The Bible, 21st century translation

Photo: CTK

This year’s Easter has been very special for Christians in the Czech Republic as, for the first time in 30 years, they could read the Bible in a new translation. Entitled the Bible – a 21st century translation, it presents all Biblical texts in modern, contemporary Czech, making the scriptures accessible to all generations. The new translation was officially launched on Thursday in Prague’s Bethlehem Chapel.

Jan Potměšil,  photo: CTK
“It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” The account of Jesus’ crucifixion in the Gospel according to Luke was one of the samples the audience was treated to at the official launch of the Bible’s new Czech translation in Prague’s Bethlehem Chapel on Thursday. Respected Czech actors, including Josef Somr from the National Theatre, read out passages of the new translation which took 17 years to complete. Alexandr Flek was in charge of the project, heading a 7-member team of translators and editors.

“I feel very relieved, and very happy about tonight’s presentation. Hearing the words leaving the pages of the book through the actors’ reading was just beautiful. It was a very rewarding feeling.”

Until now, the most widespread Czech translation of the Bible was the Czech Ecumenical Translation, which appeared in the 1970s. Although fairly recent, the edition was considered too “biblical” and archaic, and many people still read the 16th century translation known as the Bible of Kralice. This work of the Bohemian Brethren is considered a classical piece of Czech literature, and has had a big influence on the development of the Czech language. The Bible for the 21st century was in fact originally entitled the New Bible of Kralice, as homage to the monumental work of Czech literature. Lydie Kucová is a lecturer of Biblical studies at Prague’s International Baptist Theological Seminary.

“As we heard from the translators themselves, they very much liked the old 16th century Czech translation, Bible Kralická, or the Kralice Bible. Their original intention was to bring the language of the Kralice Bible into modern day Czech. But it’s not only the Czech language that changes; we’ve had new discoveries concerning for instance the Dead Sea Scrolls, so this is not just a revision of the Bible, but a completely new translation.”

Photo: CTK
The Bible 21 team first translated the New Testament, which came out in 1999. Now the whole Bible has appeared, after 17 years of day-to-day work supported mostly by private sponsors. Alexandr Flek says he and his collaborators wanted to retain the richness of both vocabulary and style.

“The Bible is not flat. There are different styles in the text; some texts are very simple and straightforward, while others are very poetic. There are songs, the Book of Psalms, and so on. The first chapter of Genesis, that was read here, is really very rhythmical, it’s sort of poetry in prose, and there are many recurring rhythms and patterns, and some words stand out. It’s often as if the authors were playing with words, and we tried to communicate in the same way. Wherever it’s straightforward, we used straightforward language. Wherever a special word is used, we tried to find a special word in Czech as well.”

Biblicist Lydia Kucová reviewed the translation, so I asked her how the new translation stands compared to the previous ones.

“The advantage of this new Bible translation is that it is a translation into contemporary Czech. As you know, the last translation was done thirty years ago and the language has been constantly changing so young people and especially children, they don’t understand the language of thirty, forty years ago. This contemporary translation is accessible to every person in the society.”

Photo: CTK
And has she found any mistakes in the 21st century edition?

“There is no translation about which we could say that it is without mistakes. There will be mistakes in this translation as there are in previous translations. I would also say that every translation is an interpretation, so rather than speaking of mistakes you could speak about different interpretations of the original text.”

Translating the Bible is a task like no other. Every translator knows that the trick is to get across the same, or the closest, meaning as the original text – but what do you do when there is no original? That was a question I put to Alexandr Flek.

“There‘s a whole science called textual criticism that deals with this issue because of course we don’t have any original writings per se, we don’t have Moses’ stone tablets that he wrote the ten commandments on and we don’t have the original copies of Paul’s letters etc. But what we have is hundreds, even thousands of very early manuscripts, copies of the original, we also have very early translations. Just to give you an idea, the same is the case with Caesar’s writings or any writing from ancient times. We don’t have the originals from any of those books but we don’t doubt they were written. The quest is to get as close to the original as possible and thanks to the findings of recent decades we are really able to come much closer than in the past centuries.”

Alexandr Flek,  photo: CTK
At Thursday’s presentation of the 21st century translation in Bethlehem Chapel where the reformer Jan Hus once preached, the head of the project Alexandr Flek gave a very touching testimony on his own path to faith. I was wondering whether he though somebody who does not believe in God at all could do a good job translating the Bible.

“I believe a translation is not just a science, it’s an art just as much as it is a science. Unfortunately, translations often miss the artistic, the aesthetic, the musical I would say part of the text. So I think this is something very important. We need translators that are academically trained and philologically, biblically educated but it’s as important for them to be in some measure the artists of the word. So you can have a translation by someone who is not really a big believer but he is very skillful with literature and maybe such two people can work together to reflect all the flavors of the original.”

“Personally I believe in God and if somebody wants to commit many years of their life to a work like this one I would ask for their motivation. If they don’t believe in God I don’t think they will drop their career and take up this work if they don’t have motivation deep down in their heart.”

With 17 years of work on Bible 21 behind him, what is Alexandr Flek’s next project?

“I don’t think this is over at all. It feels more like the birth of a baby and that’s like a beginning of a new time. So I think that in a nation like the Czech one, it’s not enough just to translate the Bible and publish it; we would like to present the Bible to the Czech people, to open it for them and to help them read it, so there is a lot ahead.”