Thursday, March 20, 2008

One translation every 400 years should do it...

The ISV (International Standard Version) of the Bible is gradually progressing toward completion.  They don't have a whole lot going on in the press releases portion of their website,  Their most recent news is from February 2007, over a year ago, and relates to a blog post in February 2007 that hailed their translation as "A KJV for our time."  The blog itself has now been deleted;  the author is unknown, but the full text of the post is reproduced on the ISV site.   Their praise for the ISV is fine.  I haven't evaluated the version yet and probably won't until it's complete, but what he or she claimed to be looking for in a bible translation is frankly a bit naive.  The heart of the essay seems to be that "[w]e need to make a Bible translation that can be the standard for hundreds of years, like the King James Version has been."

First of all, the KJV was losing ground as the "standard" from very early on in the 20th century.  The American Standard Version came out in 1901.  It was based in the English Revised Version of 1881 which was a revision of the KJV.  So at best, we can say the KJV was the standard for about 300 years.  Despite its continued popularity to this day, it is not the standard in any sense of the term.

Second, the 1611 KJV we use today is actually the 1769 version that adopted modern spelling and made some minor changes to the text including fixing of typos.  So the version considered by some to be the "standard" has only been around for 250 years.  Further revisions of that version started as early as 1881, little more than a hundred years later.  Moreover, various other translations were made throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.  Apparently, some people didn't see the standard as the end of the matter and continually worked to render the biblical text in the English of their day.

The KJV stood as long as it did as the main standard text of the Bible primarily because English bible scholarship in the original languages was still a developing discipline.  From the Reformation to the 17th century, it was in its infancy.  In the 18th century, childhood.  The 19th century, adolescence.  It only hit its stride in the 20th century. 

The point is that every generation needs to go through the process of developing an English bible version suitable for the language of the time.  There will be no standard that will endure for another 400 years, despite the hope of our unknown blogger that the ISV will be that version.  This is the reason that most English versions are updated or replaced every 30 years or so.  The versions of the '40s and '50s were replaced by the '70s or '80s.  The NIV and NASB of the '70s are showing their age and were updated in 2005 and 1995 respectively.  The English language changes too rapidly in today's world to make a standard version spanning many generations of readers impossible.


  1. I love the KJV--it's a literary masterpiece and one of the most important works of English literature. It's also a very serviceable translation of the Bible if you happen to know 16th century English fluently. But a great deal of its authority and longevity no doubt rest in the fact that King James authorized it. In order to recreate the effect it had, you would need to produce an original translation that was faithful to the literal sense of the Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, rendered in magnificent, elevated literary English prose, with a royal stamp of approval. Good luck with that, folks.

  2. Sounds good except for the "King James authorized it" part. Despite the KJV being the so-called "Authorized Version" it was never officially "authorized" by James, at least not in the sense that everyone was supposed to switch to it. Of course, the version itself claimed to be by command of the king and for use in all the churches, but there's a discrepancy between what the preface of the KJV said it was for and what actually happened historically. It gradually won over everyone and took over much of the liturgy by the 1660s. However, it won popularity precisely because of its high literary quality. Modern-day English (in my opinion) lacks a high literary register, and even if we had one, modern translations are aiming for the street language, not the literary heights.