12 DECEMBER 1998, Page 15

Mind your language

Everybody loved Ronnie Knox clever, funny and a bit hard-done-by. So I expected to read a little book I had come across by him with nods of agree- ment. Not so.

It is called On Englishing the Bible and was published in 1949, after he had circulated his translation of the Bible. Translation is impossible, of course, yet for the Bible it is necessary. Knox tells us the principles he used.

He quotes a dictum of Belloc's: 'We should say to ourselves, not "How shall I make this foreigner talk English?" but "What would an Englishman have said to express the same?"' And I agree that this is fine and dandy for translating Proust. Obviously 'Comment vows portez- vous?' is translated by 'How are you?' But the principle, applied to the Bible, seems to me to fail for two main rea- sons. One is that an Englishman simply would not have said anything to express the same as, for example, the Psalms. Perhaps the narrative Gospels are easi- er, but the Psalms are couched in a forcefully poetic kind of Hebrew. This structure of language, employing as it did parallelism (saying the same thing twice), was deliberately preserved in translation into Latin, with which some of us are familiar from church. 'They compassed me about like bees; they blazed like a fire among thorns', that is the sort of thing we find. Not only is the image reiterated, but it is made up of concrete terms — bees, fire, thorns. I believe this goes very well into English. But Knox admits, 'I have tried, in great part, to obliterate the traces of paral- lelism.' That is a shame, and it is one of the reasons why his version of the Psalms glides along like a report to a conference, gaining no grip on the imagination, let alone the mind Knox's other problem is that, in his words, ' "Bible English" has become a sort of hieratic language.' True enough, and it provokes him to ask if the reader will 'prefer to have these holy docu- ments wrapped up in archaic forms, just as he prefers to see the priest at Mass dressed up in a sixth-century overcoat'.

I have, by chance, come across an answer to him on this, in another neglected book — and this one is by a woman. Wait till next week

Dot Wordsworth