Everybody, pretty well, says that the Authorised Version of the Bible is a national and more than national treasure, never to be surpassed. And yet everyone we listen to, down to those who read the lessons in our parish church, proceeds on the assumption that this allegedly unsurpassable text can be, and needs to be, surpassed. Everyone who undertakes to interpret the Scriptures, however modestly, begins by offering an alternative translation. It’s hard to explain this except as reflecting our light-mindedness about translation in general: our conviction that translation even at its best never attains to the status of imaginative re-creation. Translation, we think, is always a second-order activity; and accordingly it can be, even at its most splendid, tampered with.
It’s worth asking, in an honest examination of our responses, how such tampering affects us. My own report, after such an examination, is that in hearing or reading such alternative versions what I experience is a double-take or double-exposure: I cannot read what I see, or hear what is said, except as a distracting departure from the AV formulations that I am aware of, indefinitely, as what is being departed from. Thus the works of Scripture speak to me, inevitably in such circumstances, with a forked tongue. And yet, if I read Scripture devoutly, a forked tongue is certainly the last thing that I want to hear. Let the Scriptures speak to me ‘incorrectly’ (though by what standards of ‘correctness’ is another and bewildering question), let them at any rate speak with one voice. That ‘one voice’ is hard enough to come by, for instance, in the AV version of the Book of Job: the last thing I need is to have the already barely manageable ambiguities of Holy Writ compounded, as they are by David Rosenberg and Harold Bloom.
To be sure, this response will seem pusillanimous. When believers, Jewish or Christian, read or hear what they take to be Holy Writ, it’s supposed that they respond complacently. But some of them at least respond needfully and in terror. The secularist may despise them for that: but at least their frame mind needs to be acknowledged and sympathetically entered into, as it virtually never is by non-believers. The holiness of Holy Writ cannot of course be proved; and the further scholars probe into the Scriptures, the more that holiness recedes. But the holiness is not a postulate that scholarship and speculation may or may not support: it answers to a need. And so, to those who haven’t felt that need, it appears contemptible. On the other side of the divide, those who feel that need will find the exertions of Rosenberg and Bloom not wrong or irreverent but simply frivolous.
In one way, the students of translation – they are few, and seldom honoured – know the situation very well: a magisterially-gifted translator has given to the original an idiosyncratic ‘spin’ which later translators must try to correct or revise; and the attempt is always foredoomed, because the corrected spin never has equal impetus with the original. Consider Robert Graves’s attempt to revise Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam. The AV is peculiar, even so: for no magister can be detected, among King James’s translators. Ward Allen’s researches in Alabama, and Gerald Hammond’s in Manchester, have not turned up any such figure. King James’s Bible was the product of a co-operative effort, and yet not of a committee, as we understand committees; nor did it produce prose or verse of the kind that we have all too much reason to expect of committee proceedings.
According to Harold Bloom’s often reiterated protestations, this should not, this could not, have happened; his understanding of literary history pivots on the supposition of a magister, whom subsequent writers mutiny against, even as they acknowledge and emulate his achievements. His, or hers. For Bloom’s rereading of the Pentateuch, the five books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), posits an original and originating ‘master’ who is in fact female: a lady of the court of King Rehoboam, slack-wristed son and heir of Solomon. And why not? Dealing with an era so distant and ill-documented as ancient Israel, we can find no firm evidence either for or against that supposition. If all the same we find it frivolous, that is because we approach these texts out of need and terror, motives that Bloom finds contemptible.
How can be complain if we reciprocate with a like contempt? Who cares if there is a Lady ‘J’, whose contribution to the Pentateuch we can and may and even must distinguish from that of other cryptic initials – ‘E’ and ‘D’ and ‘P’ and ‘R’ – all postulated (read, ‘dreamedup’) by German scholars of a hundred years ago? Answer: Harold Bloom cares. For corporate or anonymous authorship is what Bloom has set his face against from his initial sailing out between the beacons of Ralph Waldo Emerson on the one headland, William Blake on the other. For Bloom, romantic individualism has always been the only game in town; and he will undertake it even in sixth century BC Israel. This, in its bloody-minded consistency, is affecting and brave. But what has it to say to those who approach these ancient texts for salvation, or for righteousness? There are still those who do.
