Sunday, January 02, 2005

An instrument of revelation and power

Here's wishing everyone a happy New Year. Though I mean that, of course, it's quite hard to write the word 'happy' in a week overwhelmed by the pain and suffering unleashed by the tsunami. Browsing through the papers, we can take our pick between the material reports and graphic images of disaster and attempts at its relief, and the interesting emergence of a divided and uncertain spiritual response. Is this catastrophic event proof that God does not exist? Or is it the size of the force needed to make the world get on its knees and pray? You'll have to sign up for Philosophy or Religious Studies A Level to debate those questions, but in the spirit of pausing for a moment to reflect on deeper things, this week's post focuses on a new translation of part of the Bible from Hebrew into English.

Why is this of any interest to the English language student? Well, as the reviewer explains in the article linked below, the history of Biblical translation into English has a lot to tell us about the way that our language has changed over time. The article makes useful comparisons between the language used in the new translation, and that used in the authorised King James Bible of 1611 (see pp64-65 in Crystal's Encyclopaedia of the English Language for more about this). The reviewer notes differences in degrees of formality, and in the type of discourse adopted, but a close look at the lexis and grammar is interesting too. Some of the semantic variations are to do with the new translator's desire to stay closer to the sense of the original Hebrew, so there is also much here of interest to those of you studying foreign languages.

The other aspect to think about is the way in which English gradually became accepted, from the 15th century onwards, as a language suitable for the articulation of serious matters. This happened in many areas of learning, but the Bible has consistently made special demands of its translators. There is a tension to be resolved between making the word of God accessible to everyone, and not reducing its power by using everyday street talk.

You may well be yawning here, but this is not just a debate the Lollards were having several centuries ago. I was having a perfectly normal conversation with my brother's girlfriend over the twiglets at Christmas, when she suddenly asked me what I thought of her daughter being taken to Latin Mass, because her priest had told her that the word of God is more powerful in Latin. My mum declined coming to church on Christmas Eve because she practises Methodism and loathes the 'fancy language' of the Anglican service. And I, as usual, got all the words wrong to the Lord's prayer because I haven't yet got over my outrage at the change from the deliciously archaic "Our father, who art in heaven" to the lumpenly prosaic "who is in heaven". And then there's the poster outside the Baptist church round the corner that is using text messaging language to make its appeal: the phrase "seek the lord" has been written "ck the lord". Having initially read it as "cook the lord", I'm not at all convinced that this works... These are all debates about what forms of the language are "right" for this purpose.

Read the article soon because it's from The Times and we only get a 7 day window...

Click on the link; type "bible" into the search box; click on "search the site"; click on the first item.

The Five Books of Moses by Rober Alter

Check out the language of different versions of the Bible using this groovy tool:

Different versions of the Bible


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