The Committee on Bible Translation of the New International Version (NIV) recently released a revision of that bestselling Bible. In an explanation of changes made to the NIV, the committee made the following remark regarding its revised translation of 1 John 2:16:
Has anyone really improved on the KJV [King James Version] rendering of these three expressions [i.e., lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, pride of life], to which the updated NIV returns? … The language still communicates, and the poetry and style to which the NIV has returned is magnificent.
I imagine that this statement warms the cockles of Leland Ryken’s heart. (Full disclosure: I was a student of Ryken in two classes at Wheaton College—British literature and Milton.) He has been a public critic of the NIV since writing “The Literary Merit of the New International Version” for Christianity Today (October 20, 1978), an article which concluded that the NIV had little of it. He is also a proponent of the “essentially literal” translation philosophy of the English Standard Version, on whose translation committee he served as literary editor. He has defended that translation philosophy in two books: The Word of God in English and Understanding English Bible Translation. According to Ryken, this translation philosophy undergirds the KJV and its modern progeny: the Revised Standard Version (RSV)—though not the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the New King James Version (NKJV), and the ESV. These modern translations share the same philosophy as the KJV, but they also are conservative translations in that they seek to retain the vocabulary and cadence of the KJV, consistent with accuracy and readability, of course.
This year (2011) is the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of the KJV. In honor of that milestone, Ryken has published The Legacy of the King James Version, which outlines the KJV’s publication history, literary excellence, and cultural influence for a general audience. Ryken covers a lot of ground quickly and in an easy-to-read style, offering suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter as well as endnotes that point the reader to more detailed sources of information. If you are going to read one book this year in honor of the KJV, I recommend this one for its breadth of topic and ease of reading.
In the Afterword, Ryken proposes that “we should celebrate a victory, lament a loss, and resolve to hold on to what is excellent.” The victory is the four hundredth anniversary of the KJV, a translation that continues to sell better than most modern translations, routinely coming in at second or third on the sales rankings. The loss fourfold: (1) “we have lost a common English Bible in both the church and the culture at large”; (2) “the authority of the Bible went into eclipse when we lost a common Bible”; (3) “biblical illiteracy has accompanied the decline of the King James Bible”; and (4) we have lost “the affective and literary power of the King James Bible.” In light of this, Ryken argues that we should use those translations that, like the KJV, translate in an “essentially literal” and conservative fashion as well as read the KJV itself on a regular basis.
I don’t know whether I agree with Ryken’s recommendations, although I am using the ESV this year in my reading, writing, and preaching. But I can’t help and wonder whether another wholesale translation of the Bible into English or thoroughgoing translation of an existing one really benefits the readers. I know it’s good business, but is it good for anything else?
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