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'To make a good one better': translating the Bible

The New English Bible

Frontispiece and title page from The New English BibleThe New English BibleAs its name suggests, the New English Bible represents a radical departure from the King James version. The initial proposal for a completely new translation of the Bible was made at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1946 and by 1948 all the principal Protestant denominations in the United Kingdom had agreed to participate in the project, with the university presses of Oxford and Cambridge acting as joint publishers.

Under the directorship of Charles Dodd, professor of divinity at Cambridge, the panel of translators made steady progress and the New Testament appeared in 1961, 350 years after the publication of the King James Bible. The Old Testament followed in 1970.

The New English Bible was translated directly from the original Hebrew and Greek originals and aimed at an idiomatic and timeless English, free alike of archaisms and also of what Dodd described as ‘transient modernisms’. Its appearance caused a great deal of debate, some feeling that its deliberately idiomatic approach had been taken too far. The poet Robert Graves remarked that he would not feel an oath sworn on a copy of the New English Bible to be as binding as one sworn on a King James Bible, while TS Eliot, in a letter to The Sunday Telegraph in March 1961, declared:

So long as the New English Bible was used only for private reading, it would be merely a symptom of the decay of the English language in the middle of the twentieth century. But the more it is adopted for religious services, the more it will become an active agent of decadence.

That both these critics were themselves poets is perhaps a reflection of the superb literary quality of the King James Bible, a quality both men felt had been lost in the New English Bible. The New English Bible did not claim to be a work of literature; rather, Dodd and his colleagues wished above all to produce a version that was plain enough to be understood by ‘any reasonably intelligent person’ and that would remove the ‘real barrier’ they perceived the language of the King James to be to a general understanding of the Bible.

It is also true that in an age like our own, when church attendance is falling and private study of the Bible, rather than its public declamation from the pulpit, is more common, an accurate translation of the original, rather than the sonorous phraseology of the translations of the Tyndale-King James tradition, may assume greater importance. Like the RSV, the New English Bible was immediately popular, with four million copies being sold within a year of its publication.

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