When William Tyndale had completed his 1526 New Testament he set about learning Hebrew and translated from the original, with the aid of Luther’s version, the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch, which he issued in 1530. The signs are that Tyndale’s immersion in its patriarchal narratives and legal codes transformed his doctrinal views – in contrast to Luther, who tended always to regard the Old Testament as an embarrassment at best and a Jewish conspiracy at worst – and inaugurated that strange elevation of the Old Testament which still marks English and American culture. One element of this is easy to understand: the best stories in the Bible are in the Old Testament. Their influence has been immense, ranging from the Old and New World puritans who saw their travails clearly reflected in the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt into the Promised Land, to the First World War soldiers who read into Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son their elders’ easy tolerance of the huge casualty figures.
More difficult to explain is the attraction of Old Testament law. After all, as the New Testament repeatedly makes clear, Christ came to sweep all the legalism and ritual away. And yet, when the Old Testament was given to the people in their vernacular it was found strangely attractive, not only in England but across Europe. Indeed, one of Luther’s motives for scorning the Old Testament was his apprehension at its use by peasant rebels who were calling for a reversion to total observance of Mosaic law, in a new fundamentalism. Some were even having themselves circumcised, he reported.
In England the response was less extreme but much deeper. By the time he had finished his Pentateuch Tyndale had no doubt that he was translating something equal in value to Christ’s teaching. Bizarre as it seems, he even describes Deuteronomy as a gospel in his preface to that book of laws, blessings and curses. During the 17th century, as Christopher Hill has amply demonstrated, it was the Old Testament, in law almost as much as in narrative and prophecy, which acted as a major determinant in political debate. For the imitation of Christ read, in England and America, the imitation of Moses.
Tyndale translated at a phenomenal rate. Although he had to keep on the move to forestall arrest, he probably took little more than a couple of years to translate the Pentateuch. Everett Fox, at the entrance to his Pentateuch, proudly announces that his has been a labour of 25 years. Fox does supply a full and thoughtful commentary and notes – Tyndale’s few notes tended to be of the Sod the Pope variety – but he had something which Tyndale did not: the bedrock of translation which, originating with Tyndale, makes up the Renaissance English Bible. For all of its six committees of translators and its several years in the making, it is a fair estimate that for some two-thirds of the Bible Tyndale’s translation forms at least 75 per cent of the text of the 1611 Authorised Version.
Tyndale’s Pentateuch opens with a bang: ‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the deep, and the spirit of God moved on the water.’ By 1611 this had been tweaked a bit, but not radically transformed: the heaven and the earth in verse one, without form and void for void and empty in verse two and the addition of in the face of before the deep and the waters (now in the plural). The majority of these changes represent a literalising process. Tyndale himself was a fairly conservative translator, but the process of revision in the 16th century, running through the 1560 Geneva Bible to the Authorised Version, had as much to do with trying to get closer to the grammar and syntax of the original as with semantic accuracy: hence the addition here of definite articles, the turning of singular into plural and the addition of in the face of to render the Hebrew alp’nei, a formula derived from the word poneh, meaning ‘face’ but often used, as Tyndale’s translation conveys, with little more strength than the prepositional upon.
Late 20th-century translators, of whom there seems to have been a multitude as great as the stars in the heaven, have largely gone in the other direction. They favour paraphrase and readability rather than the careful reproduction of the original’s sentence structure and word order, on the understandable grounds that the Bible is, above all, a book to be read by everyone. In taking this view they stand close to Tyndale, who famously declared that he wanted his Bibles to be read by ploughboys. But, just as famously, all these modern versions have proved to be unreadable by anyone without tin ears. Technically, they are examples of what is known as dynamic equivalence translations, but ‘dynamic’ seems the wrong word for the stodge they provide.
The signs now are of a swing back to a different, more literal translation of the Bible. David Rosenberg’s The Book of J (1990) reads very differently from things like the Good News Bible or the Revised English Bible:
The man named his wife Hava: she would have all who live, smooth the way, mother.
Now Yahweh made clothes from skins of the wild animals for the man and woman, dressed them.
There is a pun in the Hebrew on Eve’s name and the word for ‘life’, hence Hava and have all; and smooth the way continues the play on the serpent’s speech, which Rosenberg translates as smooth-tongued, and on the human couple’s nakedness, translated as smooth-skinned. Fox translates Eve’s naming and the clothing of the humans like this:
The human called his wife’s name:Havva/Life-giver!
For she became the mother of all the living.
Now, YHWH, God, made Adam and his wife coats of skins and clothed them.
Not quite as exciting as Rosenberg’s version, this does not get the Eve/life pun, but does signal it to the reader by letting in the translation of Eve’s name as ‘life-giver’. And, in general, Fox’s is the more responsible translation. Rosenberg’s smooth the way has no textual authority that I know of, and in the description of the clothing it is Fox, not Rosenberg, who reproduces, as closely as is possible in English, the word order of the Hebrew. Even in the minute distinction between the human and Adam, Fox is being grammatically precise. Rosenberg’s repetition of the man implies that the Hebrew reads adam/l’adam and not, as it actually does, ha’adam/l’adam.
