As I have often written in the past, when you read the Bible in translation, you are looking through someone else’s lenses – you are in fact trusting them to give you an accurate rendition in your language of what the Bible actually says in the original Hebrew or Greek. A poor translation shifts the meaning away from what was intended by the original writer of the scriptural text, as I shall demonstrate below. However, a particularly apt translation will not just put the actual meaning of the original text in the new language, but even evoke something of the emotional impact.
Consider, for instance, Isaiah 65:22. This verse is part of the third prophet whose orations are contained in the Biblical book by that name, specifically in chapters 56 through 66. This prophet, whose name we do not know today, wrote at a time when Cyrus, King of Persia, had conquered the waning superpower the Empire of Assyria, and told all those in captivity in Assyria that they could return to their homelands
The Assyrian conquest of Israel and Judah, though two or three generations back for the remnant that returned, was still vividly painful memory. Think of that evocative Psalm written by an exiled Jew in Assyria: “By the waters of Babylon we lay down and wept to remember thee, O Zion” (Psalm 137:1). Think of Ezekiel, the only Temple Priest to become a prophet, and the only prophet to prophesy in Assyria, who was forbidden by God from grieving for his wife when she died because at the same time the news of Jerusalem’s fall to Assyria had reached the Hebrews in their village of exile in Assyria. (God states through Ezekiel that this was to say that God did not grieve at this taking of the final bit of the Promised Land’s real estate because the People of God, the Hebrews, had already turned away from God.)
No one in the days of Third Isaiah and the generations immediately following, would have failed to feel in these prophecies the emotional pain of the Assyrian destruction of the Promised Land, the exile, and the anything but triumphant return to Jerusalem only to find battered ruins already overgrown with weeds and ruled by jackals.
A superior translator of this verse, Isaiah 65:22, will seek not just to translate, but to evoke the pain the Israelites felt. And in this many classical renderings into English succeed.
These renderings almost always uses either the word “inhabit” or “possess” in the first sentence; thus, for instance, the King James Version has it: “They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect.”
Most English translations of the Bible earlier than the King James likewise use “inhabit”, including the Great Bible (1540) and the Geneva Bible (1587). So too does John Wycliffe, who in 1395 published the first complete English translation: “Thei schulen not bilde housis, and an othir schal enhabite hem, thei schulen not plaunte, and an othir schal ete; for whi the daies of my puple schulen be after the daies of the tree, and the werkis of her hondis schulen be elde to my chosun men.”
A minority of these pre-King James translations use the word “possess” (with the older spelling, “possesse”); these include the Coverdale Bible (1535) and the Bishop’s Bible (1568).
It is almost universally forgotten today by all but scholars of the language is that both “inhabit” and “possess” are words that came into English from the French. That is to say, they were part of the overwhelming changes in the language that took it from the Anglo-Saxon of Beowulf and the Early English of Hugo de Masci (both nearly incomprehensible today to all but scholars) to the highly Frenchified language in which even Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales can be read by any intelligent reader today. These changes in the language were rapid – a linguistic invasion that was precipitated by the military invasion of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.
Today the Norman Conquest is nothing more than ancient history for most people, to be read about in school books and quickly forgotten after the teacher’s examination.
However, at the time that these great English translations were undertaken (especially the earliest, Wycliffe), the Norman Conquest was relatively recent history — still vivid in the lives and minds of the English people, especially (for its bitter fruits) the common people. Still they would be seeing the signs of axe and fire in older structures, and still many folk, especially commoners in the rural countryside, would not understand the French words on the lips of more cosmopolitan city dwellers, particularly the nobility. In those days, the more citified, the more noble, the more educated an individual was, the more likely the person was to speak fluent French on a daily basis and to accept and benefit from the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Roman Catholic Church was in these centuries an international power so pervasive that one must think of it as the direct continuation of the Roman Empire. It was not only responsible for taxing the British people further to plenish the coffers of the Vatican, but it directly manipulated the government and politics of Great Britain to its advantage.
Of course, Bible translators were the linguistic scholars of their day, none more so than the body of preeminent scholars whom King James assembled, which company almost certainly included the greatest master ever of the English language, William Shakespeare. Such scholars would be not simply aware of the Gallic and Catholic overtones of such words, but of the actual pain of collective memory that they would induce in those who were to read, or hear read aloud, their translations-in-progress. Thus, by implying the vivid collective agony of the Norman Conquest (if my theory is correct) and the then-current oppressiveness of the Roman Catholic Church, these translators were bringing considerable power to the prophecy of Isaiah.
