The Bible. Photo by Patrick Feller.
There’s a kerfuffle over a new translation of the Bible into Jamaican Patois that has helped throw what bothers me about the British Prime Minister, David Cameron’s, embrace of Christian values into sharp relief.
David Cameron has recently given a speech celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Some of this I like. For example:
…[T]he King James Bible has bequeathed a body of language that permeates every aspect of our culture and heritage from everyday phrases to our greatest works of literature, music and art. We live and breathe the language of the King James Bible, sometimes without even realising it.
It depends on how pedantic you want to be about this to say how true it is. There’s evidence that some common phrases attributed to the KJV are much older in some variants. Likewise I was going to give The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak Matthew 26:41 and Mark 14:38 as an example of something very biblical that often appears in secular speech, but if you follow those links you’ll see I’ve modernised it a bit. For example in Mark the phrase is actually: The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak.. Now you’d have to be an utter curmudgeon to deny that the King James Bible popularised the phrase, but equally translations move on because languages move on.
David Cameron picks another evocative phrase:
One of my favourites is the line “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” It is a brilliant summation of the profound sense that there is more to life, that we are imperfect, that we get things wrong, that we should strive to see beyond our own perspective. The key word is darkly – profoundly loaded, with many shades of meaning. I feel the power is lost in some more literal translations.
The New International Version says: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror”
The Good News Bible: “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror”
They feel not just a bit less special but dry and cold, and don’t quite have the same magic and meaning.
The criticism of the Jamaican Bible is perhaps the opposite. Bishop Alvin Bailey, at the Portmore Holiness Church of God near Kingston, says: “I don’t think the Patois words can effectively communicate what the English words have communicated. Even those (Patois) words that we would want to use to fully explain what was in the original, are words that are vulgar.”
I’m not sure this is a fair criticism. Here’s the same verse in three translations See if you can guess which one is the KJV verse.
- My lover tried to unlatch the door, and my heart thrilled within me.
- My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my heart was moved for him.
- My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.
The passage is from the Song of Solomon 5:4.* One translation is — I’ll grant you — profoundly loaded, perhaps imparting a meaning that isn’t immediately obvious from the two other ‘literal’ translations. But I also think in modern terms it might be considered vulgar. When you look at what is in the Bible, I’m stuck wondering what vulgarity Patois inflicts that isn’t already there. I think something overlooked is the power of a translation.
I thought the first full translation of the Bible in the British Isles was William Morgan’s Welsh Bible, used to turn the Welsh away from Catholicism. I was wrong. A quick skim through Wikipedia shows me the Bishops’ Bible beat it by twenty years, and while the Geneva Bible wasn’t actually translated into English in the British Isles, it’s still an immensely important translation in the history of England. In these cases translation is a political and often rebellious act. The Geneva Bible was a Protestant translation and gave them a Bible with which to fight the Latin of Catholicism. The Bishops’ Bible was officially sanctioned so it’s hard to call it rebellious, but even so it was a Protestant Bible at a time when England was an enemy of strong Catholic power in Europe.
Translating a Bible into Jamaican Patois is a subtle, but strong, statement that current Christian authority has failed, at least to some degree. So what does a supporting an established translation against new versions mean? In the UK the government is sending an official Bible with a foreword by political heavyweight+ Michael Gove. The media concentrated on the predictable complaint by the National Secular Society and atheists, but even Christians are aware that official religions can take dissent badly. The pretence is that ethics are derived from the Bible, but as Conservapedia is showing, people make Bibles to suit their ethics.
While I can see there are aesthetic merits to various translations, in this case elevating one translation and disparaging others carries a big political payload, even if the judgement is aesthetic. It might be possible to turn the book of Habakkuk into a thrilling page turner, but it would probably involve some extremely loose translation. But is any church leader likely to say: “My favourite book is Jeffrey Archer’s translation of Habakkuk. It’s hugely inaccurate, but it’s gripping from start to end!”? It seems unlikely you can divorce aesthetics from truth unless you live in what Kelvin Holdsworth called a theologically neutral society.
Photo: Joshua 18, Abandoned Bible by Patrick Feller. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.
* It’s well worth reading the biblical commentary for classic lines like: By the “door” is meant the door of her heart, which was in a great measure shut against Christ, through the prevalence of corruption; and the “hole” in it shows that it was not entirely shut up…
+ Or paperweight if you prefer.