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In the Beginning was the Translation

Dear Reader,

If this column ends up shorter than Nelson’s it’s because I am feeling besieged. Next week I shall be licensed to the parish, see from the service sheet that I am to be presented with a Bible and a Prayer Book and want to make sure that the version of the Bible I’m given is one I want and not another copy of the King James’. So I’m up to my knees in Bibles.

Let me not be misunderstood. I am fond of the King James’ translation. Not so fond of the band of scholar-midwives who pinched most of their material from Tyndale without acknowledgement and who purposely chose what was even then an archaic style. However, it’s not their fault that words have changed their meaning, more reliable texts have been discovered and scholarship has made better sense of some of the obscurer passages.

On the school bookshelf is a large volume entitled ‘The Bible to be Read as Literature’. I am in full favour of it because in English we require the source from which later writers have drawn. But in church, study and at the bedside we need a version that is accurate and can be understood by ordinary pewfodder, one that lay readers won’t stumble over. One that puts sense before sound.

And this is no new requirement. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries dozens of new translations appeared. None of them displaced the Authorized Version, a revision of which sold a million copies on its first day in 1885.

But what to go for now? AB, ASV, BBE, CEV, D-RB, ESV, GNB, GSB, JB, Knox, NJB, JBP (NT), KJV, NKJV, 21st Cent. KJV, Mof, NAB, NASB, NEB, NIV, NOAB, Reader’s Digest Bible, REB, RV, RSV, NRSV, Worldwide English, Wycliffe or Young’s Literal Translation?

Even North of the border one is spoilt for choice. Here is the opening paragraph of the Prodigal Son in three versions. Which would you choose (and why)?

This, tae, he said tae them: ‘There wis aince a man hed twa sons; and ae day the yung son said til him, “Faither, hie me the faa-shae o your haudin at I hae a richt til.” Sae the faither haufed his haudin atweesh his twa sons.’

And he spak: There dwalt a chiel that had twa sons. And the young ane said til his faither, ‘Gie me the bairns’ pairt o gear that will be my due.’ And he bunced aa that he aucht atween them.

Aince mair he said til them: ‘There war a chiel had twa sons; and the young ane said til’s faither, “Faither, gie me that pairt o the family walth that sud faa tae me”. Sae noo the faither pairted his guids and gear atween them.

If none of these is easily appreciated without a struggle then let me lighten your load and offer you the ‘Black Vernacular Bible’ of Wolfram and Fasold:

So Jesus tell him, say, ‘This ain’t no jive, this the truth. The onliest way a man gonna get to know God, he got to get born regular and he got to get born from the Holy Spirit…This one got rhythm, man.

I have to admit that ‘sense before sound’ can result in some abysmals, for there are translators who have been cursed with cloth ears. Here is a sample:

The kingdom of heaven is like what happened when a king gave a wedding banquet for his son. (Mt 22.2 CEV) ‘Like what happened’? The KJV has: The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son…an elegant rhythm. But I can live happily with: The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a feast for his son’s wedding. (NJB)

As an example of a change of meaning, how about this: The Lord hath avouched thee this day to be his peculiar people (Deut.26.18). In Paul’s letter to Titus we read that Jesus purified unto himself a peculiar people. So there it is, faxed from heaven by God: Jews and Christians are oddballs, crazies, peculiar people. (I certainly never wanted to be thought run-of-the-mill ordinary, but I do prefer ‘extraordinary’ to ‘peculiar’.) Imagine my disappointment on learning that all Paul was telling Titus was that Jesus gave himself to purify a people to be his very own.

