Polite Lies, or: The Language of Shakespeare and the Bible. With footnotes.

Will wrote a post: “Dr Paul Owen: The Need for a Church Bible” on Dr Paul’s Owen’s  post of that name on Evangelical Catholicity. My post is not so much a reasoned response as a tangential rant*.

My kneejerk reaction is that “all translation is a lie”**, and that the more translations we have the closer we can get to the meaning of the original. Since most of us don’t speak the original languages, the multitude of translations is a very good thing.

A translation keeps its currency a little longer than, say, a computer or a car, but not by much. Even if the King James Bible (not the point being argued here, but a famously common one) was a very good translation in its time, it is of its time. I don’t mean people have moved on or social situations have changed (they have, but that’s only incidentally relevant) – I mean the language has.

Can the average person-in-the-pew understand an entire Shakespeare play without a glossary or some very expressive acting?*** Yet, for all his neologisms, he would have made sense to his original audiences. Words change their meaning – sometimes drastically. The words of “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree” now have a slightly different meaning than their original author probably intended. “Girl” used to mean “young person”. “Silly” meant “blessed”.**** “Nice” meant “neat” or “precise” (I am campaigning for this use – please pull me up if I misuse the word). Sometimes the meaning changes slightly, or a word falls into disuse. Languages splinter and reform, die and stagnate, borrow, cull, adapt and invent vocabulary. Half the fun of the internet is watching this happen as words pour across the screen.***** Language changes from place to place. A casual comment from an Australian about amenities can have an American cousin howling with laughter. And how well can you understand call centre operators? I’m not saying here we shouldn’t outsource to other countries, just that as a consumers I have become the victim of companies who haven’t realised that just because the people they employ to speak to me speak English, that doesn’t mean it is the same English I’m speaking. I have it on good authority that the same holds true for communicating with soldiers of certain military ranks.

I’m not going to give examples of words that have changed meaning from the KJV****** (there are plenty of examples online) – this isn’t a KJV-bashing session. I’m emotionally attached to the NIV and it’s flawed forwards and backwards. It’s a translation. It would be.

My point is that the source text is a fixed point. The translation is a moving target. A near miss half a millenia ago is worse than a mile now. That’s why we need multiple translations, each one trying to get a little closer to the target or bring us back to where we used to be.  It’s a very beautiful and many-faceted and honourable thing, although – and perhaps because – it is made necessary by sin.

I may have missed the point of the original post. For all I grew up in a house with translations of all stripes and colours (including but not limited to interlinear texts, a translation for people who are deaf^ and the Masonic translation) and am currently a little excited^^ about my newly acquired parallel English/German NT,  I do think it makes sense for a congregation to have an agreed-upon translation for use as, at the very least, a common point of reference and jumping off – just so long as that translation doesn’t come to be viewed as inspired.

My caveats are that the leadership and congregation should be open about the reliability (and lack thereof) of the translation in question (something I’ve been impressed with in most congregations I’ve been in so far) and the translation philosophy^^^, and be happy to update if and when conscience requires it and budget permits.^^^^

But back Dr Owen’s article, I think “one church Bible” for all evangelical demonations would probably go the way of Latin as the scholarly language, and of pure communism, and of Esperanto^^^^^, for many (and some similar) reasons and would, ultimately, cause more harm. The “one church Bible” should be the source texts, scholars and teachers should translate and teach people what it is they are reading, and congregations and/or denominations (there are ever fewer distinctions between the two) should choose the best translation for their native language or dialect with the understanding that it is only a translation, more than Graves’ “polite lie”, but only ever seeing the original through a glass, darkly.


*Well, no, not a rant, which originally meant “rave” and now means… pretty much exactly that. But I like that it is related to the German word for “frolic”, and am taking this opportunity to say so.

*Robert Graves. Harsh? But fair. A translation is never the original. It never can be. It is something else, related but new. If it claims to be the original, it is an impostor. A translation can only be true if its status is admitted.

**Honour and acclaim to Baz Luhrman*** and Bell Shakespeare, who make Shakespeare make sense without changing the words.

***Although in Baz’s case, I’m mostly just in love with the prologue. Also, yes, the point is overused. Suggest a still-popular author or playwright whose once-contemporary if inventive language has become appallingly archaic and I will substitute in future.

****I remember those examples from my dabbling in linguistics, but have just come across this article which bears an intriguingly close resemblance to a lecture I once attended: Meaning Change.

*****My beloved first edition Macquarie (complete with helpful charts on papers sizes and Australian Standard Meat Cuts) is helpless against the onslaught.

******Except to say that I only just found out “filthy lucre” comes from that translation. Hehe.

^A really interesting one. It avoids sentence patterns and idioms that aren’t common in signed languages.


^^^Will’s phrasing.

^^^^Budget doesn’t need to be disregarded here if people are open-eyed about the realities of translations, general and particular.

^^^^^Though without William Shatner ^^^^^^or hovering eels.

^^^^^^Yes, I have seen this. What of it?

7 thoughts on “Polite Lies, or: The Language of Shakespeare and the Bible. With footnotes.

  1. Great post–you definitely had some good things to say.

    I suppose I should clarify what I meant by “translation philosophy.” As you probably already know, in translation (I speak specifically of translating the Scriptures, but this may be true of all translations) there are two differing approaches: formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence. Wikipedia has a post on this:


    This is such a thought-provoking post that I think I am going to wind up writing a post on *your* post!

  2. Thanks! I think I understood what you meant, just went off on a tangent :)

    I’m glad the article points out that “Broadly, the two represent a spectrum of translation approaches”. There are so many things that are taken into account in translation: form vs content vs literal meaning vs the ‘intended’ meaning vs the multitude of meanings one word may have vs humour (notoriously difficult to translate) vs poetry (as bad) vs style vs register… Since we necessarily read in translation, we should have at least a nodding acquaintance with the process through which the translation was arrived at.

  3. Like I said, slang, nicknames, idiom… :) The Macquarie has an occasional newsletter – Ozwords – which is interesting (if you like language and Australian English) and free. I don’t know if they send it overseas.

    I just finished reading They’re A Weird Mob to my dad – it’s a novel/memoir (published in 1961 or thereabouts) from the point of view of an Italian migrant who arrives in Australia speaking perfect English (he was a journalist) and can’t understand anyone.

  4. The movie is true to the book and yet… has all the hallmarks of a 60s Australian production. Which you can only really understand if you see it. I find it less culturally-cringe-worthy than oddly depressing, but that might just be the colours. The reviews seem mostly positive :)

    The book I find, except for a few points of view in relation to the degree to which migrants are obliged to adopt their adoptive country’s culture, very cheerful, lighthearted and endearing. It is meant to be the story of How Australians Speak (or What Australians Speak), but it is really the story of how a newcomer makes friends and a home and falls in love with a woman who tries to eat spaghetti with a spoon.

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