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Culture Language

Why Can’t the English Teach Their Deities How To Speak?

Part I: The Problem.


I’m glad you could all make it.  I, your god, have something crucially important to tell you about what is expected of you, and your purpose on this Earth.  Before I do that, though, I couldn’t help but notice you all speak the same language, and it’s making you a little complacent.

So, I’m going to go ahead and make you all speak something radically different.  Let’s call it a team building exercise.  Then, I’m going to wait a bit, let’s say two thousand years, before telling one of you half of my very important message.

Whoever that guy is, he should really get the word out somehow.  Try charades.  People love charades.

I’ve got lots of stuff to do though, so I’ll probably need another couple of thousand years before finding another one of you, preferably the one with the worst possible history of keeping reliable records, and imparting the second half of the message to him, a half which will, for the most part, contradict everything that I told the first guy.

Whoever that second guy is, if you could go ahead and lose not only whatever of my first message is still around, but write what you remember, or think you remember, or would like to have remembered, about the second half on something highly perishable, that would be great.

Questions?  No.  Fantastic.  I think this is really the best possible way to get my message out, and am thrilled to have you all on board.



Part II: Flailing at a Solution



If there is anything in the Bible which demonstrates Jehovah’s lack of omniscience, it’s his bumbling and erratic marketing campaign.  It is a strategy that begins on a misstep and concludes in farce.

To start, Jehovah, after scrambling the world’s languages at Babel, has to pick one of them for the first half of his message.  Now, if there is a language in world history that you Absolutely Do Not want to start a religion in, it would be Hebrew.  That choice alone ensures that the majority of the vowels in your message will not be written down, but will have to form part of an oral tradition for a thousand years until somebody finally gets around to some manner of codification.

For Hebrew, that definitive codification did not happen until the tenth century.  Christianity, of course, couldn’t wait that long to appropriate the Hebrew Bible, and impatiently started translating the Tanakh into the universal language of Latin about six centuries before the standard Hebrew vocalization appeared.  Lacking that standardized text, Jerome, the man who brought us the Latin version of the Bible which would stand unchallenged for the better part of twelve hundred years, had to make do with the bits and scraps of manuscript, tradition, and commentary he had at hand.

His major sources included Origen’s 3rd century CE Hexpala, which places a Hebrew manuscript alongside several different attempts at translation into Old and Modern Greek, and the Septuagint, a 2nd Century BCE translation of the Tanakh into Greek that served as the primary source for Biblical translators for millennia after Origen’s source material became scattered to the winds.  And he did his best, translating the Hebrew, with the advice of previous Greek translations, into Latin, ensuring a sort of twisted, transposed half-existence for the Hebrew text even as its manuscript copies blinked out of existence.

For centuries, then, the word of Yahweh was wrapped up in a Latin translation understood only by a swath of the population so narrow that it makes The One Percent appear positively inclusive.  If God’s message was, “Go forth, and spread the word, after translating it a couple of times, ultimately into a language that only a super-privileged portion of the population can understand!” then things were going swimmingly.

Eventually, however, people smelled a rat, and a veritable orgy of translation gushed forth in the sixteenth century on the heels of Luther’s German Bible.  Each country had its own dramatic version of the process, but few rival the convolutions the text endured during its translation into English.  Not only did English translators face all of the problems of their Continental comrades – a shriveled and incomplete manuscript base, the slow grinding away of meaning that necessarily occurs to words long in circulation, and the unavoidable misquotations and contradictions that are just part of the Bible, no matter what version you look in – but they also had to deal with fractures within the Protestant tradition that were entirely unique to England.

There’s a lot of back story here, but the basic idea is that you had the power structure put in place by the king and maintained by his successors, which was Protestant but still highly hierarchical, and you had the tradition that felt that, to eject the name of Catholicism while still keeping bishops and elaborate rites was not going nearly far enough.  And each of them created their own English Bibles, the Separatists leading the way with William Tyndale’s foundational 1525 translation of the New Testament.  For daring to put the Bible into English, and worse, for daring to use vocabulary that suggested bishopry was not in fact part of the Bible’s plan, Tyndale was put to death in 1536, before he had a chance to complete his Old Testament translation.

From there, the race was on, but let’s not lightly pass over the very critical point that Vocabulary Choice just cost a man his life.  I’m not too interested in the pathos aspect of that so much as how radically different the Bible becomes by simply choosing one probable word over another.  Use “congregation” instead of “church” and you rock the very foundations of Western religious practice.  This is why translation is such a horrid thing to rely upon – the men who translate your works, by thinking in a different language, cannot and will not understand you on the points close to their hearts or yours.  Distinctions which were critical to you will be lost to them, and distinctions that they are willing to shed blood for after millennia of shared experience won’t have even been thinkable by you from your historical position.  What Tyndale’s death ultimately shows us isn’t the sublime beauty of martyrdom or the resolute dickishness of Thomas More, but the deep futility of translation as a mechanism of transmitting a message.

