The abundance, in our time, of singlehanded noninstitutional translations of the Bible, and especially of the New Testament—Richmond Lattimore’s is the most recent—is a phenomenon worth a moment’s thought. The earliest versions were made in defiance of the religious establishment, but the Church eventually took them over and established a fairly effective monopoly. Some sort of doctrinal position-taking was inevitable; King James’s translators used the older Protestant versions, but did not endorse them. The Catholic (Douai) translation was primarily meant for priests who would need to be able to confute, in the vulgar tongue, the heresies of Protestants with the vernacular Bible at their fingertips.

James’s version turned out to be good enough to satisfy most of the requirements of the English-speaking world for a very long time; when people spoke of the Bible it was mostly that version they meant, rather than a collection of documents in Hebrew and Greek. And it was the work of good scholars. When it was mooted, the prelates had their doubts: why another version? “If every man’s humour should be followed,” said Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury, “there would be no end of translating.” But the royal plan went ahead; during the reign of Elizabeth the Geneva Bible had established itself as the popular translation; its tone was too puritan, it must be supplanted. And so we got the familiar text, owing much to its predecessors, archaic in language even at the time of publication. It was more “numinous” than any other, but responsible for a misleading association between the language of the New Testament and a vague, old-fashioned grandeur.

The new version was a success, but soon caused a certain amount of learned discontent. On the one hand it was felt that the so-called Authorized Version (never technically authorized) did not match the original, especially the brisk, clumsy, colloquial, and in its time very modern, Greek of the New Testament; on the other, the gap between the language of the AV and good modern English also seemed troublesome. In 1653 the great scholar John Lightfoot urged the Commonwealth Parliament to commission “an exact, vigorous and lively translation”; it would need to be officially sponsored because individual translators might otherwise take it on without learned and devout supervision—“a precedent of dangerous consequence, emboldening others to do the like.” No such version appeared; and the individuals moved in.

The Cambridge History of the Bible gives samples of the “pert and colloquial” Daniel Mace (1729) who clearly believed in the propriety of rendering the Greek into the language of his moment, e.g., “When ye fast, don’t put on a dismal air as hypocrites do (“Be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance,” AV; “Do not scowl like the hypocrites,” Richmond Lattimore). But Edward Harwood, in 1768, objected not to a lack of modern colloquialism in the AV, but to the contrast between its “bald and barbarous language” and “the elegance of modern English.” His Magnificat begins thus: “My soul with reverence adores my Creator, and all my faculties with transport join in celebrating the goodness of God my Saviour, who hath in so signal a manner condescended to regard my poor and humble station” (“My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, because he cast down his eyes to the low estate of his slave girl,” RL).

Equally elegant variations are to be found in the version of Rodolphus Dickinson (Boston, 1833: “When Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the embryo was joyfully agitated” (“the babe leapt in her womb” AV). Much depends on one’s view of the appropriate modern English: is the right choice the English of easy middle-class conversation, as Mace must have thought; or a statelier dialect, appropriate to the gravity of the matter (Harwood and Dickinson), or even a rougher tongue, more appropriate to the Greek original, and to the working-class status of the main characters in the stories it told?

The establishment once more intervened in the 1870s with the Revised Version; working with better texts and a more highly developed scholarship, the translators tried to observe a strict rule of literal fidelity to the originals without using language that did not consort with the language of the King James Bible. The result was not always happy. The latest major institutional effort, the New English Bible, is not a revision but a new translation throughout, and aims to employ “a contemporary idiom rather than reproduce traditional ‘biblical English.”‘ The work of the scholars was gone over by a panel of literary advisers. It is not easy to imagine what this panel actually did; the prose, however accurate, is distortingly flat and lifeless.

So it happens that none of the great institutional translations (including, I think, the American Standard Version) has overwhelming authority to many people nowadays, pious or not. And this may be one reason for the proliferation of single-handed versions: every man’s humor is followed, there is no end of translating. Another reason is that institutional control of the text has slackened, and so has the extra-literary authority of the text itself. There can be a genuine interest in the Gospels as works of literature, and in the problems they set translators, considered for their own sake; and these are indeed of high interest.


