17 MARCH 1961, Page 22


Designed to be Read as the Bible

MANY of us have on our shelves a handsome pre-war volume called The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature: a title which raises (or begs) a number of questions, and has sometimes been derided. Still, if there is such a thing as literature, the Bible is an example, or a set of examples, of it; and a 'student of literature' can claim a share in the discussion. Like other litera- ture, too, it has to be read by individual human beings, and a reviewer of the New English Bible* had better put his cards on the table. This, then, is a first impression by a professional English scholar, an agnostic in religion, and one whose early education tempts him to look at New Testament Greek as something which would be Classical Greek if it could. In other words, the Bible in English is, in principle, a concern of mine, but I am not inward with either the sub- stance or the original language.

The translation appears with only a brief intro- duction, but there have been a number of advance statements on principles, some of them quoted in Professor F. F. Bruce's The English Bible : A History of Translations,t which has been timed to appear simultaneously. One for- mulation he cites from Professor C. H. Dodd includes the sentence: 'Ideally, we aim at a "timeless" English, avoiding equally both archa- isms and transient modernisms.' The dust- wrapper of the translation, less happily, says that it 'aims to be in style neither traditional nor modernistic,' while the introduction states the aim more positively as `to render the Greek . . . into the English of the present day.' I do not know how far this represents a retreat from the 'timeless' policy, which the inverted commas scarcely save from being absurd. Yet one can see what Professor Dodd was getting at, and it is reasonable to expect that a translation should be free not only from archaisms but also from locutions that strike a present-day reader as unlikely to hold their place in the language for very long, though this can be no more than intel- ligent guess-work. In fact, most renderings that would be ruled out on this principle would prob- ably already have been excluded by the con- siderations of appropriate 'tone and level of language' mentioned in the introduction. If we do not read that the Apostles hadn't a clue, it is more because that would not belong to the right level in 1961 than because we shrewdly suspect that it will belong to no level at all in 2001.

One interestingly questionable expression occurs in Acts xxv. 23: 'high-ranking officers.' Less than three years ago, this was described by Cyril Ray in the Spectator as an 'ugly and otiose American neologism that was unknown to Eng- lish usage before Pearl Harbour.' The Editor of the OED Supplement, to whom I owe this refer- ence, tells me that the earliest quotation on his files at present is from 1944, and that is a US one. The expression seems to me to belong to *The New ENGLISH Bine: New TESTAMENT. (O.U.P. and C.U.P., 21s. Popular Edition, fts. 6d.) t Lutterworth Press, 25s.

the appropriate level, but some might feel that its recent introduction, and the opposition which it still meets with, make it not a very good insur- ance risk for survival into the twenty-first cen- tury. (The 'modernistic' alternative, no doubt, would have been lop brass.')

Though this is a new translation and not a revision, it cannot be exactly as it would have been if translators and prospective readers had had no knowledge of any earlier version. The contrasting dangers are the retention, through familiarity, of turns of phrase from the Autho- rised Version that do not really belong to twentieth-century English, and the rejection of what is still the best rendering because it is mistakenly felt to belong too exclusively to the Authorised Version. There are countless places where both dangers have been avoided, and where the translators give us natural, unaffected and unobtrusive English of the present day. Thus it is good to see two superstitions, of the half- educated defied in one sentence of six words: 'Where does he get it from?' (Mark vi. 2). But there are occasional lapses, less often in vocabu- lary than in minute points of word-order and syntax. In the very next verse (Mark vi. 3) we have: 'Is not this the carpenter. . . . And are not his sisters here with us?', exactly as in the ' Authorised Version. But—accepting that 'isn't' does not belong to the right level of language— modern idiom surely demands: 'Is this not. . . Are his sisters not. . .

Where a phrase is particularly, even proverbi- ally, familiar in its Authorised Version form, it is not always easy to say whether disquiet at it is purely because of familiarity. If it is, the trans- lators'are right to retain it. Is 'clothed and in his right mind' (Mark v. 15) an example of this? At first I was inclined to think so, and certainly 'in his right mind' seems acceptable. But 'clothed'? This absolute use is surely not current English. Unnecessary departures from familiar renderings are harder to identify with confidence, since the non-specialist may be unaware of some nice point of scholarship involved. But I am pretty sure about Mark ii. 27: The Sabbath was made for the sake of man and not man for the Sabbath.' Any slight superiority of 'for the sake of,' in isolation, over 'for' is outweighed by the incon- venience of 'for the sake of . . . for,' and I cannot help thinking that the translators may have been put off the inevitable and perfect trans- lation by its very familiarity. By contrast, diffi- cult problems of the shade of meaning are clearly involved in the rejection of 'In the beginning was the Word' in favour of 'When all things began, the Word already was.' The literary student can only note that the translators are conscious of a serious difficulty, and modesty and prudence sug- gest giving them the benefit of the doubt.

This type of minute examination does not help much in answering the main question: how does the translation run as a whole? The episode, or the whole book, is the appropriate unit. By this test, I find first impressions favourable. Perhaps the greatest single gain arises from the omission of connective particles at the beginning of sen- tences in the instances (the great majority) where they are a feature of Greek but not of English usage. The freshening effect, in comparison with the Authorised Version, of sweeping away a mass of 'ands' is remarkable. There is little that arrests attention in the general vocabulary, and that in itself is evidence of success. Only occa- sionally are there examples of the type of 'idio- matic English' that is 'idiomatic' rather than simply English.

