Translating the N. T. Wright and David Bentley Hart Tussle

The recent New Testament dust-up between big-name scholars reminds us how hard—and important—Bible translation can be.

One notable scholar who does not appear to be particularly impressed by Hart’s translation is Wright, who is probably the closest thing current New Testament scholarship comes to having a celebrity. His review of Hart’s New Testament, published January 15 in The Christian Century, details a lengthy list of disagreements with Hart’s translation choices, and ends with the backhanded compliment that Hart’s translation is “as idiosyncratic as it is bold.”

 

Individual translations of the Bible have a long history in Western Christianity, stretching back to Jerome’s Latin translation, the Vulgate. Notable members of this auspicious tradition include William TyndaleJohn Wycliffe, and Martin Luther. Much more recently, figures such as Kenneth Taylor and Eugene Petersonhave joined their ranks with popular paraphrases, while scholars such N. T. Wright have also produced more traditional translations. (For those interested in more coverage of Bible translations, CT has an in-depth look at lesser-known translations in the upcoming March issue.)

The newest member of this unique club is Orthodox theologian and scholar David Bentley Hart, who published his own translation of the New Testament last year.

Hart’s translation has been making waves, to say the least. Variously described as “mind-bending,” “provocative,” and “a glorious failure,” Hart’s rendering of the New Testament has produced no shortage of commentary, and more than a little critical praise.

Wright’s Review

One notable scholar who does not appear to be particularly impressed by Hart’s translation is Wright, who is probably the closest thing current New Testament scholarship comes to having a celebrity. His review of Hart’s New Testament, published January 15 in The Christian Century, details a lengthy list of disagreements with Hart’s translation choices, and ends with the backhanded compliment that Hart’s translation is “as idiosyncratic as it is bold.”

Wright’s primary concern seems to be Hart’s understanding and use of language—both Greek and English. Hart claims his translation will in many parts be “an almost pitilessly literal translation,” intending to “make the original text visible through as thin a layer of translation as I can contrive to superimpose upon it.”

While Wright seems to respect what Hart is trying to accomplish, he nevertheless argues that instead of making the original text visible, Hart may actually be obscuring it by trying to render Greek syntax and idioms in English. “Greek and English, as Hart knows well, do not work the same way,” Wright argues. “… The strange English here has nothing to do with a cultural clash between the first Christians and ourselves.”

Wright’s review, delivered with classic British understatement, is no less trenchant for its seemingly good-natured tone. Translation is hard, and the effort required also makes it personal, so Wright’s negative appraisal comes with an extra sting. What must Hart think?

We needn’t have wondered.

Hart’s Response

Last Tuesday, a mere 24 hours after Wright’s review was published online, Hart posted a response on an Eastern Orthodox blog run by Aidan Kimel, leaving no doubt about just what he thought of Wright’s evaluation of his translation. The parenthetical prologue speaks for itself:

wherein, at long last, our author unburdens himself of a great number of complaints he has long wished to make against that pious man’s earnest but problematic approach to the New Testament, embellished with a few moments of sly mockery, but ultimately intended as a good-natured—albeit inflexible—expression of deep disagreement

Hart’s rejoinder is, like Wright’s initial review, full of zingers and jabs and worth a full read. Hart grants Wright a few basic premises, then wades right into the details of Wright’s critique—meeting him point for point, and then some. Hart notes in the comments on the blog post that he was “annoyed … that Wright wrote any review at all … because he has a competing version out there [published in 2011], and it’s an old rule that one doesn’t write reviews—especially caustic reviews—of competing books.”

Hart characterizes Wright’s review as a “catalogue of complaints,” and thinks that Wright’s own work “suffers from a dangerous combination of the conventional and the idiosyncratic, with a few significant historical misconceptions mixed in … imposing meanings on the text that best conform to his own convictions, plausible or not.” Hart concludes one particular point about how to translate a noun in Greek that lacks an article by saying, “Here I am right and Wright is wrong,” but it would not be a stretch to say that this statement characterizes much of Hart’s response.

While the verbal sparring is both sharp and entertaining (and perhaps off-putting to certain sensibilities), there is a valuable point at the heart of this debate—one that is worth noting as these two Bible scholarship heavy-hitters take swings at each other’s work.

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