Richmond Lattimore, a translator of great experience, now has his turn. A brief preface tells us only a little about his method; he says that some years ago he translated Revelation and discovered that the language “turns itself into English” with “natural ease”; and he declares, as did the editors of the RV, that “fidelity to the original word order and syntax may yield an English prose that to some extent reflects the style of the original.” One must not take this claim to fidelity at face value. Sometimes it is indeed possible to stick to the original word order, as in the first sentence of Mark (“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”), but soon trouble arrives: “And was the John having been clothed in hairs of a camel and girdle a leather round the loin of him and eating honey and locusts wild” becomes, in Lattimore, “John was clothed in camel’s hair, and a belt of hide round his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” How is this smoothing out to be avoided? Reynolds Price, whose translation I praised last year (NYR, June 29, 1978), is terser: “John wore camel’s hair and a leather belt round his hips, ate grasshoppers and wild honey.” But the original isn’t terse.

Anybody who looks at an interlinear translation of the New Testament will see in a moment how inconceivable, save for the simplest pedagogical use, a translation faithful “to the original word order and syntax” must be. There is a very interesting discussion of the problem in George Steiner’s After Babel. Walter Benjamin, in his extraordinary essay on translation (to be found in Illuminations), argued himself into the position that scriptural interlinear was the model of perfect translation. The object is to change one’s own language by allowing interference from the language of the original. In theory this gives you access to a sort of archetypal language in which all others meet; but as Steiner sensibly observes, it would be dangerous “to carry the process of intermediation to an extreme of theoretical violence in the hope of fusion.” At the lowest level the product will hardly be language at all; higher up it will be no more than a “codified strangeness.” A true “interlingual, inherently unstable ‘mid-speech”‘ hardly exists, unless it is approached in Pound or Zukovsky. Since Steiner’s is a huge book, and not everybody reads it all, I recommend his observations on Browning’s (and, incidentally, Lattimore’s) version of the Agamemnon.

Reynolds Price’s Mark has something of the right creative instability; it is, to put it at its lowest, often surprising. Surprise is not a part of Lattimore’s program. One small instance of the difference: Lattimore translates all the “ands” of the Greek, as of course he should on the principles stated. But although to a grammarian these conjunctions may suggest the paratactic quality of the original, for most of us they recall the “numinous” King James version; and so they work against any effect of modern “ease.” The translation certainly has merits, but they lie neither in any startlingly modern view of the original, nor in literal fidelity.

Here I’ll give a few particular instances. The first is chosen by the translator himself to illustrate his practice: “I have translated Mark 10:27: ‘for men it is impossible, but not for God, since for God all things are possible.’ I could have written: ‘Men cannot do it, but God can do anything.”‘ He isn’t, he says, trying to render the saying in “contemporary idiom”; rather he means to reflect “the style of the original.” But the original order is something like this: “with men [it is] impossible but not with God, all things for [are] possible with God.” So the correspondence isn’t very exact; “since” is intrusive, and something of the gnomic quality is lost if one twice inserts the verb “to be” when it is absent from the original.

Price also misses this quality: “With men it’s impossible but not with God for everything is possible with God”; and E.V. Rieu in the Penguin version: “For men it is impossible, but not for God. Anything is possible for God.” That heavy stop changes the tone. Ronald Knox, whose Catholic translation follows the Latin Vulgate text, departs further from the Greek: “Such things are impossible to men’s powers, but not to God’s; to God, all things are possible.”


Lattimore’s version is almost the same as those of RV and NEB, inevitably, perhaps. The point to notice is that the translation he says he rejected: “Men cannot do it, but God can do anything”—is not at all acceptable; it forfeits the structure of the original, with its contrast between adunaton and dunata ([it is] impossible/[all things are] possible) and the triple repetition of para, “with” or “for,” and leaves a mere paraphrase; since the rejected alternative preserves nothing but the basic sense there is no particular virtue in the rejection.

Lattimore cites another passage—John 11—in which his version simply duplicates RV: he has both the sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In the Greek, there is a slight variation in Mary’s version, and Price, noticing this, reproduces it by the slightest of variations in the English: Martha says “wouldn’t” and Mary says “would not.” It isn’t the same as the Greek, but it is as faithful as anybody could hope for. (NEB also observes the variation, in a different way.) Perhaps success depends on such minute particulars. Lattimore may be just a little too smooth; his version of Mark 7:1-5 is certainly less glib than the one he offers in his preface as the sort of translation he wants to avoid—with the syntax ironed out; but it is less successful than Price’s in simulating the bumpy ride of the original, with its enormous clumsy parentheses.

