To Inhabit and Possess: Revolutionary Bible Translation

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.

COVER WARS! “The Train” needs your thoughts!

My next book to be released is another novel, my first since All You Need.

Titled “The Train”, it is about people who live on a train. They remember nothing of their life before being put aboard. They live in fear of the day the Conductor says their ticket has expired and puts them off the train into the unknown outside. They argue whether there really is an outside, or if it’s just random destructive chaos. But then a woman is put aboard who remembers bits and pieces of her previous life, and inevitably life aboard the train is going to change abruptly and dramatically.

Two covers have been designed for the novel. One was created by the brilliant Welsh poet-novelist A. L. Reynolds, best known for her amazing novel Of the Ninth Verse. I put together the other. (I’m deliberately not saying who goes with which cover.)

So here it is… which one do YOU prefer? Which one would be more likely to persuade you to buy this novel? Which one seems better to evoke the eerie, frightening, claustrophobic world inside this train to nowhere? Most important, tell me WHY you feel the way you do! Your thoughts are most welcome!

 

Cover images copyright © 2012 by A. L. Reynolds and James David Audlin. All rights reserved.

All You Need – Novel by James David Audlin

Following are two snippets from my most recently published novel All You Need.

It is set in a near-future England during a war between two religions – one that worships the Beatles and the other that venerates the Rolling Stones.

This first snippet has the main character, Jude Refrain, playing bits of Beatles songs unaware that others have begun to listen. Sharp readers will catch all the references to the Fab Four’s songs.

All he can do is bend over his instrument and just imagine he’s playing for himself alone. ‘Don’t bother me,’ he tells the faces around him, talking and eating and laughing and paying him no heed anyway; ‘you won’t see me. There’s no reply, because all I’ve got to do is let it be something in my life.’ His mind aches with tears cried for no one; he’s looking through her, and he lets the emptiness within his heart fill with song just like the guitar weeping gently in his hands. For a moment he’s just seen a face he can’t forget, and he tells his precious Polythene, ‘Wait, get back, be here now, I need you. I won’t cry for a shadow someplace else. I want to tell you I was nowhere until I fell in love with you, and I want to hold the inner light within you even though it’s all too much now that I’m without you; still, tomorrow never knows all things must pass, and if I needed someone we will come together.’

Of its own accord the music comes to a close, and his fingers bring forth an arpeggio ending in a final low open E, then drop away, the chord still sounding out from deep inside the guitar, slowly dying away into whatever world it goes into when it no longer sings here. And then there is silence. The spirit of the music has departed for now, and he comes back to himself. Confused momentarily, he looks around. The dining room is not empty, as the silence momentarily made him imagine. It is full of people, and they are all looking at him.

From All You Need; copyright © 2012 by James David Audlin. All Rights Reserved.

And this snippet is of a brief vision of four ancient spirits, known a long time before as John, Paul, George, and Ringo, coming together and playing a few of their favorites. It begins with George playing “Something”… see if you can find all the references to Fab lyrics!

And the man who is singing it now, the man who wrote the song back then long time ago when grass was green looks at the two lovers dancing together, eyes closed so there will be only each other, and he finds it very difficult to keep singing, remembering his own sweetheart from all those years ago. He looks at the three others who are playing with him, and they nod, understanding, their own eyes misty with recollection of loves long long time ago. Each one of the four, all he has to do is think of her. And perhaps a little of the magic of reunion touches not only this still living couple but them as well, these spirits of ancient lives, and their own dearest ones are there with them too.

Yet the two dancing before them, they are not consciously aware of the music being played for them, and still they dance to it, all their being fully embraced in each other. They feel the ice within them both is slowly melting, the cold of separation, the chill of many weary miles through dreary winter landscapes, and ‘I don’t want to leave you now,’ he sings softly to her to the accompaniment of the still unnoticed quartet, and she whispers back, ‘you know I believe you now.’

The song comes to an end, but the foursome signal to each other and they keep playing, for they see that the two are still dancing in front of the fireplace. They see too that the innkeeper is watching them, and she clearly hears them too, but thank goodness she is unobtrusive about it, merely wiping absently at chairs and tabletops and once in a while looking up at them, smiling to assure them of her pleasure and her complicity of silence. And they are pleased as well; this is the first time they have played together all four in so many years that no one could count them accurately any more. But it is fun. Delicious fun. Each one of them takes a turn leading the others into a favourite song or two, and they look at each other with love too, the love of brothers who have been through so much, who have sung to sodden drunk Germans and rowdy Liverpudlians, who have bickered and argued and stormed off in a rage, who have struggled late into the night to get the harmonies right, who have run together from crowds of madly hysterical teenaged girls, who have sat at the feet of a randy guru, who have withstood the indulgent ravages of drugs and fame, who have presided over the financial ugliness of breaking up a musical empire, who have faced assassins and would-be assassins and died and lived and died again and mourned the dead and struggled to live and striven to die, who have come to a sort of peace within, an insight into life that was bought dear, and who now know that each of them is magnified by the other three and always will be. They may never come together like this again, they may let it be only now, or they may do this again; they have no way of knowing. But it doesn’t really matter, they all know; only the music really matters. So they sing and play and make merry with song. And they enjoy watching these two lovers who still have no idea what is going on in the same room with them, that not only is it the two themselves together again at last but the reunion of reunions, the one for which the world has been waiting for centuries.