I have some sympathy with the conservatives. They had the AV in school assembly, in Sunday school and in church. It is part of them. But I’m afraid they are not serious traditionalists. Why stop at 1611 when we can go back to 1380? Sothely as a man goynge fer in pilgrimage, clepide his seruauntis, and bitoke to hem his goodis. Puzzled? It is Mat.25.14, and the awful truth is that the Authorised Version makes as much sense to the average teenager as this makes to you, for the daily bible reading in schools was phased out many years ago and half-a-dozen is the most you’ll find in many Sunday schools 

The consequence of all this heart-searching is that I have bought for myself a ‘New Jerusalem Bible’, which is not one that takes the New Jerusalem as its starting point but is a revision of the ‘Jerusalem Bible’. You will find that most of the ‘N’s and ‘R’s in my translation list stand for ‘New’ and ‘Revised’.

Just after the last century’s midpoint one imagines scholarly cells meeting in insalubrious cellars and tackling the text. They emerge clasping their translations tightly to their chests until the work is printed. Every publisher and every denomination has a finger in this profitable pie. The Bible has, after all, been the world’s bestseller (though Harry Potter is probably giving it a run for its money.) They conjure their rabbits from their mortar boards, Canterbury caps, or those book pockets that hang from the sleeves of MA gowns, at roughly the same time. And lo and behold in 1960 we have J.B. Phillips’ New Testament – a personal favourite – and the year after, the ‘New English Bible’. This is followed by the ‘Good News’ and ‘Jerusalem’ bibles in 1966. The ‘New International Version’ appears in 1973 & 8.

Scholars start peeking at their rivals’ work. And they read the reviews. And lo! There came upon them a yearning to fashion an even greater work, and they were like unto the hart that panteth after water brooks (hunted deer seeking refreshing streams). So they returned to the dim gloom of their scholarly hideouts and refashioned the work that was set before them. And all those who had taken to themselves the New English Bible were sorely tempted by the Presses to take unto themselves the Revised English Bible. And the Presses profited greatly. And God saw that by the end of the Millennium his good book had multiplied an thousandfold. And, behold, it was all a right mess and who knoweth what to choose.

In the end I could easily settle for ‘The Bible in 50 Words’. It must be the cheapest option. Might even go for a leather binding.

God made,
Adam bit,
Noah arked,
Abraham split,
Joseph ruled,
Jacob fooled,
bush talked,
Moses balked,
Pharaoh plagued,
people walked,
sea divided,
tablets guided,
promise landed,
Saul freaked,
David peeked,
prophets warned,
Jesus born,
God walked,
love talked,
anger crucified,
hope died.

Love rose,
Spirit flamed,
Word spread,
God remained.

Two more words and we have a one word a week. Just the ticket in this text message age.


June 2003

Touchstone’s Dialect P.S.

In the last Resurgence I plagued you with a variety of Bible translations. Sorting through the parish files I have come across another that I have to pass on. It is the Gospel translated into ‘Western English as spoken in Devonshire’ by Henry Baird and published in 1863. It is one of many dialect versions sponsored by Prince Louis-Lucien Bonaparte, nephew of the Emperor.

“An thare voller’d min a girt multetud a peeple vrim Gallilee, an vrim Decapalis, an vrim Juruzlim, an vrim Judaya, an vrim beyind Jaurdin.

An zeein tha multetuds, ha went up intu a mowntin : an wen ha wiz zot, ez daysipuls com’d ontu min :

An ha haupen’d ez mowthe, an tort min, zayin,…”

Well, what did he say? I’ll give you a clue. Eleven verses on we get:

“Ye ur tha zalt a tha aith : bit ef tha zalt ith laust ez zaver, werway shil et be zalted? et ez thencevore gud vur nort, bit ta be cast owt, an be scammil’d under vut a men.

Ye ur tha lite a tha wurdle. A zitty thit ez zot pin a hill cannat be hydid.”

You may need help with pronunciation. ‘a’ is more open than the ‘a’ in ‘fat’. ‘u’ is pronounced like the Scottish ‘oo’ in ‘moon’. ‘ow’ is a dipthong, the French ‘oeu’ as in ‘coeur’ plus the Scottish ‘oo’.

I tell you what. If I start writing sermons in this I’m going to have to change my spellchecker.

Colin Hodgetts is responsible for the spiritual welfare of the parishioners of Hartland, which includes the Editor of Resurgence.

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