The whole matter bristles with difficulty. We suppose that Mark in Greek sounded pretty rough, especially to people who knew a more literary Greek; but we, when we read the morning paper, aren’t constantly hearing it against a background of the prose of Burke or Gibbon. To me the original sounds astonishingly rugged, and its uncouthness powerfully affects my sense of what Mark’s gospel is; but scholars who know a lot of first-century Greek might well say I exaggerate. Anyway, Lattimore often strikes me as less uncouth than his principles require; but that doesn’t mean he fails to provide some unusually interesting readings.

In Luke 23:16, for example, Pilate is saying he finds in Jesus nothing deserving of death. “I will teach him a lesson and let him go,” translates Lattimore. The AV has “I will therefore chastise him…”; Rieu: “I propose, after due correction, to release him.” Knox says “scourge him.” It might be thought that “teach him a lesson” is a weak euphemism for “flog.” But the Greek word is paideuo, which means, in the first place, “teach, instruct.” The sense inevitably gets extended to include “correct,” “beat”; and the Latin text uses the word emendo, of which the senses are also extended to mean “castigate,” “beat.” The ideal translation will preserve something of the range of the original word; that is what Rieu is unsuccessfully attempting. Lattimore has found a colloquialism which more exactly reproduces that range of sense; for “teach him a lesson” could mean what it literally says, but in modern English always has the sense of physical assault. For good value he gives the clear extended sense of “whipped” in a note. I suppose it is by such small triumphs that a new translation should, in part, be judged.

At John 5:41 Lattimore, agreeing with RV, reads “I do not receive glory from men.” (AV: “I receive not honour from men”; Rieu, “I take no praise from men”; NEB “I do not look to men for honour”; Raymond Brown in his Anchor commentary: “Not that I accept human praise”). “Honor,” “glory,” and “praise” here translate the difficult word doxa. In Plato it is sometimes used in opposition to “knowledge”—opinion is uncertain, likely to be false. (The sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English usage preserves this sense.) It also means “reputation,” or “the opinion others hold of one” (often distinguished from a true, inherent honor); and, to add to the confusion, it can mean, without disparagement, “honor” or “glory.”

Obviously it is this latter end of the sense range that is primarily at work in the verse under discussion, though it implies also that the sort of honor men can confer (what Shakespeare calls “mouth-honor”) is irrevelant to God. Four lines later Jesus is saying, “How can you believe, when you receive your glory from each other, and do not look for the glory that comes from God alone?” (Lattimore). Here NEB uses “honor.” Rieu, not very valuably, paraphrases: “content as you are with praise from one another, and not seeking the approval that comes from the Only God?” For the Greek has doxa in both these places, as well as in 1:41; Rieu’s liberty is self-condemned, and so is Brown’s, who has “praise” in the first place and “glory” in the second. It is easy to see why they chose to vary the word in translation; internal puns on doxa are working in the original, and they are missed if you translate by the same word in both places; yet they are missed just as much if you don’t. The translators of King James, far more familiar than we are with the sort of contrast involved (it is very common in the poetry of the period) still stuck to “honor” in both cases. To sort out doxa-opinion was a work of length; such a work is Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.

So we cannot blame the modern translator; and indeed Lattimore has an economical note on the difficulty, pointing out (what is easily missed) that in 1:42 of the same passage John uses the verb dokeo, closely related to doxa, in the sense of “wrongly suppose” and in direct contrast to know. I very much doubt whether he is right in saying, in his note, that 1:41 (“I do not receive glory from men”) could mean “I do not accept the opinion of men.” But to open up the subject in a note, when it is incapable of treatment in the text itself, is certainly fair dealing.

So much may well be said of the whole thing. Lattimore follows his humor, and though I don’t think it is very close to mine (I seem to want more clangor, more roughness) he has thought about and tried to solve a large number of problems as they arose. He is as far from Benjamin’s magical, unattainable interlinearity as he is from the bureaucrat’s English of NEB; but he is very honestly not quite the same as anybody else, and follows his humor with much circumspection.

This Issue

July 19, 1979