From All You Need; copyright 2012 by James David Audlin. All Rights Reserved.


While You’re Here….

Aside

What you’ve just read are two very short excerpts from James David Audlin’s most recent novel, All You Need. This fast-paced adventure takes place in a post-nuclear England in which John Lennon – appearing in a vision, riding on the famous Flaming Pie – sends a monk of the Beatles religion on a perilous mission in enemy territory, a London that worships the Rolling Stones. Also available in e-book editions, this link takes you to the paperback edition.

All You Need

Poetry in a Nuclear Age

The following is the beginning of an essay written today that will eventually be included in my forthcoming collection of essays, Ranting the Truth, to be published later this year.

If one of the main poetic themes is the juxtaposition of evanescence and eternality, then we must recognize how quickly the one vanishes, to be swallowed up by the other.

All things pass, and most of them pass into oblivion, nonexistence so complete that they are not even remembered. But a few, thanks to poets, pass into a different kind of eternality: the immortality bestowed by art. The parting day that Gray eulogized and the daffodil that Keats described, for example, are no more, but they have been literally immortalized in poems.

This world, so bent on destroying itself, is the ultimate example of that theme. This mortal life was always evanescent and the world seemingly eternal; now not even the planet we walk about on for our day of existence can be expected to last very long. In every moment it is at risk of being destroyed by powerful madmen.

Many would think the poetic craft to be irrelevant, an absurd anachronism in an age in which communication is founded on accruing the capital of attention, power, and money. However, it is the work, indeed the sacred duty, of the poet today to immortalize not merely the ephemeral beauty of evenings or daffodils in this world, but the fragile and very mortal world itself.

Τhis poetic burden is intensified by the poet’s awareness that everything will be destroyed when the world is destroyed: including every poem mourning the imminent destruction of the world – along with every other poem, from the most brilliant to the humblest doggerel, and every poet and every reader, too.

Yet (as the Tree in my novel Rats Live on no Evil Star puts it) we must hope and believe and trust and keep faith that perhaps in some other world some other trees will be cut down in sacrifice and ripped apart into pulp and flattened into winding sheets and marked with the symbols that record the poem that mourns the world, and perhaps some other people in some other world or time or dimension will read it and memorize it and recite it to their listeners, and like that of the evening and the daffodil, the beauty of this our world will remain alive.

If it is our duty to leave this earth a little bit better, a little more beautiful, than when we first entered it, then this is not by our person that we shall do so, for our individuality is of very little account, but by the things that we say and do that are memorable, hence remembered, that we improve it: the things that have a benign effect on this world. No one has changed this world by who he or she was, but many have changed it, and all can potentially do so, through what they say and do.

This is what the poet accomplishes. In every moment the poet consciously seeks to observe the beauty, the wisdom, around him or her, and then to give it through beautiful words that memorability, that eternality. Gray and Keats succeeded. So too did Shakespeare and Neruda, Han-shan and Borges, Baudelaire and Basho, and countless others. These poets are not remembered for the persons they were or the lives they led, though these things may interest us, but because they succeeded in leaving beauty behind when they left this world, in observing eloquently the evanescence and bestowing upon it eternality.

Faced with its potential destruction at the hands of lunatics, the poet writes upon the world its own epitaph – and thus, though it may be destroyed in a hellfire of radiation, taking with it into oblivion all the evenings and daffodils, our little fragile world will yet exist in the greater universe of beauty and truth.

From the forthcoming book Ranting the Truth. Copyright © 2012 by James David Audlin. All rights reserved.

Public Transportation

Another thought that eventually I will have to insert into my book [easyazon-link asin=”1477419454″ locale=”us”]A Writer in Panamá[/easyazon-link].

Back in the 1920s there was a powerful lobby in Washington, pushed by automaker Ford and tiremaker Firestone. At the time, there was an excellent public transportation system; I remember my grandfather telling me how he could get anywhere he wanted in cities and from city to city by way of the interurban trolley system. He could even theoretically have travelled coast to coast trolley simply by switching to the next line when he reached the end of the one he was riding. The train was more convenient, of course.

But these two men, Ford and Firestone, persuaded the Congress to put public money into the building of a network of highways across the United States – and to [Click here to read more…]

Village Characters

In my book [easyazon-link asin=”1477419454″ locale=”us”]A Writer in Panamá[/easyazon-link] I wrote about two wonderful personalities, the Village Idiot and the Village Drunk. At some point I’ll revise the book to include the following further reflections, but for now let me put them here…

I haven’t seen the Village Idiot lately. I’ve asked my neighbors in Paso Ancho, and no one knows where he is. But I have a theory. The fact is, he always impressed me as vastly overqualified for the position of Village Idiot. So I think he has gotten promoted to a bigger village. [Click here to continue…]

While you’re here…

Aside

If you are enjoying reading about the Village Characters, you will certainly appreciate more tales of life in the frontier highlands of western Panama.

The book is available in deluxe hardcover and paperback editions (8½” x 11″ with photographs on nearly every page), as well as trade paperback (6″ x 9″ without photographs), and e-book (without photographs).

A Writer in Panama – Deluxe Paperback with Photographs