Only a very few translators of the Bible have produced masterpieces. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate is one; William Tyndale’s English translation, which contributed much of what is memorable in the King James version, is another. The individual efforts of Ronald Knox, Edgar Goodspeed, and James Moffatt all have their merits, but do not nearly reach the level of Jerome and Tyndale. Most biblical translations, in fact, beginning with the ancient Jewish translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (the Septuagint), have been communal rather than individual efforts: the King James version and its successors, the Revised Standard Version and the New Revised Standard Version were all produced by committees of translators and editors. If you don’t have genius, at least have consensus.
David Bentley Hart shows himself to be, in this translation of the New Testament, far from a consensus-seeking compromiser. He delights in challenging convention and proposing novel terms. In his publisher’s description, Hart is “an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion, and a philosopher, writer, and cultural commentator,” who is a fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies. Hart has spent years translating passages of the New Testament for students in as literal a fashion as possible, in order to cut through the linguistic and theological obscurities perpetrated by committee-generated translations. He undertook the task—clearly with relish—of this translation only after being assured by his editor that he would have the freedom to render the Greek in as faithful a way as he could manage.
In an introduction, Hart discusses his goals and certain translation choices he has made. In the introduction he also revisits an essay he wrote for Commonweal that has little to do with translation, and everything to do with the radical character of the New Testament and the radical character of the discipleship it demands. There is also an equally lengthy “Concluding Scientific Postscript,” which provides the reasoning behind his occasionally idiosyncratic translations of specific words and phrases.
Before turning to his decisions about diction, allow me a few comments on the character and quality of Hart’s translation overall. He sticks to his goal of rendering the Greek in what the back-copy of the book calls “a pitilessly literal translation.” He reveals no ambition for literary elegance, and displays none. Just the opposite: he allows shifts in tense to stand as they are; he refuses to smooth out irregularities in grammar or syntax; his translation of participles—that most marvelously fluid of Greek constructions—resembles those of schoolroom exercises. Indeed, the reader is reminded most of the sort of word-by-word, super-literal treatments of the Greek texts regularly performed by teachers of the New Testament in classrooms, to give their students a more direct “sense of the original meaning” than is available in the standard translations.
The approach works best when Hart is translating discourse rather than narrative. The translation of the Letter of James, for example, a composition that lacks the sort of theological baggage that bothers him, is clear and competent. The Book of Revelation, whose Greek is so bad that one suspects that the deliberate literary clumsiness is meant to convey the sense of divine disclosure, responds equally well to his hyper-literal reading. I also found his treatment of Paul’s letters—with the reservations I will note later—to make good sense, with his translation rarely calling attention to itself. Hart grasps, for example, that the difficult constructions involving variants of pistis Christou should be taken as subjective genitives (“the faith or faithfulness of Christ”) rather than objective genitives (“faith in Christ”). This contribution by itself deserves applause.
The Gospels, in contrast, are more problematic, precisely because Hart’s desire to allow the text to be rough and uneven actually tends to draw attention to the translation rather than to the Evangelists’ texts. I suppose the terms “fresh” and “startling” could sometimes be applied, not to suggest the uncovering of a meaning that previous translations hid, but only to recognize a certain clunkiness in the prose. In short, while the translation seeks to be faithful to the Greek, and is generally successful at that, it sometimes fails because of word choices that are odd and sometimes arbitrary.
Hart claims that his word-for-word translation makes for consistency, enabling the reader to have confidence that in every occurrence the same Greek word lies beneath his English rendering. But such is not the case. A couple of examples. The Greek noun nous means “mind” or “mind-set”; Hart so translates it in 1 Corinthians 2:16, but in Romans 12:2, he translates it as “intellect,” and in Philippians 2:5 (following the lead of the despised committee translators) he supplies “mind” where it is absent in the Greek. A similar inconsistency haunts the translation of dikaios (righteous/just) and its cognates. A consistent literal translation of Romans 1:17 would be, “God’s righteousness (dikaiosyne) is revealed, from faith to faith, as has been written, ‘And the righteous shall live by his faithfulness,’” but in the first instance, Hart has “God’s justice,” and in the second “the upright” (see also his translation of Romans 3:21-26). Similarly, in Jesus’ parable of the Publican and Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14), the reader of this translation will miss completely Luke’s play on dikaios language, because Hart translates the opening instance as “upright” and the final ironic instance as “vindicated.”
Hart is conversant with text criticism, and sometimes provides extensive notes concerning his choice among variants, as in the case of John 8:1-11, the story of Jesus confounding the scribes and Pharisees over the woman caught in adultery. All the more puzzling, then, is his failure to comment at all on his omission of “Son of God” in Mark 1:1, a title that is well attested in the manuscripts and plays an important thematic role in that gospel.