Monday, March 5, 2012

TRY USING ENGLISH. Or: Jeffrey on the proliferation of "diminished translations of Scripture" that don't "bear the weight of . . . glory"

"the social determinist claim that we are definitively constrained by the character of our contemporary vernacular is just plain false. What we have also got is the language of Holy Scripture itself, responsibly Englished if we will use it, and the language of the liturgy and hymns passed down to us. Neither translator nor teacher is restricted to whatever limit seems to pertain in our colloquial argot.
     "Think about . . . the Venerable Bede, whose grandparents were pagan, and that entire generation of Benedictines. They translated into their native Anglo-Saxon both the Gospels and the Psalms. But there was a sorry inadequacy in this vigorous early form of our language where many biblical and liturgical terms were concerned. The earliest translators were not daunted, but promptly borrowed words from Latin to meet the need: alms, altar, angel, anthem, apostle, ark, canticle, chalice, creed, deacon, demon, disciple, epistle, hymn, manna, martyr, priest, prophet, psalm, Psalter, rule, Sabbath, shrift, temple. Later would come words like absolution, baptism, beatitude, charity, communion, confession, contrition, creator, crucifixion, devotion, faith, homily, mercy, miracle, obedience, passion, pastor, penance, religion, sacrament, saint, sanctuary, savior, temptation, theology, trinity, virgin, virtue—and on and on.
     "What would have happened if someone had said, in that time and place, 'We just have to find dynamic equivalents in Anglo-Saxon?' There weren’t any. Appropriately, the first translators were not intimidated by the prospect of teaching people the meaning of biblical and sacral terms not to be found anywhere in their everyday language. They gratefully borrowed the language of Scripture as they found it in another tongue. We may need to reclaim their honest practice.
". . . If the flat, secularized language of our culture no longer has the terms to convey spiritual content, we, too, can borrow words from our own English language—terms hallowed in another age and culture—and give back to them their fullness of meaning for understanding Scripture."

     David Lyle Jeffrey, "Our babel of bibles:  scripture, translation & the possibility of spiritual understanding," Touchstone 25, no. 2 (March/April 2012):  37-38 (29-38).  Too bad Jeffrey isn't a better stylist himself, because this is a good article in other respects.

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