Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Good Book

I grew up in a religious household in which crucifixes and rosaries were always close at hand. I attended Catholic parochial schools where the three Rs were supplemented by a fourth - religion. I was taught the proper manner of praying and i prayed often, both publicly and privately in what I thought was the correct way. I don't remember what I prayed for, and don't remember having any of my prayers answered. I hated Sundays because I had to put on very uncomfortable clothes and sit, stand, and kneel throughout a tedious and interminable ceremony.

But what bothered me the most was that I felt nothing when I prayed, and it was depressing because it was just one more thing to disappoint my parents and teachers. So I had to go through with the charade of believing. When Herman Melville put the words of a prayer into the mouth of Father Mapple, he asked "what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?"

Voltaire famously claimed that "if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him". I believe that, even if God existed, it would be necessary not to believe in Him. Despite my active atheism, I read The Holy Bible frequently, if not religiously. While my believing friends prefer the modern versions of the Bible, in which the revealed word of God comes across in stale but straightforward English, I cling to the King James version, in which the inspired words of mostly anonymous men still sound across four centuries of the decline of the English language. It has given average people, who perhaps could barely read, access to a world of exalted and noble language which lends even the most common emotions a grandeur and grace. Its purpose was nothing more - or less - than what the words of the first chapter of Proverbs state:

"To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion. A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels."

One of the things that I still resent about the Catholic Church is that it had to rule the King James Bible, which turns 400 this year, to be heretical and then came up with its own flatfooted translation in the 1960s when the Latin Mass was finally abandoned. The Standard Text, "appointed to be read in Churches" was "translated out of the original tongues and with the former translations diligently compared and revised by his majesty's special command." In the dedication to King James, the translators gave due credit to the "many worthy men who went before us." The worthiest of them was William Tyndale.

The problems facing the first translators of The Holy Bible into English, once the Reformation made it no longer a capital crime, were the lack of Hebrew and Greek scholars in early 16th century England and a scarcity of religious reformers who could match their piety with a feeling for poetry. The Holy Bible was seen by its first translators as a work of prose, not of poetry. The emphasis on literalness and not literary quality resulted in some of the clumsiest English ever written.

William Tyndale changed everything and set a standard of excellence and beauty in his translation that hasn't been equalled since, not even by the illustrious King James Standard Text. His intention was to "interpret the sense of the scripture and the meaning of the spirit." Tyndale was determined that the familiarity he had with the Bible should be shared with every Englishman. The Roman Catholic Church, which hoarded the word of God for itself, would not allow Tyndale and others to make the Bible available - and understandable - to everyone. To a fellow clergyman, who told Tyndale that "We had better be without God's laws than the Pope's," he responded: "I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!"

There are enough great translations around to offer sufficient proof against Robert Frost's suggestion that poetry is "what gets lost in translation". In his study of translations, After Babel, George Steiner wrote of "the influence of the genius of Tyndale, the greatest of English Bible translators". Thorough analysis of the Standard Text shows that at least three-quarters of the Old Testament was cribbed from Tyndale, along with nearly eighty-five per cent of the New Testament. Though far more widely read, the Standard Text is surpassed in beauty by Tyndale's version. Take, for example, his translation from Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, 13th chapter:

1 Though I spake with the tongues of men and angels, and yet had no love, I were even as sounding brass: and as a tinkling cymbal. 2 And though I could prophesy, and understood all secrets, and all knowledge: yea, if I had all faith so that I could move mountains out of their places, and yet had no love, I were nothing. 3 And though I bestowed all my goods to feed the poor, and though I gave my body even that I burned, and yet had no love, it profiteth me nothing. 4 Love suffereth long, and is courteous. Love envieth not. Love doth not frowardly, swelleth not, 5 dealeth not dishonestly, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh not evil 6 rejoiceth not in iniquity: but rejoiceth in the truth, 7 suffereth all things, believeth all things hopeth all things, endureth in all things. 8 Though that prophesying fail, or tongues shall cease, or knowledge vanish away: yet love falleth never away. 9 For our knowledge is unperfect, and our prophesying is unperfect: 10 but when that which is perfect is come: then that which is unperfect shall be done away. 11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I imagined as a child: but as soon as I was a man I put away childishness. 12 Now we see in a glass even in a dark speaking: but then shall we see face to face. Now I know unperfectly: but then shall I know even as I am known. 13 Now abideth faith, hope, and love, even these three: but the chief of these is love.

Looking into the glossary of my Standard Text, beside the word charity, used by the King James translators, is the word love. Tyndale was able to make even Paul sound human.

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