All of this may well seem to ‘savour of curiosity’ as the Preface to the Authorised Version puts it, defending itself against the charge that it had not always translated the same Hebrew or Greek word with the same English word. ‘Is the kingdom of God become words and syllables?’ the translators asked. Well, in a way it has. Religious fundamentalism, based on the precise weighing of every letter and syllable, developed in 17th-century Europe, and still dominates large areas of the most powerful nation on earth. Remember Reagan reading the apocalyptic passages in the Old Testament prophets while he wondered how to solve the problem of the evil empire? But the fundamentalists’ literalism was and is essentially a product of ignorance – not ignorance of the text, but ignorance of the fact that there are no literal readings. This is something which English Protestantism soon discovered. It began with Tyndale’s proclamation that the only true sense is the literal sense, all allegories being a snare and a delusion, but within a few generations Protestantism was spawning innumerable allegories itself, of which Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress were only the most elevated examples.
Another kind of literalism comes from a much more interesting source than religious fundamentalism. Everett Fox, whose Pentateuch is as literal a piece of Bible translation as anything else in English I know, cites as his precursors Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Their German Bible was produced between 1925 and 1962 (it was largely Buber’s: Rosenzweig died in 1929), and its guiding idea was to ‘mimic the particular rhetoric of the Hebrew whenever possible, preserving such devices as repetition, allusion, alliteration and wordplay’. The origin of this sort of literalism lies in German Romanticism. Goethe identified three kinds of translation. The first translates the content into a modern equivalent (e.g. the Good News Bible); the second gives a modern equivalent for form and content (e.g. the New English Bible); the third, favoured by Goethe as genuine translation because it captures the Geist of the work, adapts itself closely to the language of the original and, by doing so, adapts its own language to fit the original’s form: the extreme example of this is an interlinear version, in which the translation runs word for word beneath the original. This third approach to translation was most forcefully articulated by Walter Benjamin, who argued, using Hölderlin’s work as an example, for a two-way process of translation, not between translation and reader but between the two languages. According to Benjamin, translations should express ‘the central reciprocal relationship between languages’. Such a reciprocity is ‘achieved, above all, by a literal rendering of the syntax’, and Benjamin’s essay, originally an Introduction to a translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux parisiens, ends with the assertion that ‘the interlinear version of the Scriptures is the prototype or ideal of all translation.’
Fox’s Pentateuch is in many ways closer to Benjamin’s line of argument, in which word order and syntax are the driving forces, than to the Buber-Rosenzweig one, in which the entire original language, down to its rhythms and sounds, acts as an influence. A moment’s thought shows why this must be the case, for the gap between Biblical Hebrew and modern English is inestimably greater than, say, the gap between English and another European language like French. But Hebrew and English do share a similar word order, a phenomenon noted by Tyndale when he praised English as a much superior vehicle for translating the Old Testament than Jerome’s Latin or the Septuagint’s Greek.
Still, there are places where Fox pulls off a successful Buber-Rosenzweig translation. My favourites are riff-raff, to describe the rebellious rabble who contaminate the Israelites in the wilderness – the Hebrew is asafsuf – and baffle to describe the confusion of language which resulted from the destruction of the Tower of Babel (bavel in Hebrew). He also deals well with what the grammarians call the infinitive absolute, a form of emphasis in which the finite verb has its infinitive added to it to intensify it. The Renaissance English translators experimented with renderings like dying you shall die, but ended up using an adverb, most often surely, as in the Authorised Version’s thou shalt surely die (Genesis 2:17). Fox’s method is, in most places to use yes: in this example, his translation is you must die, yes, die, which neatly captures the rhythm of the Hebrew mot tamot. And even in places where the Renaissance translation seems as if it could not be bettered, Fox uses the Hebrew rhythm to achieve something at least as good. Tyndale translated as vengeance is mine and I will reward the Hebrew li’ nokom washilem (Deuteronomy 32:35), literally to-me revenge and-reward, hence the Authorised Version’s more grammatically accurate but much inferior translation, to me belongeth vengeance and recompense. Fox shows that it is possible to be fairly literal and to be as striking as Tyndale: mine are vengeance and payback is about as close to the Hebrew rhythm as it is possible to get in English, with the bonus that payback gets the ambiguity of the Hebrew word better than reward or recompense.
