"A colloquial translation with a Southern accent"
Why a "cotton patch" version? While there have been many excellent translations of the Scriptures into modern English, they still have left us stranded in some faraway land in the long-distant past. We need to have the good news come to us not only in our own tongue but in our own time. We want to be participants in the faith, not merely spectators. When Jesus told the story of "a certain man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho," every person in his audience may have felt as though he himself were that "certain man" who fell among thieves on the familiar and oft-traveled road. But few of us would feel so personally involved. To give us a sense of participation or involvement, that "certain man" would need to be going from New York to Boston, or from Atlanta to Savannah, or from San Francisco to Los Angeles, or from our hometown to the next one. So the "cotton patch" version is an attempt to translate not only the words but the events. We change the setting from first-century Palestine to twentieth-century America. We ask our brethren of long ago to cross the time-space barrier and talk to us not only in modern English but about modern problems, feelings, frustrations, hopes and assurances; to work beside us in our cotton patch or on our assembly line, so that the word becomes modern flesh. Then perhaps, we too will be able to joyfully tell of "that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes and have felt with our hands, about the word of life" (I John 1:1).
Another reason for a "cotton patch" version is that the Scriptures should be taken out of the classroom and stained-glass sanctuary and put out under God's skies where people are toiling and crying and wondering, where the mighty events of the good news first happened and where alone they feel at home. We want Paul's letters to have the simplicity, the humbleness, the earthiness which they had before Christians erected temples of mortar and stone.
Still another reason is that the locale of these letters is the South. Cotton has figured prominently in the problems of this region — problems to which the letters eloquently and pointedly and compassionately speak. But by so pinpointing the South, there is no intention of hoarding or limiting God's wisdom to any one section of the world. The gospel is not provincial, even though its birthplace was a remote province of the Roman Empire. People from afar understand this, for the wise men from the distant East are frequently more sensitive to starlight than is the local innkeeper who flashes his "no vacancy" sign.
Perhaps the main reason, though, is that the major portion of my life has been spent on a farm in southwest Georgia where I have struggled for a meaningful expression of my discipleship to Jesus Christ. With my companions along the dusty rows of cotton, corn and peanuts, the Word of Life has often come alive with encouragement, rebuke, correction and insight. I have witnessed the reenactment of one New Testament event after another until I can scarcely distinguish the original from its modern counterpart. And because the present participants are for the most part, like their predecessors, humble people, I have longed to share God's word with them. So in making the translation, I have kept in mind the little people of great faith who want to do better in their discipleship but have been hindered by big words they don't understand or by ancient concepts they don't grasp.
Of course, one can never make a perfect translation even from one contemporary language to another, simply because words seldom have precise equivalents in a different language. It is even more difficult when the two languages are also separated by thousands or even hundreds of years. Then add the barriers of culture and space and the task is indeed formidable. I readily admit, then, that my attempts to find present-day equivalents to many New Testament expressions and concepts are often strained, crude and perhaps even inaccurate. For example, there just isn’t any word in our vocabulary which adequately translates the Greek word for "crucifixion." Our crosses are so shined, so polished, so respectable that to be impaled on one of them would seem to be a blessed experience. We have thus emptied the term "crucifixion" of its original content of terrific emotion, of violence, of indignity and stigma, of defeat. I have translated it as "lynching," well aware that this is not technically correct. Jesus was officially tried and legally condemned, elements generally lacking in a lynching. But having observed the operation of Southern "justice," and at times having been its victim, I can testify that more people have been lynched "by judicial action" than by unofficial ropes. Pilate at least had the courage and the honesty to publicly wash his hands and disavow all legal responsibility. "See to it yourselves," he told the mob. And they did. They crucified him in Judea and they strung him up in Georgia, with a noose tied to a pine tree.
Likewise, there is no adequate equivalent of "Jew and Gentile." My translation as "white man and Negro" is clear evidence of superimposing my own personal feelings, which is the unpardonable sin of a self-respecting translator. But in the Southern context, is there any other alternative? The same is true with expressions such as "eating meat sacrificed to idols" (I Cor. 8:4), which I translate as "working on Sunday." As strained as this may be, it was just the best I could do. We are faced with the same dilemma in "baptism," "circumcision" and a host of other words too numerous to mention. When I have strayed too far afield, I beg your forgiveness and patience, pleading that you keep in mind my plight.
There are places where it will appear that I have taken entirely too much liberty with the text. But let me point out that this is a translation, not of Paul's words, but of his ideas. If his actual words convey the wrong impression to a modern hearer, or if they make Paul say something which he obviously did not intend, then I do scuttle his words in favor of his idea. For example, someone would be perfectly understood if he wrote to a friend,
But let that letter get lost for about two thousand years, then let some Ph.D. try to translate it into a non-English language of A.D. 3967. If he faithfully translated the words it might run something like this:
For such exacting scholarship the good doctor may have won world renown as the foremost authority on twentieth-century English — without having the slightest idea what was actually said! Even worse, imagine the impression his literalism gave his audience of American food and recreational habits! Trying to avoid such error, my search has been for the content of the word rather than its form.
But there have been times when I simply could not catch on to either Paul's words or his ideas, and have had to muddle through as best I could. In these instances I have found myself in perfect agreement with Peter, who said that "our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given unto him, hath written unto you ... some things which are hard to be understood" (II Pet. 3:15-16). I was saved from despair only by the knowledge that I was in the company of the first pope.
It may be said that the language of the "cotton patch" version is not elegant, dignified or even nice. Such expressions as "hell, no" and "the damned bastard" might offend those who think of the New Testament characters as dainty saints rather than sweaty men with deep feelings and sensitivities. But Paul may have been exaggerating only slightly when he called himself "the chief of sinners" (I Tim. 1:15). So I have tried to let him be himself, without artificially clothing him with the image of immaculate sainthood. I feel sure that our beloved brother would prefer his "thorn in the flesh," given to him "lest I should be exalted above measure" (II Cor. 12:7), to the fake halo which his would-be admirers insist that he wear.
By the use of these uncouth expressions there has not been the slightest intent to shock, offend or startle — or to please — anyone. But at the same time, no effort has been made to shield the reader from the blunt, vigorous language of these letters.
Wherever possible, people’s names have been translated rather than transliterated; for example, "Rock" instead of "Peter." At other times they have been simply anglicized, and where this was not feasible, given new names entirely — names of no particular significance.
The place names have been chosen at random, with no particular respect to geography or other relevant details. Thus the letter to "the Christians in Atlanta" may as well have been addressed to Knoxville, Nashville, New Orleans or any other city. The name has no significance other than stage setting. Neither does the American city bear any implied resemblance to the city originally addressed by Paul.
Some scholars may object to the inclusion of Ephesians and possibly others as letters from Paul. Since the problems of authorship seem to fall outside the scope of the "cotton patch" approach, I have merely gone along with the traditional corpus. I am quite willing to revise the list just as soon as the scholars agree among themselves.
To have lived with Paul during these ardent months of translation has been within itself a fully rewarding experience for me. But if this humble work may be used of God to enlarge and strengthen the faith of others in his Son Jesus Christ, then indeed my joy will be full.
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