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William Griffin

In Praise of Paraphrase

Among his mail one foggy Oxford morning, C. S. Lewis found a letter-cum-manuscript from J. B. Phillips, vicar of the Church of the Good Shepherd in London. He didn't know the man, but the vicar had said some nice things about his books and broadcasts.

As for the enclosed manuscript, well, with bombs falling and sirens wailing and buildings collapsing all around, London wasn't so unlike first-century Rome, at least from the Christians' point of view. Paul's epistles seemed right to the point.

Trouble was, the young people in Phillips' parish couldn't understand the Authorized Version. What they needed was something just a little easier to read. Hence, his own attempt at Colossians. What did Lewis think?

Immediately he put the translation to the test.

"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ," read the eighth verse of the second chapter in the Authorized Version.

"Be careful that nobody spoils your faith through intellectualism or high-sounding nonsense," read Phillips' rendition of the same passage. "Such stuff is at best founded on men's idea of the nature of the world, and disregards Christ!"

Lewis thought he knew Colossians pretty well, but this Paraphrase, for that's what it was, seemed to hit the nail right on the head. He then read the Phillips version from beginning to end. "It was like seeing a familiar picture after it's been cleaned," he wrote to the good vicar.

That was in 1943. Subsequent sales of Phillips' New Testament in Modern English proved that there were millions of Christians on both sides of the Atlantic who needed and appreciated the restoration. And so the periodic restoration process has continued down to our own day.

In 1971, Kenneth Taylor in the Living Bible: "Don't let others spoil your faith and joy with their philosophies, their wrong and shallow answers built on men's thoughts and ideas, instead of on what Christ has said."

In 1982, the Authorized Version itself got a facelift by Thomas Nelson Publishers and a new title, the New King James Version: "Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ."

In 1993, Eugene Peterson in The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary English: "Watch out for people who try to dazzle you with big words and intellectual double-talk. They want to drag you off into endless arguments that never amount to anything. They spread their ideas through the empty traditions of human beings and the empty superstitions of spirit beings. But that's not the way of Christ."

In 1996, Taylor's Living Bible, revised and retitled the New Living Translation: "Don't let anyone lead you astray with empty philosophy and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the evil powers of this world, and not from Christ."

Biblical Paraphrase, apparently, is here to stay—a tribute to our vibrant, ever-renewing language, the most flexible the world has ever known.

So why have so many been so quick to bury Paraphrase?

I must confess that I myself am a recent convert. Like many before me, I'd always thought Paraphrase was bonkers. Why? Because my intellectual betters had told me so, and I had no occasion to say them nay. But then I began doing into English some of Christianity's Latin classics. I fully intended to do literal translations, of course, and yes, more superbly literal than any of my predecessors had managed, but I soon found myself faltering. What my betters never told me in so many words was that all translation is all too errant. Soon thereafter I concluded that if err I must, then I'd prefer to err on the side of Paraphrase rather than Literalese.

A translator approaching a project for the first time must choose among three possible routes through the wilderness to the final destination: parallel, literal, and paraphrastic translation. Parallel translation—something of a misnomer—seems to indicate two things. First, for each Latin word in a Latin text there's a corresponding English word—denotation only; connotations need not apply. Second, the word order, if it was good enough for the Latin, is good enough for the English. This is found in an interlinear translation of a classic work. As such, it's a handy device for learning a language while at the same time reading a classic work in that language. An interlinear New Testament, with the Greek Koine and/or the Latin Vulgate paired with the English, would be a good example.

Literal translation is closer to English as it is spoken—or written—but not too close. First, a 100-word sentence, which isn't all that unusual in Latin, is rendered, out of fidelity to the original, into what will turn out to be a 300-word English sentence. That English hasn't been written in 300-word sentences since the 19th century didn't seem to bother the literal translators of the 20th century. The result is the canonization of the interminable sentence, grammatically correct perhaps but in effect rather like strings and strings of run-on sentences. A terrible tangle! Rather like the orderly chaos of an academic procession gone wrong, what with the dignitaries being lined up, not in ascending or descending order of importance, but according to the color of robe or gown!

There are other recurring vexations. Contemporary English abounds in contractions, but in vain does one look in literal translations from the Latin for an isn't or a wasn't, a can't or a couldn't. "Why then. … should not the husband chastely receive what his wife had chastely brought forth?" Why not indeed, but why not shouldn't?