There arc some places where the translators rightly decide that ordinary twentieth-century English would be inappropriate. God is addressed as 'thou.' and this carries further consequences, notably in the Lord's Prayer, where we read 'Thy name be hallowed.' The compromise is probably right. To retain 'Hallowed be thy name' would have been too much mere acceptance of a formula; but to reject 'hallowed' in favour of something more modern would have been to ignore the fact that it is the word used in this connection by twentieth-century Protestants.

I have looked principally at narrative and dialogue, because it is there that it is easiest to isolate literary considerations. With the Epistles, the result is much more often to substitute the intelligible for the unintelligible, and the gain of substance is so great that stylistic questions fall into the background. Lack of scholarship as well as lack of space prevents me from saying more than that St. Paul speaks out with an individual voice, and can really be understood, notably in passages blurred by over-familiarity. Let ad- mirers of the 'rhythms' of the Authorised Version ask themselves whether they are really more edified by 'charity . . . rejoiceth not in iniquity' than by 'love . . . does not gloat o'er other men's sins.'

Professor Dodd declares that the translator ri

should know that 'he practises an impossible act.' I believe that the present translators' rea- lisation of this has helped them to achieve a result which deserves an overwhelmingly favour- able verdict from the literary point of view, not least because such a verdict is merely a by-pro- duct of their labours. This is the Bible designed to be read as the Bible. Tyndale remains the one man of literary genius who has translated the New Testament into English, but the present committee need have no great sense of inferiority side by side with King James's often injudi- ciously praised committee of 350 years ago.


11 si:i that the new Professor of. Poetry is going Ito say that translation by a committee can never be any good because it must iron out all trace of that movement of a personality through language which is what good style essentially is. Professor Graves is to discuss the new transla- tion of the New Testament, and we know in ad- vance, therefore, that he will not approve. For this translation, of course, reaches us not only from a committee of translators but after running the gauntlet of a whole series of committees and sub-committees. Of these perhaps the most intriguing is 'a panel of literary advisers' to which, 'since sound scholarship does not always carry with it a delicate sense of style' (I quote from the Introduction), 'all the work of the translating panel has been submitted.' These pro- fessional stylists 'took pains to secure the tone and level of language appropriate to the different kinds of writing to be found in the New Testa- ment. whether narrative, familiar discourse,

argument, rhetoric, or poetry.' Plenty of people besides Professor Graves will know what to make of this, and whet their knives in readiness. For don't we all know—all, that is, except presumably the literary advisers who agreed to serve--that style considered thus, in isolation from what is said and from the man saying it, is a vicious and misleading idea? And so what are we to make of the fact that, when we sample the translation, we find it written in an English which is muted, certainly, but also compact, clear, elegant and dignified?

If we can bring ourselves to recognise distinc- tion where we least expected to find it, one thing we must make of the fact is surely this: we must question the premise that a good style is by that token a personal style. And indeed we ought to do that anyway. What can Robert Graves be going to mean when he maintains, as apparently he will, that 'a book without an author' is 'a literary freak'? It's true that all I'm going on is a preliminary advertisement, and no doubt the Professor of Poetry has prepared himself for condemning also that other translation by a com- mittee, the King James's Bible. But is it not true that the Scriptures of all the religions are in this sense 'books without authors,' almost by defini- tion? Scriptures, I suppose, are not composed but compiled. It is the compiler of many pieces of writing, not the author of any one of them, who makes them Scriptural. And so, although doubtless Luke has a personal style distinct from Matthew's, the translators would have been wrong to try to bring out this personal note in their translation; to do so would have been to treat this writing as something other than what

it is, Scriptural, what it necessarily is for us what- ever it was to the author. And so the advisers

were surely right to concern themselves instead

with impersonal matters of appropriate 'tone and level.' It is true that variation in these respects

has not been noticeable in the samples I have taken; but in this the translation only reflects the present condition of literary English, _which surely tends very noticeably into collapsing all the levels into .one. Poetry, for instance, gets approved nowadays when its 'level' is identical with conversation, and tends to be resented Whenever it tries to pitch itself higher. In looking for 'level,' therefore, the advisers were probably Pursuing a will-o'-the-wisp; but if they had Pursued 'personality' instead, it would have led them into a bog. As it is they wander safely enough about the broad highway of modern English; if the highway is too broad, and its gradients too gentle, that is not their fault. What can be maintained is that Scriptures, so far from being `literary freaks,' do not belong in literature at all. This is C. S. Lewis's objection

to 7'he Bible Designed to be Read as Literature, and the case seems to me impregnable. If there Was anything incongruous in passing the draft

translations to a panel of literary advisers, how much more there is now that it is passed, in effect, to a panel of literary reviewers! In our capacity as literary critics what have we to say that is not beside the point? If we are Christians and write in that capacity we can have much to say_-and about style too, for we shall ask how the language measures up to our own religious experience. If we are educators and write as such.

we can say whether the language of this transla- tion will influence for good or ill the sensitivity to language of those who will hear it from the Pulpit or in Sunday schools. But as critics? Let

us get out of the way as soon as we can, and make room for the theologian, the philologist, the Hebraist and the devout believer.