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The perils of modern translation. Or, nothing ventured, nothing gained?


Allow me to introduce to you the first "modern language" biblical translation produced in the United States, "A New and Corrected Version of the New Testament" by Rodolphus Dickinson (1831). When I first encountered this work, I was excited because Rev. Dickinson was rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Pendleton, SC, just down the road from me. Just think, a modern, forward-thinking church leader from South Carolina!1

Anyway, it turns out that Dickinson's translation was really bad. His basic idea was sound: he wanted to match the development of the English language with "corresponding changes" in the scriptural text. The problem is that he was a terrible writer of English prose. Orlinsky and Bratcher say that "his zeal far exceeded his skill" (1991, p. 58) Here are a few examples:

  • "John came abstemious as to food and drink."
  • "Mary was found in a state of gestation."
  • "Bring here the fattened calf, and immolate it."
  • "For to every one who attends to what he has, shall be imparted, and he shall be in affluence; but he who neglects it, shall be divested even of that which he possesses."
  • "He who shall divorce his wife, except in cases of incontinence, may render her guilty of adultery."

That last one made me laugh out loud, but this one is my favorite:

  • "Festus declared with a loud voice: Paul, you are insane! Multiplied research drives you to distraction."

I know the feeling, Festus.

The New England Magazine gave Dickinson's NT a scathing but delightfully droll review. They say

In our humble apprehension, he has totally failed; we do not deny that a single instance can be produced in which an obsolete word has been exchanged for a better one of modern fashion; but we affirm that ninety-nine in a hundred of the changes, whether they affect whole sentences, or single words, are for the worse."

After giving many long examples of Dickinson's terrible prose, they end with this:

In conclusion, we cannot refrain from expressing unfeigned regret that Mr. Dickinson should have thrown this new version of the New Testament before the world. We believe him to be as honest a man as every wore a surplice—and one who sincerely desires to promote the literary reputation of our country. But we think he has committed a great mistake...

While justice to the author demands of us that we should admit that in a few—a very few—passages, he may have presented a sentiment in an improved a more attractive form of words, justice to our own understanding also requires that we pronounce the work, as a whole, a discredit and reproach to our literature.

Even so, I feel a strange kinship with Rev. Dickinson, educated in the Northeast and serving a parish in a small rural town in the middle of nowhere.2 He had a sense that the Bible needed to be more accessible to his flock, but he did not have the scholarly community around him to strengthen his own weaknesses. I applaud his audacity and industry. So, I suggest that we each raise a whiskey sour in honor of Rev. Dickinson, that Episcopal priest who, as we say in the South, "meant well, bless his heart."

  1. I kid because I love, my fellow countrymen.

  2. Of course, now Pendleton is a bedroom community of Clemson University, so things are quite different.