Emanuel Contac (trans. & ed.) Cornilescu: Din culisele publicãrii celei mai citite traduceri a Sfintei Scripturi. Cluj-Napoca: Editura Logos, 2014.
In the years since he published his first translation of the Bible in 1920, Dumitru Cornilescu (1891-1975) has become one of the most beloved figures among Romanian Protestants. His Bibles can be found in Baptist, Pentecostal, Brethren, Adventist, and scores of other churches across the country, and an interdenominational team of nine scholars are now working on a revised version of his translation. Cornilescu discovered a passion for translating while he was still a student in an Orthodox seminary, and he soon produced numerous tracts and articles, mostly of Protestant origin, some of which were published in major Orthodox journals. Impressed by his talent for languages, a noblewoman, Ralu Callimachi, convinced him to produce a new translation of the Bible under her patronage. She gave him room and board in her castle and provided him with the literature that he needed while he worked. Cornliescu later wrote that he had a conversion experience while he was translating. Even though he had been educated as a priest, he had never understood that when the Bible says that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23), that actually meant everyone, including Cornilescu. Spending so much time one on one with the Bible changed that. “Only then did I begin to take things for me personally,” he said. Cornilescu took his new passion for evangelism back to the church where he worked as a Deacon, and together he and the parish priest, Teodor Popescu (1887-1963), began a revival that ended with Popescu defrocked, Cornilescu in exile, and the emergence of a new neo-Protestant sect known as the Tudoristi.
In the introduction to this volume Emanuel Contac presents the most comprehensive and detailed treatment of Cornilescu’s life and work to date, followed by over 300 pages of documents taken from the British Bible Society’s archives that Contac has translated into Romanian. These documents are fascinating. The British Bible Society began investigating the possibility of publishing and distributing a new Romanian translation of the Bible in 1919, soon after Cornilescu finished his own translation. At the time the Bible Society was distributing translations that had been approved by the Romanian Orthodox Church, but which were often hard to come by. The most recent translation prior to Cornilescu’s was released in 1911, but had not been a commercial success. Most of the Bibles in circulation at the time were based on much earlier translations, either still using the Cyrillic script or latinized versions of the Cyrillic editions. The Bible Society wanted something new but they were reticent to adopt Cornilescu’s translation for fear of upsetting the Orthodox Church, which did not look kindly on it.
The British turned first to one of Cornilescu’s teachers, Iuliu Scriban, who they had paid to translate the New Testament together with Bishop Nicodem in 1911 but who still hadn’t produced anything. They also approached Gala Galaction, a writer and theologian who was working on his own, more literary, translation but who also wasn’t anywhere near finished. Desperate, they sought advice from John Adeney, an Anglican missionary who worked among the Jewish community in Bucharest. Adeney liked Cornilescu’s translation but emphasized that there were technical inaccuracies with it and didn’t think that it was appropriate for the Bible Society. He pointed out that there was no-one else in the country apart from Scriban and Galaction who was qualified to critique it, but that they would rubbish it for personal reasons and in order to promote their own translations. Unlike Scriban and Galaction, Cornilescu had not translated directly from Hebrew and Greek (although he knew them), but had used Louis Segond’s 1910 French translation as the basis for his own. Cornilescu’s fluid style and the fact that he hadn’t worked from the original languages bothered Adeney, who wanted a more scholarly approach to translation. Together with the Bible Society, Adeney tried to convince Scriban, Galaction, and Cornilescu to work together, but to no avail.
The letters that make up the bulk of these documents are correspondence between Bucharest and London over which translation to use and, once that was decided, over the practical problems involved with editing, printing, and distribution. The correspondence reads like a romantic comedy in which the British Bible Society struggles to acknowledge that Cornilescu is its true love. Frequent misunderstandings and false starts dominate the relationship between Cornilescu and the Bible Society, both of them becoming increasingly frustrated with one another while also discovering that they cannot live without each other. Despite Adeney’s concerns, Cornilescu’s translation sold like hotcakes the second it hit the shelves, and the Bible Society were forced to take into account the fact that no-one really wanted the older Orthodox Bibles they were distributing whereas there was constant demand for Cornilescu’s version. Meanwhile, positive reviews of Cornilescu’s work came flooding in. One such letter, from an English missionary by the name of Edmund Broadbent, assured the Bible Society that “the distribution of Cornilescu’s translation among Romanians is an event of national importance. I have spoken with all sorts of people: educated and uneducated, for and against the translation, and the overwhelming response is that the people now have, for the first time, a version in contemporary language; a language that they understand without difficulty and which makes Scriptures useful to them.” Another testimony came from a journalist from Transylvania, who argues that “Cornilescu’s translation has one very precious quality: it can be understood.” A Saxon pastor from the same region told the Bible Society that Cornilescu’s language was “taken out of our very heart”. It seems that people cared about being able to read it more than how well Cornilescu had rendered ancient Greek phrases into modern Romanian.
As happens at the end of every good story, eventually the Bible Society did adopt Cornilescu’s Bible, much to the chagrin of Scriban, Galaction, and other Orthodox leaders. They chose it precisely because of the beauty of its language, which was quite close to spoken Romanian at the time, and this is why the translation continues to be treasured today. In doing so, the Bible Society found itself embroiled in endless discussions over how to improve the text and to make it more precise. The enormous challenge facing the team revising Cornilescu’s translation will be to produce a text that is faithful to the beloved language of Cornilescu’s original while also doing justice to the word of God in light of the current state of Biblical scholarship.