However, for every success, there are dozens of places where rhythm, repetition, alliteration, allusion and wordplay are lost. As early as the first two words of Genesis the ideal starts to slip away: Fox’s At the beginning of God’s creating comes nowhere near the alliteration and wordplay of the original bereshit bara. And there are places where readers who know what Fox is trying to do, but who have no Hebrew, will suspect wordplay where there is none, as in Deuteronomy 28:33, which Fox translates as the fruit of your soil and all that you toil for, with no warrant in the original for the soil/toil connection; or the opening verses of Genesis 29, where Jacob encounters some men at a well in a field ... the well they used to give the herds to drink ... [where] they used to roll the stone from the mouth of the well. He says to them, inquiring of Laban, Is all well with him and they reply: It is well. Again, this is good wordplay in the English, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Hebrew.
If Fox’s version is actually closer to Walter Benjamin’s model than to Buber’s, the one thing which vitiates it is, ironically enough, his reluctance to follow through the words of Buber which he quotes at the very beginning of his Preface: ‘read the Bible as though it were something entirely unfamiliar, as though it had not been set before you ready-made ... Face the book with a new attitude as something new.’ Here the contrast with Tyndale is worth re-emphasising. The Reformation translator, with only a basic knowledge of Hebrew, under massive pressure of time and with no burden of English translation on his back, was infinitely better placed to respond with the immediacy and directness which Buber requires. Fox’s problem is the one which he shares with all modern Bible translators. Too much time, too much knowledge and too many authorities to consult.
The result is a constant fussiness which comes from trying to be too accurate and too precise. Take the opening of Genesis again: At the beginning of God’s creating. Fox’s note says that ‘this phrase ... has long been the focus of debate among grammarians,’ and he tells us that he has preferred to follow ‘several medieval commentators, and most moderns’ in his rendition. But, as the opening words of the greatest, most powerful story ever told, it whimpers when set against In the beginning God created heaven and earth. And in verse two, when the earth was wild and waste is a good rendering of the Hebrew tohu wabohu, but pedantry returns with the translation of ruach elohim as the rushing-spirit of God, on the grounds that ruach means both ‘spirit’ and ‘wind’.
According to Fox, Jacob’s brothers, planning his murder, intend to tell their father that an ill-tempered beast has devoured him; Shechem, immediately after his rape of Dinah, finds that his emotions clung to her; and the children of Israel, after getting drunk in front of the golden calf, proceeded to revel. There are too many of these New English Bible type prissinesses. The cover of Fox’s version has a quote from one reviewer praising the work because of its strangeness, but it is often not so much strange as odd, a curious mixture of the rough and the fastidious, nearly every move towards directness being compromised by a need to get the right scholarly nuance. Even riff-raff is spoilt because it appears as the gathered riff-raff, to make the point that the root of asafsuf is a verb meaning ‘gather together’.
This curious hybrid is most apparent in Leviticus. A truly strange translation of this book in which two of the nastiest human inventions, priests and purification, take over from patriarchal and exodus narratives, would point up the barbarism of its obsessive, monotonous account of ritual sacrifice, stoning to death and punishment for being different from the norm. Instead, Fox’s version, motivated by a desire to show how valuable a work it is, delivers some surreal examples of scholarship in action:
Boil the flesh at the entrance to the Tent of Appointment,
there you are to eat it, along with the bread that is in the basket of mandating (8:31)
Now a man – when his head becomes smooth, he is bald, he is pure.
And if on the edge of his face his head becomes smooth, he is forehead-bald, he is (still) pure. (13:40-41)
Now about the hairy-goat of hattat Moshe inquired, yes, inquired, and here it had (already) been burned! (10:16)
On the pure lampstand he is to arrange the lampwicks, before the presence of YHWH, regularly. (24:4)
Now if you bring-near a grain-gift of firstfruits to YHWH,
budding-grain, parched with fire, grits of fresh-grain you are to bring-near as your grain-gift of firstfruits. (2:14)
Contamination and racial purification are major themes of Leviticus, as in the story recounted in Chapter 24, in which a man born of a mixed marriage is found guilty of blaspheming and is stoned to death by the whole community, or in the instructions that disfigured men and menstruating women should be kept away from the temple. That is all very well and worth the effort of translation if we view this text as a relic from another age, of strictly anthropological value. But Fox’s commentary keeps pointing us towards its spiritual relevance, saying it is a text which teaches holiness, separation, making order out of disorder and ‘how to deal with one’s fellow human being in a variety of economic and social settings’. Tyndale guessed better. Sweeping through Leviticus as speedily as possible, he described it as ‘milk and pap’ for the babes of a pre-Christian age. I think it a pity that the years Fox spent on this book were not devoted to something more substantial, such as the narratives of Judges.
Unlike David Rosenberg, who translates the Pentateuch largely for its narrative value, or the translators of the various modern committee versions, who translate only for doctrinal purposes and would not recognise a good story, Everett Fox knows how narrative works and prizes the Bible for its spiritual values. This is a rare combination now, although the Authorised Version committees were full of such men, and for all of its misplaced pieties and sometimes fussy readings, Fox’s version deserves to be seen as the one real modern successor to Tyndale’s.
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