Yet what is more these translators were often actively involved in movements rooted in the common people and aimed against the oppressive power of church and state. For, following the Norman Conquest, the stronger Roman Catholic presence in Great Britain meant a heavier subjugation of any freedom of expression and faith – and this oppression was founded on a determination to keep the common people ignorant of the contents of the Bible (which speak repeatedly against oppressive secular power!), mediating it only through a carefully controlled priesthood.
In this context, to translate the Bible into the vernacular was by its nature an act of rebellion, a kind of treason, against the Church that was determined to keep it in a Latin inaccessible to all but its own priests, the nobility who benefited from the Church’s protective embrace – and also, from the Church’s view unfortunately, scholars such as the Oxford professor John Wycliffe.
Wycliffe, the first to translate the entire Bible into English (though his associates apparently helped significantly with the Old Testament and parts of the New), was leader of the Lollards, who were opposed to this oppression by Rome. So hated was he that the Roman Catholic hegemony had his remains exhumed and burned and cast ignobly into a river.
Similarly, William Tyndale, first to translate the entire Bible into English from the original Hebrew and Greek (not the Latin Vulgate translation of Jerome), was executed for his role as a leader of the movement demanding reform first of the Roman Catholic and then the Anglican Church, after King Henry VIII nationalized it – continuing the same excesses and repressions, but keeping the power in his own hands, and the riches in his own coffers, rather than those of the Pope.
Tyndale wrote: “They [the Roman Catholic Church] have ordained that no man shall look on the Scripture, until he be noselled in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles, with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of the Scripture.” And: “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou [a priest who opposed Tyndale] dost!”
Thus, clearly, for translators such as these words like “inhabit” or “possess” words carried considerable evocative power. Such words were in the language of France — not only England’s only conqueror in history, but a France completely under the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore, these words strongly brought to the subconscious mind the recent history of a powerful invader (the Norman Conquest) and the current situation of oppression (the Roman Catholic, and later the Anglican, Church) — especially in the minds and hearts of the common people to whom these translations were primarily addressed.
Through to the end of the fifteenth century, the French-derived English word “possess” simply meant “to hold”, “to reside in”, without regard to the question of legal ownership; this latter implication came into the English word around 1500; and a little later, around 1530, the meaning of being filled with and taken over by devils came into provenance. Thus these two translations, Coverdale and Bishop’s, were certainly rendered with a conscious mind to these new overtones of meaning. Some of these translator-revolutionaries deliberately spoke of the Roman Catholic hegemony in diabolic terms.
Of course, every translation of the Bible is replete with such renderings that reflect the European collective mind far more than that of the Hebrew people. So to put “In the beginning” at the beginning of Genesis and the Gospel of Saint John reflects European philosophy of a creatio ex nihilo, even though the original Hebrew and Greek suggest a patterned reordering of a Creation that was chaotic but certainly already in existence. Thus the insertion of “son” into translations of John 3:16 (changing “For God so loved the world that he performed his unique act” into “gave his only son”), even though the Greek original does not have the word ύιος [son]) to pump up the Pauline trend of turning the itinerant rabbi Y’shuah into a Jesus with all the earmarks of the typical Roman emperor-god. Thus Jerome’s typically Roman misogyny, “Noli me tangere”, became the basis for the “Do not touch me” that many earlier translations have Jesus say to Mary Magdalene at his resurrection (John 20:17), even though the Greek, με μου άπτου, clearly means “cease from embracing me”.
These are but three examples of how translations through history of the Bible reflect then-current sensibilities.
The problem today is that either we live with the bitter fruits of certain renderings (for instance, the misogyny that is still far too common even in predominantly Christian countries), or we forget how particularly astute renderings — the use of French words, as an example — served to bring in the emotional baggage of then-recent history.
Current and future translators of the Bible (or of any text!) are wise to keep these matters in mind.
From the forthcoming book Ranting the Truth. Copyright © 2012 by James David Audlin. All rights reserved.
James David Audlin is preparing for publication a radical new translation of the Gospel of St. John.