April 26, 2009

Edmund Wilson’s Bible translation advice

Edmund Wilson, the 20th century’s most influential American literary critic, wrote about Bible translations.  You may have read one of his comments about the language in the King James Version, because it was cited by Alter and Kermode and in their Literary Guide to the Bible:

that old tongue, with its clang and flavor

(I am amused by the many bloggers who insist on adding a “u” to flavor in this quote – seemingly forgetting that Wilson was born in New Jersey and educated at Princeton – an unnecessary Anglicization!)

I reproduce below the entire paragraph in which this quote appears, from Wilson’s A Piece of My MindBecause it is a long paragraph, I have broken it up into smaller paragraphs here:

A similar revelation comes out of the Hebrew Bible.

The Hebrew religious conceptions, the imagery of the Hebrew scriptures have been an element of literature in English from the King James translation on.  This is, of course, especially strong in Milton, who knew Hebrew at first hand; but the pregnant phrases of the Bible, its apocalyptic visions, are a part of the texture of our language. 

The culture of no other Western people seems so deeply to have been influenced by these:  something in the English character, something mystical, tough and fierce, has a special affinity to Hebrew.  Yet the strong Hebrew strain in English is to some extent at variance with influence of the Greek and Roman tradition.  In proportion as one inclines toward this latter, one is likely to the resent the other.

In my own case, I followed, in my youth, the line of reaction then common against old-fashioned Bible-worship, the recoil from the rigors of Calvinism.  Yet my grandfather on my father’s side was a Presbyterian minister, though a very moderate one, and when my parents went to church on Sunday, they would leave me with my formidable grandmother, who undertook my instruction in the Scriptures.  These bleak and severe Sunday mornings, though they left me with a respect for the Bible, had the effect of antagonizing me against it, and this attitude was tacitly encouraged by the moral sabotage of my mother, whose family, once rigorous New Englanders, had scrapped the old-time religion and still retained a certain animus toward it.

At college, I was enchanted by classical Greek, and, though I made a point of reading through the Gospels, I told myself how immeasurably I preferred Socrates to Jesus.  Later on, I elected the second half of a course in Old Testament literature.  I already admired Ecclesiastes, and – though finding Ezekiel tedious – I tried to do justice to the Prophets. 

It was not til much later, in my fifties, that I acquired a little Hebrew, and for a third time, I had the experience of finding myself in contact with something in its pure and original form that I had previous only known in compounds or adaptations.  The strangeness of this element in English became a good deal more comprehensible when was able to take account, not only of the structural differences between the Semitic languages and the Teutonic and Latin ones, but also of the difference from our of the oriental way of apprehending the world that these structural divergences reflected. 

I have written about this elsewhere at length, so I merely want here to note that an acquaintance with the Hebrew bible is at once to make the biblical narratives sound a good deal more simple and natural – the archaic Jacobean English still today partly screens them from us – and to compel us to pay attention to certain fundamental discrepancies between the Hebrew way of thinking and ours.  The language of Jehovah and his worshippers, which seems in English grandiose and mysterious, may not, even in Gesenius’ dictionary, become to us readily intelligible and render itself in familiar terms; but here at least we can meet at first hand this vocabulary and these locutions, try to form some idea of their meaning to the men who first coined and employed them to deal with their objective and subjective worlds – or rather, with the moral continuum that embraced the phenomena of both.

It is useful to approach the Bible with a scholarly dictionary and commentary – for otherwise it is bound, more or less, to remain an esoteric text, a repository of tales for children, a dream book, a compendium of incantations.  The Jews – who have lost touch with the original text – have been interpreting it for a couple of thousand years in even more far-fetched and fantastic ways.  The Christians have been equally fantastic – beginning with the extravagances of Justin Martyr – in reading back into it the coming of Christ; and the old lady who was infinitely grateful for that blessed word Mesopotamia was only an extreme case of the Christian dependence on Scripture for this sort of consolation.

Some of the oddest features of the bible, as we get it through our Jacobean version, are simply due to mistranslations.  So Joseph’s coat of many colors was in reality a coat with long sleeves; so Moses had sprouting from his head, not horns,  but rays of light.  Yet the horns of Moses and the many-colored coat are as hard to get out of one’s head, unless one sees what they are in the original, as the images in nursery rhymes.

Many mysteries, of course, remain.  Some are puzzles of vocabulary or grammar:  there are, in the text of the Bible, something like five hundred words that do not occur anywhere else, and the copyists have made mistakes.  But it is difficult, also, to adjust oneself to certain fundamental features of the Hebrew way of looking at things, and, though there is constant speculation on these matters, they are now so remote from our habits of though that some scholars believe we must give them up.

In any case, we find here – with the language they have minted – the religio-legal codes and the lofty prophetic poetry, the wisdom derived form experience and the permanently significant legends, the influence of which, refracted by the organisms of other mentalities, have reached distant countries and distant times.

Here it is, that old tongue, with its clang and its flavor, sometimes rank, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter; here it is in it concise solid stamp.  Other cultures have felt its impact, and none – in the West, at least – seems quite to accommodate it.  Yet we find we have been living with it all our lives.

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