of all written material.”

    The number 84 or 87 only make sense in comparison to how many words are the same in any two pieces of literature published around the same time.

  19. Peter Kirk says:

    Theophrastus, you make a good point. I would think the measure is in fact useful only in comparing the closeness of different translations.

    Suzanne, I think you are working on a different and rather unlikely interpretation of the figures. I am at least talking about the same words in the same verses, and more or less the same order.

  20. Mike Sangrey says:

    When I compare the two versions of Luke 22:56, 68% is identical (except for spelling). To be explicit:
    Tyn: behelde him as he sate by the fyer and
    KJV: beheld him as he sate by the fire, and

    Tyn: him & sayde: this
    KJV: him, and said, This

    Tyn: was also with him.
    KJV: was also with him.

    Also, the initial word (KJV: But; Tyn: And), and the preposition (KJV: vpon; Tyn: on) are nearly identical. This is another 8%.

    The use of man versus same (21st and 23rd word) are also not significantly different to the reader.

    The phrase a certaine versus wone of the would also be thought of as nearly identical semantically.

    Maide versus wenches show a difference.

    Earnestly looked vpon versus set good eyesight on also show a difference. However, the difference between vpon and on may be collocationally required. That is, set good eyesight may require on to be natural.

    It appears to me, though I might be wrong, that with these last two differences the KJV went with a linguistically broader English audience. Tyndale went with more “flavour and feel” as mentioned in the taster stated above in the posting.

    My point is that a reasonably helpful comparison of the texts should weight the differences. I also wondered if there were any textual differences.

    After writing the above comment, I thought, “Hmmmmm….I’m not sure what such a comparison really means.” It seems to me that there isn’t really much difference between 70% and 90%. To my mind there’s little difference between 10% and 30%, too. It’s not clear to me what comparing the forms between two translations actually helps us see. The accuracy of the translations remain pretty much identical. For example, I had to analyze the two versions of Luke 22:56 in order to obtain precision with the differences (my perceptive reaction was they were probably 80% identical). The use of phrase with eyesight in it jumped out at me. And the use of wench and maide did, too. But, after the first reading those two differences were pretty much all I saw.

    It would be interesting to perform a clinical study, placing a sentence from one version on the screen, person reads it, then placing the other text on screen, person reads it, and then asking the person to take a guess at the percentage of identical words.

  21. Theophrastus says:

    Mike —

    It is interesting that you write that, because when I look at the KJV and the Tyndale of Luke 22:56, they seem starkly different to me. They each have an independent character; an independent personality.

    Have you ever played the game where someone reads to you parallel passages from a Bible translation and you try to guess the translation it is from? For example, maybe someone reads you a passage, and tells you they are from the NLT2, NIV11, or HCSB. You have to guess which translation is which — and of course, this needs to be done without consulting any reference material or the Internet.

    If someone played that game with those two renderings of Luke 22:56, I would have no trouble determining which was which.

  22. Mike Sangrey says:

    If someone played that game with those two renderings of Luke 22:56, I would have no trouble determining which was which.

    I agree. The “flavour and feel” of the two are definitely different. You bring up an interesting point. I wonder what it is that actually makes the difference. Is it simply word choices, as in Suzanne’s observations of “congregacion” instead of “church” and so on. ? Or, is it more correct to think in terms of (what appears to me to be) audience choice? That is, Tyndale’s choice of “set good eyesight” which strikes me as a bit more colloquial than the KJV’s choice.

    Interesting idea for a game, btw. I haven’t played it.

  23. Richie says:

    What an excellent article by NT Wright – I wish everyone could read it. Thanks for sharing this Peter.

    Unfortunately, several dismissive comments were made about the outstanding scholar David Daniell. I also have his book “The Bible in English” and read it through soon after its publication in 2003. It is outstanding and I wish everyone could have a copy of it. This is a book of deep scholarship by one of the world’s foremost scholars on Tyndale and the history of the Bible in English. It is primarily a history book with a specific purpose, as Daniell states,

    “This book is about how important the Bible in English has been in the life of Britain and North America. To many people, thoughtful and thoughtless alike, that is something that hardly needs saying. ‘Everyone knows’ that ‘the world’s bestseller’ has been significant. As attention is directed elsewhere, however, into overwhelming immediacies of ephemera, what ‘everyone knows’ slips the mind. The English Bible has tended to disappear. Of course, that is not true for hundreds of thousands of believing Christians, for some of whom a Bible in English is a part of daily life. But for well over a billion English speakers in the second Christian millennium, when the global English language is as alive as it has ever been, the Bible, if known at all, is no more than a distant oddity. Even among the culturally knowing, like teachers of western history, awareness of the content of the Bible seems to have vanished altogether – often from ignorance, but sometimes from hostility. The aim of this book is to begin in a small way to English Bibles back into the picture, and challenge some assumptions.” (p. XIII).

