JB Phillips on the KJV’s ‘prison of traditional beauty’
Following up last Friday’s post on Eugene Peterson and the King James Bible, my colleague Roger Salisbury reminded me of the ethos that lay behind J B Phillips‘ pioneering modern English translation of the New Testament. He started it during the Second World War, culminating in the publication of the New Testament in Modern English in 1958. It’s hard to imagine nowadays (what with the plethora of English translations – an embarrassment of riches to be sure) – but then the King James ruled supreme (although it was beginning to face challenges from the American Standard and Revised Standard versions).
So in the light of what Peterson said about his translation The Message, it’s fascinating to see Phillips’ own thoughts. This is the preface to the Pocket Edition of his NT in Modern English, published in 1960, quoted in full:
For some time I have been working on further revisions to The New Testament in Modern English and all these have now been embodied in the following text. They are mainly concerned with the Epistles (“Letters to Young Churches”), which I first translated fifteen years ago. I have since been able to make use of the latest and most accurate Greek text. I have also had access to works of critical scholarship which were not available to me in the immediate post-war years.
During my work on these revisions I have come to realise more than ever the strength of view I have held for many years. It is not enough simply to replace outmoded words with their modern equivalents; the result is liable to be a strange and unlovely hybrid language. We must be much more fundamental than that. We have to go right back to the comparatively workaday Greek of the New Testament documents themselves and translate them afresh, not into slang, but into vigorous contemporary English. It has never been my object to denigrate the majesty and beauty of the Authorised Version, which is indeed incomparable. I have rather sought to rescue tremendous and inspiring truths from what is sometimes a familiar prison of traditional beauty.
Fifteen years have proved to me that this is an exceedingly difficult task. I do not myself believe that there is any such thing as ‘timeless English’,a nd the very best that a translator can do is to make the message and burden of what he translates urgent and contemporary to his own generation. And in attempting to do this I have of course had far more information and scholarship available to me than the translators of 1611 ever possessed.
Once more I should like to thank the many people all over the world who have been kind enough to write suggesting emendations. Even if I have not always felt able to accept all of them, they have been most helpful to me in my work of revision.
J.B.P. (Swanage, December 1960)
The whole text of Phillips’ translation is online here…