When I asked my 8 year old daughter Anna what “register” means, she peevishly replied, “I don’t know; cash register?” But she does know what register is, because she asks for advice about register in her adventures as a budding writer. She knows how important register is. What would happen if Bible translators paid attention to the registers in which the Bible is written, and sought to be faithful to them in the task of translation?
It’s not easy to pick a register and stick to it. Still, we all have an inkling of registers in languages we understand. For example, King James English, motherese, and legalese are distinguishable by most speakers/readers of English. Most people can compare samples of prose and place them correctly on a formality scale, with “literary” and “formal” on one end and “casual” and “intimate” on the other end of the scale.
My Anna is writing a book entitled “My Adventures in Italy.” Here is an excerpt from the first chapter.
My family goes to Italy pretty often. We go in the summer normally in July or the end of June and once in awhile in the winter (December-Janurary). The reason why we go so often is because my Mom was born in L’aquila, Italy and my Nonna and Nonno (that’s what we call my mom’s mom and dad) still live in Italy but now are in Vallecrosia. In this book you’ll learn where they move and how they do it. They have a bunch of junk they won’t get rid of. They just put all of it in cabnets cabinet’s. It’s really hard to get them to throw even one thing away! And to add to that Nonno has like a 1,0000 books, but seriously I’m not kidding exaggerating. We would have to unpack a 100 boxes and clean all the books – BY HAND!!!!!!!!! This is how we do it: First …
The cross-outs are the result of questions she posed to me. “How do you spell ‘cabinets’?” she asks. “I knew there was an ‘i,’” she replies. “What’s another way to say ‘kidding’? I’m writing a book after all.” “How do you spell that? … that’s the word I was looking for.”
Anna is struggling, with mixed success, to write in a literary register. Her Dad, because he loves language, is fascinated by the errors, hypercorrections, and lack of a consistent register in the text.
I bring the same fascination with language to my reading of the Bible in the original tongues: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. As an aside I would note that there are hypercorrections in the spelling of some words in biblical Hebrew. A class of them is discussed by Stephen A. Kaufman in a classic article treated here.
Back to the question this post began with. What register is the Bible written in? Obviously, it is written in more than one register. Still, as a general rule, it is safe to say that it is written in registers on the left side of the formality scale, the literary side. This is so in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, the prose of which conforms, except when the banter of conversation is reported, to a number of literary conventions; the poetry of which is regulated by a number of formal conventions; the law of which is written in legalese of more than one sort; and so on. It is also so in the diatribe style adopted by Paul in his letters; the aphoristic style adopted by Jesus in his sayings; the Septuagintalizing style adopted by Luke in parts of his narrative; and so on.
It is also the case, as Erich Auerbach argued in an essay entitled "Fortunata" and another entitled "Adam and Eve," that the synoptic gospels introduce a style into Greco-Roman literature that literati of the day would characterize as rude and crude. It is also the case that Hebrew narrative, as Auerbach demonstrated in another essay, has strategies of representation that differ dramatically from those of Homeric prose. These observations complicate but do not overturn the conclusion already noted: the Bible adheres, in most of its parts, to conventions typical of prose and poetry on the literary side of the formality scale.
In what register then should we read the Bible in translation? If the goal is to make a first approach to its content without being overwhelmed, a translation on the casual and intimate side of the formality side may be helpful. Anna loves to read the Bible in three principal ways. First of all, she has read all four volumes of the Manga Bible, a cartoon-based presentation which transfers and reduces biblical narrative to a casual, intimate register in which familiarity and immediacy are privileged. Secondly, she reads from a devotional for kids, which offers innocuous lessons loosely tied to a Bible verse presented in a translation on the right side of the formality scale: NLT or CEV for example. She loves to ask me to identify the chapter and verse from which the biblical motto of the day derives. I often struggle because the wording of NLT and CEV tends to simplify away detail such that a given verse lacks the hard edges as it were of a more formal translation. Finally, she pays careful attention to Bible lessons in Sunday school, the point of departure of which is, most often, NIV 1984. She also listens raptly when I preach; the point of departure is then RSV.
In my judgment, translations in the King James tradition, especially RSV, ESV, and, to a lesser extent, NRSV, but not the King James anymore; and the new NAB American Catholics have produced, offer the Bible in a register that is relatively faithful to the registers of biblical literature itself. These translations have the further advantage of being attentive to the fact that biblical literature as such is meant to be the resource sine qua non of a community of faith that spans generations upon generations. A translation of the Bible which has relatively little in common with precedent translations is a contradiction in terms. Another translation of great interest from this point of view: the NJPSV of the Tanakh. REB, NJB, and the old NAB, on the other hand, shoot too high in terms of register and are unnecessarily innovative on several fronts. NIV in its various iterations shoots a little too low. Translations like GNB, NLT, CEV, and now CEB shoot much too low. To be sure, the choice to produce a translation at a 5th or 6th grade reading level is also a marketing strategy in which a missional purpose trumps faithfulness to the stylistic choices of the original. The missional purpose is to make the truth clear and make it sound familiar. But it is possible to make the truth more familiar than it actually is.
Beyond the need for a “churchy” translation insofar as we are called to make the church our mother in the faith (I have purposely chosen diction designed to rankle Protestants; Prots need to be rankled); beyond the need for a translation that is faithful to the stylistic choices the source texts instantiate, the still greater need is for a translation that does not tame the wildness of the biblical God, a God who scorns the commonplaces humanity loves to coddle itself with. With these three needs in view, NJPSV, ESV, and the new NAB score higher than their competitors on the market.