Translating the Bible

by Nicholas King, SJ

Nicholas King SJ is a Visiting Professor at the  Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. For the past 13 years he has been at Campion Hall Oxford, as Spiritual Father and Fellow in New Testament; before that he was in South Africa for a similar period, teaching New Testament in seminaries and universities, and doing academic administration.

A funny thing happened to me on the way to Boston College (where for this academic year I find myself called a Visiting Professor for the School of Theology and Ministry): I translated the Bible. That sounds more flippant than I intend, but it is true, and I still find it a bit surprising. It has also been a great gift to me from God, a vocation within my vocation, if you like. But how did it happen? It is rare, unless you are St Jerome, to sit down with a view to doing such a thing, and I have to say that I really did not think that I should live to complete it. Best, perhaps, if I tell you how it happened.

I worked for many years, teaching New Testament in South Africa, at one of the most interesting moments in the history of that beautiful country, and was proud to play a part in the unforgettable day when we had our first democratic election, April 24 1994, acting as a District Observer for seven polling stations in the Natal Midlands. Then, after all that excitement, I was asked to return to the United Kingdom, to teach at Oxford; and since the South African academic year ends in November, I arrived in Oxford half way through their academic year, and for a while had little teaching to do. So, since I was due to come New Jersey and give a summer school in the gospels of Mark and John, I sat down and translated them both for myself, just to feel what it was like. I ignored chapter and verse, since they are both medieval impositions on the text, and wanted to get the “feel” of what it was like for the early readers (or, we should say, hearers, since most of them would not have had the skills of writing or reading) of those gospels, and of their freshness. By various ways, this came to the attention of my publisher Kevin Mayhew, and he asked me if I would agree to do a translation of the entire bible. My response was immediate: “Certainly not!”, but he battered me down, and in the end I agreed to do the New Testament, and not a word more.

He produced that (and it is beautifully done – I say nothing of the translation, only of what the book looks like and how it handles). He then announced that I was working on a translation of the Old Testament, which was not really the case; so I sulked for a while.  Then, however, for various reasons, I thought “Why not?”, consulted my Provincial, who said, “It will keep you off the streets,” and started translating the Old Testament. It was not, however, the Hebrew version that I worked on, which most translations into English give, but the Greek version, known as the Septuagint (LXX).

The reasons for that were three: the LXX was the “bible” of the New Testament authors, and it is generally that which they quote; it was the version of the Bible known to most Jews in that first century; and there was not at that time a sensible contemporary translation into English of the LXX. So I sat down and got on with it, learnt a huge amount from the process (including, I discovered, how much I love the Bible), and, against all my predictions, survived to finish the whole thing. It was duly published late in 2013, and seems to have been well received.

If you would like to buy a copy, it is not, alas, inexpensive; but then it may last you a lifetime; and you can find it on the Kevin Mayhew website. In addition, my version of the four gospels and of certain other key passages in the Bible, including, I hope, your favourite one, read by the translator, is now, I am told, on I-tunes. Now if I ask you to read it, or listen to it, that is not really so as to sell more copies; it springs more from a sense that Catholics are ill-equipped with knowledge of the Scriptures, and as St Jerome remarked, “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ”. Not only that, but God lurks there in the Bible, just below the surface of the text. And God may wish you to hear something.


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