Intensity of image: Defending the REB

Posted: 21st December 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

As I sit here in the first hour of the day, sipping my thrice-steeped cup of tea, easing a sore throat and persistent cough, I find myself indirectly under attack by the keepers of the Dynamic Equivalent (DE) gate for daring to fawn over a translation that defines itself as idiomatic, but unfettered in its choice of English expression. That translation being, of course, the Revised English Bible (REB).

I will begin my defense with some quotes regarding the REB’s predecessor, the New English Bible (NEB), from Roger Coleman’s “New Light & Truth: The Making of the Revised English Bible”:

Many of the criticisms of the NEB had to do with the “high” level of the language. The gibe that the NEB was “translated by dons for dons” (i.e. by scholars for scholars) was not altogether fair – it was a translation primarily for the reader with time to think about the meaning and to give the unexpected word a second glance, and not for the listener who must understand the passage as spoken or lose it for ever. Nevertheless there was much greater use of technical, literary, or “dictionary” words than was either necessary or desirable. “The effulgence of God’s splendour” (NEB Hebrews 1:3) came to epitomize for the Joint Committee and the revisers the kind of phrase that might prove a stumbling block to a listener – though there were reservations that “the radiance of God’s glory” (REB) might not quite convey the intensity of image that was wanted. On the other hand, reducing the level of the vocabulary sometimes led to the sense of the original being conveyed in a more exact way, as when “Let your magnanimity be manifest to all” (NEB Philippians 4:5) became “Be known to everyone for your consideration of others.” The Joint Committee took great interest in the level of language used in the revision, and in one of several discussions of the subject, warned against the systematic rejection of polysyllables, reminding the Director and his team of the arresting effect of unusual words and the way they could help to give an appropriate flavour of, for example, solemnity to a particular passage. (pp.48-49)

Coleman goes on to note some particular “donnish” features that the NEB might be criticized for:

  1. Overly technical precision when confidence in a specialized term was required. Coleman cites the use of “ruffed bustard” in NEB Zephaniah 2:14 vs. just “bustard” in the REB, a level of species distinction which might qualify as overkill given “the menagerie of alternatives in other translations”.
  2. Generous use of footnotes where the translators varied from the base text, especially in the OT and the alternatives presented in the Greek LXX, as well as related words in other Semitic languages.
  3. Self-conscious idiomatic writing, that is, “a phrase used which is recognizably idiomatic English when viewed in isolation, but feels wrong in tone or weight when read in context.”
  4. Convoluted or inverted phrasing that was the result of  poor communication and over-sensitivity to the text between the translators and publishers. Where, for example, the NRSV’s copy editors ran roughshod over the text, the NEB’s editors and proofreaders did not presume to make changes except for obvious errors.

So, first, to those critics of the REB, my simple defense is this: “It could be worse.” I say that with a wink in my eye since my reading seems equally split between the NEB and REB these days.

However, I do want to flag two items from the quoted paragraph above for future discussion: (1) that vocabulary choices can “convey the intensity of image” desired by the author; and (2) the “arresting effect of unusual words” and the way they flavor particular passages. Just as we use spices and salts to bring out a rich array of flavors in foods, so too is language capable of enhancing our interaction with scripture.

How many times do we hear that a particular translation is “bland” or “simple”? Defenders of current DE translations like the CEV and NLT use phrases like “natural English” as a rebuttal – however, it is not English itself that is naturally simple, but our common use of it.

As such, should the Bible be as common as a simple grocery list or does it serve to inspire us and make us aspire to contribute even greater flavor to the gumbo pot we call God’s creation? In short, the latter is why I use the REB – but more on that later…

  1. Nathan Stitt says:

    Interesting. How many books do you have about the makings of the REB and NEB translations? I’d be interested in their titles or ISBNs. I look forward to your next post on this as well, fun stuff!

  2. There were two “official” books published by members of the respective project teams, which I have:

    Roger Coleman, “New Light & Truth: The Making of the Revised English Bible” (ISBN 0521381711)
    Geoffrey Hunt, “About the New English Bible” (ISBN 0521079381 or 0191800155 )

    0521 is Cambridge; 0191 is Oxford.

    In addition, there was a book by A.E. Harvey called “A Companion to the New English Bible: New Testament”, which is “a running commentary on the New Testament and which takes advantage of the papers and discussions of the scholars who made the translation.” I don’t have that one yet.

  3. […] be able to play the snob and criticize translations like CEV and NLT for their limited vocabulary. ElShaddai Edwards quotes a criticism of the NEB as being written by “dons for dons” and that neatly […]

  4. David Ker says:

    You inspired me. I’ve posted a conciliatory response.

  5. Peter Kirk says:

    There is indeed a place for the “arresting effect of unusual words”, but not when those are words, like “effulgence” perhaps, which are simply meaningless to much of the target audience.

  6. Agreed, Peter. I’m glad that the NEB revision team realized that as well.

  7. CD-Host says:

    I’m also one of the “fawners”. For me it is not the language or the NEB / REB but rather Dodd. In the NEB Dodd frequently uses alternative meanings of a phrase and translates those. He freely broke with KJV tradition. Virtually no other translation has broken as aggressively as the NEB while still being as scholarly. Which is why I think the NEB is fantastic 2nd bible, a bible to show what else a passage could mean. The REB by toning down Dodd’s a bit, and prettifying is a good 1st bible version of the NEB. Don’t get me wrong the REB sounds fantastic.

    But for easy to read, still good and American: NLTse, TNIV, HCSB, CEV…. we have those. I’m sticking with (for experienced readers):

    Formal: Brown & Comfort
    Dynamic: REB

  8. CD- yes, I agree that the NEB is fantastic – the translators actually intended it to be read along with the KJV as a 2nd bible, drawing out different shades of meaning from the original texts. There was no thought to directly replacing the KJV with the NEB, at least for the liturgical use of the church. That constraint seems to have been put aside for the REB, which was tweaked specifically for the cadences of public reading.