In the typical literal translation from Latin, even Latin contractions appear in an English without contractions; that's to say, in uncontracted form. Even when the Latin originals are transcriptions of spoken Latin, like The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis or the sermons of St. Augustine, no contractions are found in the literal translations.

Without contractions, Latinized English prose has an oddness about it, a candied, caramelized glaze encasing the big red apple; not unattractive to the eye, but just try to sink a tooth into it!

Paraphrasal translation has a fidelity of its own—not, exclusively, as to the wording or word order of the Latin original, but, inclusively, as to its meaning. To that end, it does several things. It interprets the meaning of the original, appreciates the tropes and figures frolicking in the text, puts to work the connotations of words as well as their denotations, and tries to do them all into a readable, meaningful English. No more, no less.

Summing up the peculiar and indeed perennial pickle translation finds itself in is this Italian proverb: Traduttore, traditore! Literally: "Translator, traitor!" Paraphrasally: "You, a translator? You're nothing but a traitor!"

Yes, it must be admitted in the World Court, in all translation there's a loss of the author's "precise balance of thought, feeling, written word, sound," expert witness for the defense Allan H. Gilbert acknowledges in the Dictionary of World Literature, but this loss "has been greatly exaggerated."

I agree: it can be done—and, I'd argue, more easily by Paraphrase than by the other modes of translation. It's been a truism of Latinists for some centuries that certain aspects of Latin style can't be reproduced in English—and that's what causes the pain, the suffering, to the sensitive souls of the Literalists. But I'd counter with a truism of my own. Maybe by academics, chiefest among the Literalists, to whom I owe so much of my education, they can't be reproduced, but perhaps, just perhaps, they can be reproduced, and rather easily too, by English writers of modest pretension like myself.

"Every translation is inevitably an adaptation"—Gilbert again—"substituting images that will give new readers the same idea and feelings the original work gave native readers … The balance between the spirit and the letter shifts with every book, every translator, every reader."

That's why, he concludes, "an American with the soul of a poet and the training of a scholar may appreciate Dante in translation better than a Florentine cab driver in the original."

At this point perhaps the comparison of a literal and a paraphrasal translation of the same Latin passage may reveal the differences between the two modes. Garry Wills ended his estimable Penguin Life of Augustine by quoting from one of the bishop's Christmas sermons (CLXXXVII, 2), intending it as an encomium to Augustine's immense literary and linguistic skills:

The words I am uttering penetrate your senses, so that every hearer holds them, yet withholds them from no other. Not held, the words could not inform. Withheld, no other could share them. Though my talk is, admittedly, broken up into words and syllables, yet you do not take in this portion or that, as when picking at your food. All of you hear all of it, though each takes all individually. I have no worry that, by giving all to one, the others are deprived. I hope, instead, that everyone will consume everything, so that, denying no other ear or mind, you take all to yourselves. Yet leave all to all others. Nor is this done temporally, by turns—my words first going to one, who must pass it on to another. But for individual failures of memory, everyone who came to hear what I say can take it all off, each on one's separate way.

This passage—may I say it?—has never been better translated into English, especially with the severe, self-imposed restrictions placed on literal translators and translations to date. But—dare I ask it?—isn't this rather a rigid way of bringing an ancient foreign text into one's own modern language?

Expecting the answer yes, I've gone on to wonder if there wasn't a fair field of words beyond this, a fertile wordscape in which one could give a faithful and at the same time felicitous rendering that would produce something of the same effect the Latin original had on its first hearers.

A paraphrasal translation of the same passage Wills translated literally comes out quite differently:

Everyone hears what I'm saying; that's to say, my words go in the one ear and out the other. But unless my words stop in your head long enough to be heard, they don't do you or me any good. Of course, if I whispered them into your ear, then only one person could hear them, and the rest of you couldn't. But that's not the point I'm trying to make.

Clearly this sermon as a whole has many parts; it's divided into words, and the longer words into syllables. But when I speak, all you hear is the sermon as a whole. Coincidentally but importantly, each one of you hears the whole thing. Which is another way of saying that you, whether as a group or an individual, can't choose not to hear some of the words, some of the syllables. A good sermon—if I may be permitted a comparison within a comparison—isn't like a good dinner where you can pick and choose. "The squash, yes, but not the squid!" In other words, you have to eat the whole thing, hear the whole thing, whether you like it or not.

