Thursday, May 19, 2011

Language and Meaning

In the wake of the Bath marathon reading of the Authorized Version of the bible (KJV) and in preparation for the discussion at Hay, I've been reading Adam Nicholson's wonderful book, When God Spoke English. His prose is worthy of the book he is writing about, and he has a way of voicing the unease that many people feel about contemporary religion and especially contemporary bible translations.

On p. 152-154 he discusses the evolution of Luke 1:57 from the Bishop's Bible to KJV to the New English translation. Translation by committee, however, has its drawbacks. One of the translators suggested the phrase 'was fulfilled', which was rejected. "The phrase . . . was a brave attempt at just the kind of lexical enrichment the Jacobeans enjoyed, and on which the King James Bible, almost subliminally, often relies. it carries a double hidden pun: not only had the time come for Elizabeth's son to be born, but she was both filled full with the child in her womb and fulfilled in her role and duty as the mother of the Baptist."

This layering of meaning is, incidentally, a very medieval way of writing. Middle English is full of such tropes.

Nicholson continues: 'The idea is marvellous, but the word is not quite right, a little dense, even a little technical.' It is replaced with 'full time came', which Nicholson says '. . .is irreproachably English, simple, accessible, conceptually rich, full of potent and resonant meanings as Elizabeth was with child. In Jacobean English full can mean plump, perfect and overbrimming, and all of these meanings are here. It is difficult to imagine anything being better done, but it wasn't thought good enough for the twentieth-century translators of the New English Bible. They settled on: "Now the time came for Elizabeth's child to be born, and she gave birth to a son."

'That is a descent to dreariness, to a level of banality . . .The modern world had lost the thing which informs every act and gesture . . of the King James Bible . . . and of that incomparable age: a sense of encompassing richness which stretches unbroken from the divine to the sculptural, from theology to cushions, from a sense of the beauty of the created world to the extraordinary capabilities of language to embody it.'

In other words, the intent behind KJV is thoroughly incarnational and, as Nicholson points out, embraces what seem to be all the wild incongruities of the age, the full range of what it means to be human.

Nicholson continues: 'This is about more than mere sonority or the beeswaxed heritage-appeal of antique vocabulary and grammer. The flattening of language is a flattening of meaning. [italics mine] Language . . which is apologetic in its desire to be acceptable to a modern consciousness, language, in other words, which submits to its audience, rather than instructing, informing, moving, challenging and even entertaining them, is no longer a language which can carry the freight the bible requires. It has, in short, lost all authority. . . .It is driven, in other words, by the desire to please and, in that way, is a form of language which has died.'


Blogger Barbara A.T. Wilson said...

While I tend to agree that language, in modernity, has lost authority, I think there are more reasons than simply "flattening." As lovely as the KJV is, it too, has lost authority for being too dense for modern ears now accustomed to "sound bytes," and, at least in the U.S. a culture wherein an opinion (however ill-informed)seems to be as good as a verifiable fact. Often I appoint Eugene Peterson's "The Message" be read to jar our listeners out of their jitterly torpor.

4:26 pm, May 19, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Should religion pander to laziness and dumbing down (Nicholson's point about wanting to please)? Should God be domesticated to fit into human understanding? Is 'authority' tied to 'being too dense for modern ears'? Is the authority in the text or in the hearer? Isn't the institution all too ready to accommodate in the interest of self-preservation? Whatever happened to 'immediacy, dignity, a sense of deep, musical rhythm, an intuitive and poetic understanding of the connection between the present and the past, a tangible empathy, a precision, 'an ordonnance' to use Eliot's word, a careful elaboration of arrangement and structure'? [Nicholson writing about Lancelot Andrewes, head of the First Westminster Company, preaching to James I.

6:34 pm, May 19, 2011  
Blogger C. Earl Mahan said...

Is there a modern translation you believe offers hope?

7:41 pm, May 19, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

No. It's a complex subject, but put very simply biblical scholarship as we know it has been done through the filters of scholasticism, Calvinism and scientism; all of the contemplative strands that exist in the ancient languages signified by the 'Behold' passages have been eliminated in modern translations. (This is partly due to the institutional church's suppression of the practice of silence which more or less ended with Cusa.) In Hebrew and Greek there are more than 1300 beholds; in the NRSV there are 27 in the OT and Apocrypha and none at all in the NT. (The NRSV is also extremely awkward to read aloud.)

For example, 'Behold' (hinneh) is the first word God says to the people he has just created after he has blessed them. It is the last word Jesus says to the disciples in Matthew. "Behold (idou) I am with you until the end of time—he is with us in the beholding. The NRSV translates this as 'remember', which makes Jesus history. Furthermore, the missing 'behold' makes nonsense of some of the sayings of Jesus, who is trying to revivify the pre-law vision of God—the reason the law is given in the first place is that the people refuse to behold. By the time we meet him in John 14 he says, 'You [the disciples] can behold, but the system cannot behold, and because it cannot behold, it cannot receive the spirit of truth. Nothing could be more true of today's religious institutions and today's bible translations.

The bible has been reduced from a guide to what it means to be fully human, which means a share in the divine nature (Irenaeus: The glory of God is the human being fully alive, and the glory of the human is the beholding of God' Ad. Haer. 4.34.5-7] to a handbook of weird stories, moral codes and a domesticated god.

In addition, all of the virtues that Nicholson celebrates have vanished from modern English and American (yes, they are two very different languages). The bible no longer brings beauty, vision, majesty poetry, silence into the lives of ordinary people, as the AV was designed to do.

But then, we no longer seem to think much of human beings, what they are capable of—we have a very low theological anthropology—and our bible translations reflect that.

I develop some of these themes in my new book, 'Writing the Icon of the Heart' described in the previous post. My new book: 'Silence: A User's Guide" will provide a more substantial and cohesive account.

PS I will say that I think the phrase 'sheer silence' in I Kings 19:12 of the NRSV is quite wonderful.

8:19 pm, May 19, 2011  

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