    As one of those teachers of western history I can concur that is very much the case and thus presents a flawed understanding of western history with important ramifications for the life of our world today. That the book, and Daniell, are iconoclastic is certainly true since he writes with a deep reverence for the scriptures (certainly unusual in the academy) and with sound historical and textual evidence (often ignored in the academy due its own philosophical biases) for the positions he consistently and painstakingly sets out with example after example for all to see for themselves. Thus, despite his necessarily iconoclastic points his scholarship is sound – irrespective of whether or not its what the academy wants to hear.

    As for his comments on page 448 let me quote what he actually says in his book – rather than what he has been here characterized as saying – and the reader can judge for himself what kind of scholar Daniel is:

    “Though in the New Testament, and particularly in the Epistles, King Jame’s revisers made many changes, and though their base was the Bishops’, the truth is that the ultimate base was Tyndale. A computer-based American study published in 1998 has shown just how much Tyndale is in the KJV New Testament. New Testament scholars Jon Nielson and Royal Skousen observed that previous estimates of Tyndale’s contributions to KJV ‘have run from a high of up to 90 per cent (Westcott) to a low of 18 per cent (Butterworth).’ By a statistically accurate and appropriate method of sampling, based on eighteen portions of the Bible, they concluded that for the New Testament Tyndale’s contribution is about eighty-three per cent of the text, and in the Old Testament seventy-six per cent. Behind the statistics is the unmeasurable feeling that KJV’s rhythm, vocabulary and cadence, which can be so exquisite and so direct, has a root in the essence of the English language. The cause of that is Tyndale’s genius.” p. 448.

    As for Tyndale’s contribution to Matthew’s Bible,

    “Working with, apparently, the printer Matthew Crom in Antwerp, John Rogers, put together in 1537 a handsome thick folio, well printed in clear black letter in double columns. This contained, for the first time as part of a large complete Bible, all Tyndale’s printed Bible translations: that is, the 1534 New Testament and the Pentateuch, the ‘Five Books of Moses’: they were given almost unchanged. For the first time, moreover, there appeared an English translation of the nine historical books ending at 2 Chronicles made from the Hebrew. That this was the work of Tyndale is now beyond doubt.” [Footnote 6 is added here stating “For evidence and analysis see Daniell, 1994, 336-57.]

  24. Theophrastus says:

    Richie — regarding your comment about “what kind of scholar Daniel[l]” is, I invite you to compare the text you quoted with the abstract of the Nielsen-Skouson article. You will note that Daniell comments on no aspect of the study other than what is reported in the brief abstract; indeed, one wonders whether he read the article in question or just the abstract.

  25. Peter Kirk says:

    Richie, thank you for your comment, and for so helpfully quoting this passage from Daniell. I share some scepticism about the Nielson and Skousen article. I see from its abstract that the study is based on samples of “those portions of the Bible that Tyndale translated”. But the figure that Daniell gives, based on that article, is 83% for the NT, all of which Tyndale translated, and 76% for the parts of the OT which he translated.

    So where does the 87% figure come from? It is attested by Slevin in his 2006 review of Tyndale, see a comment above, as coming from Daniell, and also mentioned by Wright – with no source but I doubt if he is relying on Slevin, who is not a biblical scholar but has written many Amazon reviews. I note also that Slevin has a caveat apparently from Daniell “where Tyndale left us a legacy” which does not come from the Daniell passage. But neither gives a detailed reference. Did Daniell give this different figure and the caveat in another work? Is there a source other than Daniell, and an error by Slevin?

    My own suspicion would be that the figure comes from Daniell’s 1994 biography of Tyndale, and that in 2003 Daniell replaced the 87% figure by the lower ones said to be based on “a statistically accurate and appropriate method of sampling”. I don’t have access to this book to check.

  26. Theophrastus says:

    Peter — A search of Daniell’s Tyndale biography on Google Books on the terms “87”, “James”, “Authorized”, and “Authorised” does not reveal the statistic you speculate may be reported there.

    I also performed a similar search of Daniell’s modern spelling editions of Tyndale’s New Testament and Daniell’s speculative edition of Tyndale’s Old Testament (based on the Matthew Bible) and found no statistic of 87%, although, there is an extended discussion in the New Testament of similarities and particularly differences between Tyndale and the King James version, and Daniell’s view that Tyndale is superior.

    As a personal note, I would like to mention that for the New Testament, I agree with Daniell’s arguments that Tyndale’s translation is often superior.

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