Straitened in my bowels

Just as an aside to that last post: the difficulty I have is that, on one level, I can see that the Authorised Version is a literary marvel which no modern translation remotely approaches. However, for Christians there is more to it than that: the Bible isn’t just a work of literature, but the living word of God, so accuracy and comprehensibility probably need, in the end, to take priority over literary merit.

This morning, I read 2 Corinthians 6 in the Authorised Version. Verse 12 reads:

Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels.

It’s hard to decide where to begin in describing the difficulties of comprehension which this causes a modern reader. Contrast the NRSV’s rendition:

There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours.

That loses a certain poetic force, but at least it both makes sense and avoids unfortunate digestive overtones.

Whether that is worth the trade-off in exchanging (for example) the AV’s “far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” for the NRSV’s “eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” in chapter 4 is something I doubt I’ll ever stop changing my mind about, at least this side of receiving that weight for myself.

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2 thoughts on “Straitened in my bowels”

  1. When I was a younger man — specifically, when I was still an Anglican, having been raised a cradle Anglican — I was all in favor of more “modern” translations of Scripture, for much the same reason that you give here. I loved the literary beauty of the Authorised Version, but believed that for any practical, pastoral use a more comprehensible, modern version should be used.

    A few years after I became Eastern Orthodox, I had the very good fortune to take a two-year course of theological instruction from Fr Alexander Golitzin (D Phil, Oxon). At one session, one of the students asked Fr Golitzin “which English translation of the Scriptures is the best?” Fr Golitzin answered that the Authorised Version is still the best. In his view the chief advantage of the Authorised Version is not its literary merit, but its simple and straightforward accuracy: its faithfulness to what the text of Scripture actually says. Too many modern translations, in their zeal for “comprehensibility,” are too quick to resolve every metaphor and figure of speech into what they supposedly “really mean” rather than simply give us what the words of Scripture actually are in straightforward English. The translators of the Authorised Version were determined to give the most accurate translation they could of what the original languages said; and in very large measure they succeeded.

    The difficulty with the Authorised Version (Fr Golitzin went on to say) is that the English language itself has changed in the intervening 400 years, and the use of words and constructions that have disappeared from the language (or, worse, have remained but now have quite different meanings) makes the Authorised Version much less comprehensible than it used to be. Nevertheless, it remains the most accurate translation available.

    Needless to say, I am not giving Fr Golitzin’s remarks verbatim, but from memory thirty years on. But this made a deep impression on me at the time, and I took (and still take) Fr Golitzin’s opinion as my own. (I would be very curious to know what Fr Golitzin — now the Orthodox bishop of Toledo, Ohio — would think of newer translations such as the ESV, or the New King James Version, which attempts to deal with the archaisms in the Authorised Version while retaining its accuracy and its literary virtue.)

    I am not sure, BTW, that I agree with you about 2 Co 6.12. There is, as you say, a “digestive overtone” to the use of the word “bowels”; and yet the word “affection” is a bit too cerebral and doesn’t give us the elemental and bodily phenomenon that is often associated with strong emotional responses. There is a reason that figures of speech like “gut feeling” and “I feel it in my bones” (or speaking of a wrenching emotional experience as “a blow to the solar plexus”) exist: we do experience strong emotions in our bodies, not just in our minds. The phrase “straitened in your own bowels” reflects that; “in your affections” simply does not.

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for this – very interesting. Certainly one thing that frustrates me about most modern Bible translations is their preference for the abstract over the concrete/metaphorical (a preference promoted assiduously by those doughty campaigners at the Campaign for the Abolition of Poetry).

      So I agree that the AV’s translation of 2 Corinthians 6:12 retains an “elemental and bodily” aspect that is lost in the NRSV’s rendition. The problem is that changes in language since 1611 made the AV’s rendition completely incomprehensible to me until I’d read the prosaic NRSV effort.

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