The history of English Biblical translation largely bears this out.  By the 1560s, the Separatists had created their crown jewel while in exile, the Geneva Bible, which included not only large chunks of Tyndale’s anti-establishment phraseology, but also extensive commentaries and references intended to drive their point home.  To counter, the Church of England put together its own translation, the much-bemoaned Bishop’s Bible of 1568.  Translation had become a weapon of theological war, with vocabulary choice its ammunition.

The King James Bible we have today is the ultimate peace treaty in that conflict.  It was a massive undertaking which included primarily pro-bishop translators, but also many moderate Separatists as well, working together to produce something minimally offensive to all concerned.  A good idea of how synthetic their ultimate work was is given by Adam Nicolson in his quite lovely book God’s Secretaries, in which he sets off in brackets the Biblical versions that a particular wording is borrowed from:


“You are also helping [Bishop’s] together [Geneva 1557] by [Bishop’s] prayer for us [Tyndale], that [Tyndale] for the [Geneva, 1560] gift [Great Bible] bestowed upon us [Geneva 1557] by the means of many [Tyndale] persons [Great], thankes may bee given [Tyndale] by [Geneva 1557] many on our behalf [Tyndale].”


The majestic rhythms of the King James Bible, then, are a patchwork sewn from the half dozen or so major English translations that came before, always with the goal in mind of producing a sense of irresistible grandeur.  As a text, it has become so influential that it’s hard to evaluate.  Does it sound so powerful (at its best) because it is great prose, or was its style simply at the right place at the right time to impact our developing language’s notion of what greatness sounds like?

I liken it to attempting to evaluate the Beatles catalogue musically.  I can’t do it – the music is so a part of my biographical and cultural heritage, so woven into what songs ought to sound like, that I get caught in self-referential circles that end up saying little more than, “Yes, this Beatles song is musically good because it sounds like the Beatles, and they wrote good things.”  They came along when pop music was establishing its own evaluative criteria, and are inextricably woven into that criteria.  Likewise, the King James Bible, which was for centuries the only book you could find in many households, had a part in determining what counted for majesty in language in a way that we won’t escape for a good long while yet.

Even if the KJB does represent a triumph of wordsmithing, what it certainly does not represent is a vindication of God’s plan for his message.  Written in its lines are the demands of a king for compromise Of A Certain Sort, and the translators delivered that beautifully, staying on-message with what King James expected of them, and wrapping it all in the most imposing but comprehensible words available to them at the time, even when, as later translations have shown, they didn’t quite understand what they were rendering.

Since then, our manuscript base has grown (The Dead Sea Scrolls alone jumps us from the 900 CE Aleppo Codex, our best source prior to 1946, all the way back to the 1st century CE), and our knowledge of how languages work has exploded.  Unfortunately, part of that explosion is the realization that cross-cultural translation is inherently flawed and mostly doomed when it comes to really gaining insight into understanding the text as it was then understood.  But, even with that admission, we have at least learned enough to improve on some of the passages hazily grasped by the great sixteenth century translators, and have even been able to carry out analyses to allow us to unravel the multiple authors of the Tanakh, and order historically those of the New Testament in a way that sheds light on their various motivations.

Enter the farce.  Let’s face it, the translations that we’ve made since the King James, even when armed with all this new knowledge, have been, unilaterally, crap.  Those aimed at a literal translation speak to nobody, and those which attempt to render ancient Hebrew in Modern English are necessarily flat and awkward, utilizing as they do the vocabulary and associations of a largely secular and technical grammatical structure and word base to attempt to convey moments fraught with religious significance.  Here, I’ll flip open The Living Bible to a random location and write down the first thing I see:


“As Jesus was going on down the road, he saw a tax collector, Matthew, sitting at a tax collection booth.  ‘Come and be my disciple,’ Jesus said to him, and Matthew jumped up and went along with him.” (Matthew 9:9)


Quite.  And think, if that’s how tawdry and ill-fitting the text is now, after only a century of secular-technological thinking being the standard, what it will be like in four hundred years, when translators don’t even have the scintilla of everyday religiosity to fall back on that is still part of our present cultural-linguistic heritage.

Each year, we grow further and further from being able to understand the deeply held beliefs of the wandering Hebrew tribes or Jesus’s fellow political revolutionaries.  By translating those texts, we were not so much reproducing their message as restating our own, and for a while that breathed a modicum of fresh life into these crumbling and increasingly foreign texts.  But with each fresh attempt, the gap between our mindset and theirs became ever more painfully apparent.  We can see the original intent stirring in shadows, and try to jam it into the mould of our own experience, but we’ll never really know it as it was.  And that’s fine, if you think of it as just another book, but if you are a Christian, shouldn’t you expect a bit more from your all-powerful deity than two books half-heartedly delivered, followed by a shrug of the shoulders, and silence?