And so it seems that the sermon text Wills chose can be rendered perhaps with equal faithfulness, perhaps even with additional meaningfulness, in paraphrasal rather than literal translation. Indeed, the Paraphrase seems to indicate that Wills might've been better off choosing another passage to praise Augustine to the skies instead of this one, which seems to get bogged down in the Ping-Pong of epistemology.

Here's a sampling of the questions that paraphrasal translators face every working day.

May a single Latin adverb be rendered by 50 English words and vice versa?

May 50 Latin words be rendered by a single English adverb and vice versa?

When a work has a 500-word Latin vocabulary, may a Paraphrasist with a 500,000-word English vocabulary employ as many of those words as he or she likes?

May an 18th-century but still current English word like morbidity be used correlatively with a 17th-century word like vividity, which apparently is no longer current but still perfectly intelligible and indeed still pleasing in the right context?

If a Latin trope or figure can't be reproduced in English, may the translator use that trope or figure in English but in another passage, that way maintaining the general balance of tropes and figures in the work as a whole?

When literal translations of the same passage by different translators appear to be the same, is plagiarism the first thing that comes to mind?

May paraphrasal translations of the same passage by different paraphrasal translators appear widely, even wildly, different and still, contrary to the principle of contradiction, be quite correct?

Hasn't Literalese become so fastidious that it's outlawed verbal contractions?

Hasn't Literalese diction somewhere along the line lost the common touch, the vulgar voice, of the New Testament writers?

Hasn't Paraphrase diction somewhere along the line managed to restore the common touch, the vulgar voice, of the New Testament writers?

Shouldn't a student who knows no Latin avoid citing a paraphrased English passage as a proof-text in a scholarly work?

Couldn't a spiritually starved scholar enrich his or her parched soul by reading a paraphrasal translation of a Latin spiritual classic?

Doesn't literal translation depend on the mastery of a foreign tongue, but paraphrasal translation on the mystery of the English language?

Hasn't the Literalist found the chief source of inspiration to be the print medium, and the Paraphrasist, the performance media?

Shouldn't a translator citing Scripture translate the passage so that it reads faithfully and felicitously rather than use a published and presumably approved or accurate translation that reads clumsily?

Isn't every translation, literal or paraphrasal—if I may be permitted a mixed metaphor—like Shakespeare's second-best bed? That's to say, just a pale copy of the Latin original?

In the same vein, isn't every Latin original really like Shakespeare's first-best bed?

My answer to each of the above questions is yes, but the translator, whether literal or paraphrasal, has to do what seems right or best each and every time.

Back to Lewis and Phillips. The scholar encouraged the vicar, in the privacy of a letter, to ignore the attacks that'd surely come from "the 'cultured' asses who say you're only spoiling 'the beauty' of AV—all the people who objected to Green Pastures and The Man Born to Be King and who are always waffling about reverence. But we must kill that!"

Well, to espouse Paraphrase one doesn't necessarily have to do the Literalists in. Which is not to say that the herds of Literalists roaming the academically protected plains don't need thinning out from time to time. But I'm not one of the literary cowboys, not one of the game wardens. I don't have an ax to grind. I don't need to proclaim that paraphrasal translation, always and everywhere, is superior to every other kind of translation.

I simpley see Paraphrase as an appropriate tool for Englishing the interesting and entertaining Latin writers I've been messing around with lately—Aelred, Augustine, Cusa, Dhuoba, Erasmus, Kempis, Loyola, More. The results are always pleasing and, in some passages, quite surprising.

In the end I'm just a writer and translator. Like Lewis, I'm out for a good read, two old books for every new book. Like Phillips, Taylor, and Peterson, I'm just restoring a few old paintings.

William Griffin's translations include Thomas à Kempis' The Imitation of Christ (HarperSanFrancisco) and Augustine's Sermons to the People: Advent, Christmas, New Year's, Epiphany (published this fall by Doubleday), with Kempis' Soliloquy of a Soul, Augustine's Confessions, and Cicero and Aelred on friendship (with Emilie Griffin) to follow soon. In addition to translations of Latin spiritual classics, he's done biographies of C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham.

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