Years ago at BYU, while I was taking an American Usage course, Prof. Don Norton recommended that the class read the J.B. Phillips’s “The New Testament in Modern English.” Prof. Norton commented on the clarity and the beauty of the translation. Curious, I picked up a copy and in the process of reading it, became a bit of a fan.

The entire translation can be found online here.

In my experience, this translation of the New Testament comes in especially handy when reading the words of Paul. Readers may want to take an epistle chapter from the King James Version and then afterwards read the same chapter in the J.B. Phillips translation.  I think anyone who does this with a few chapters will see the value of the exercise.

In a separate effort, J.B. Phillips also translated some sections of the Old Testament. Specifically, he translated Amos, Hosea, Micah and the first thirty-five chapters of Isaiah. At some point these translations were published together in a book titled “Four Prophets.”

While it is out of print, I was able to find a copy for sale online and with shipping it didn’t cost more than $10. It also appears the full text of it is online here, though the formatting of the document leaves something to be desired.

I am currently perusing this book for the first time and only have first impressions to go by.  I have been focusing on the translation of the Isaiah chapters – since so many of these chapters coincide with the Isaiah chapters quoted in the Book of Mormon.

There are certainly a number of places where the language of the translation leaps off the page.  His translation of Isaiah 1:21 reads:

“See what a slut the city has become
She who was once so true,
She who was just in all her ways!
Once a home of righteousness, now a haunt of murderers.”

Then compare it to the KJV, which reads:

How is the faithful city become an harlot!
it was full of judgment;
righteousness lodged in it;
but now murderers.

His English rendering of the name of Isaiah’s son “Maher-shalal-hash-baz” comes out as “Quick-pickings-Easy-prey.” Our KJV notes on this name translate this as “to speed to the spoil” and “he hasteneth to the prey.”

Phillips’s translation of Isaiah 14:11, which deals with the end of a particular tyrant, reads:

“Your glory is brought down to the underworld
With all your sounds of music.
A mattress of maggots lies ready
With a blanket of worms to cover you.”

Again, compare to the KJV which reads:

Thy pomp is brought down to the grave,
and the noise of thy viols:
the worm is spread under thee,
and the worms cover thee.

In making these comparisons, it does not seem to me that the Isaiah passages in the KJV are so difficult to understand. But it does seem that maybe J.B. Phillips clarifies and focuses the picture for us a little bit better – and because Phillips uses modern English, the ‘bite’ of the imagery is sharper.

In that regard, J.B. does us a service – but it is not as great a service as the one he provides in regards to understanding Paul’s epistles, which are, in my opinion, more difficult (than Isaiah) to comprehend in the KJV. Maybe what we are hoping for with Isaiah is less of a clearer translation and are more in need of someone who can explain and expand on the text.

This doesn’t mean that the J.B. Phillips translation of Isaiah chapters isn’t useful – it’s just that in the first place we are dealing with a different sort of problem.

Besides the translation itself – “Four Prophets” comes with a “translator’s preface” which is quite interesting and insightful in many ways.  Phillips is plain about his lack of comfort with the Hebrew language.  He seems to be more confident with translating Greek and provides his reasons for feeling this way.  Readers may want to follow the link provided above to the online text – where one can read the whole preface.  But to us as Mormons, there was one particular section which I thought was of particular interest (on page xiv):

… if we were certain of the original Hebrew manuscripts it would not prove impossible. But unfortunately (and this fact is apparently little known to many devout readers of the Bible) in many instances no one knows for certain what is the original text. Sometimes the text is “defective”, which means that some words or words are missing, and sometimes it is “corrupt”, which means that later hands have altered, or made additions to, the original writing so that no one now knows what it was. Literally millions of man-hours must have been spent by the experts in comparing and evaluating the available material, and our debt to them is incalculable. And even when their work is, for the moment, done, there remains the frequently conflicting opinions of the commentators.”