What we come up against is the crux defined in a title more than fifty years old: The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature. One reads the Bible either as literature or else as, however confusingly, revealed truth. And however highly one may value literature – as, for instance, having a value beyond what romantic individualism has access to – the distinction persists: one reads literature for delight and incidentally instruction; but religious texts one reads for comfort, for solace, for assurance. The text changes colour according as one approaches it with the one set of expectations, or the other. When approaching it as literature involves, as it does with Harold Bloom, exuberant speculation and special pleading, the other way of reading cannot help but seem more attractive and more appropriate.
Vol. 13 No. 13 · 11 July 1991
Much talk on translation is uninteresting because it is either too general or too specific. The subject only becomes fascinating when some intermediate course is found, such as comparing different versions – as it is by both Craig Raine and Donald Davie on successive pages of the London Review (LRB, 13 June).
Some translations are long overdue: over the years, Henry James has come in for all sorts of treatment from umpteen Freneh translators, and his complete works are only just in sight The Sense of the Past, a novel which for various reasons took fifteen years to half-finish, took me, for reasons which are perhaps not so very different, six years to translate, from first putting pen to paper till publication, in two months’ time. Other translations are apparently premature: looking through the other end of the telescope, the British publisher of Georges Perec in 1987 rejected my completed version of Perec’s La Disparition in favour of some idealised alternative which probably won’t turn up ‘this century’ (I quote his American counterpart). Curiously enough, translating the James is far more constraining than translating the Perec, where stylistic freedom is the rule: Raine’s matrioshka effect is the inevitable result once one has stretched the possibilities of French syntax to meet the conflicting demands of semantic coherence and style. This involves a full palette, including such unlikely constructions as the imperfect subjunctive, which no one but President Mitterrand and the odd purist uses much any more. While James refused to call a spade a spade, Perec obliged himself to call it a digging tool, a fork, or something more interesting. Impoverished present-day usage, to the extent that it does indeed seem more at home with Hingley-type ‘four-square certainties’ than with Chekhovian ‘hints and guesses’, is ill-equipped to cope with either. The new challenge brought by La Disparition, however, is how to combine the conservative virtues of the ‘divine nobody’ with the more enterprising, and perhaps selfish, qualities required for full participation in the creative process.
Donald Davie’s assault on The Book of J (LRB, 13 June) was predictable: so predictable, in fact, as to render him an unenlightening reviewer for this book. He would rule out, on a priori grounds, the validity of any such enterprise: the Book of Job itself is prone to ambiguities. But he is capable of one or two inconsistencies of his own. For instance, he criticises literary and historical approaches to the Bible, but appears to value literary judgments about the value of the AV, and historical evidence about its translators. He grieves that people should tamper with a translation: yet the AV would not exist if people had not been ready to tamper with the Bishop’s Bible and the Geneva and Tyndale.
There are certainly questions to be asked about attempts to reconstruct the sources of the Pentateuch. But that need not entail abandoning such scholarship – even if one acknowledges the key role of German scholars (tell it not in Gath!). They may have ‘dreamed up’ the precise division into sources; they may have ‘dreamed up’ a methodology that too clinically dissected the canonical text; but did they dream up the discontinuities and contradictions in that text? Does Davie want us to emulate the Victorian clergy who regarded German scholarship as the root of all evil? I find myself echoing one of the few exceptions, Julius Hare, who when urged to burn his German books replied that he owed to them his ability to believe in Christianity. Take a ‘frivolous’ commentary like Gerhard von Rad’s on Genesis. Come to think of it, take Genesis. What does it give? The ‘delight and instruction’ of literature or the ‘comfort, solace and assurance’ of a religious text?
Neither of these quite does justice to the richness and strangeness of the text. If someone wishes for scriptures that speak with one voice, they will find this in the Qu’ran, but not in the Bible. Davie acknowledges this richness, and raises the ‘bewildering question’ about standards of ‘correctness’. He touches on very difficult issues: accuracy and truth in translations, scholarship and holiness. He articulates that sense, not so much of pious anger as of weary desolation, which overtakes a believer when confronted by the more arid of modern commentaries. But there must be a more positive approach than to dismiss any suggestion of diversity within Scripture as ‘a forked tongue’!
Vol. 13 No. 18 · 26 September 1991
Your readers deserve a better appraisal of Harold Bloom’s The Book of J than Donald Davie’s fear and trembling over alternatives to the King James Version (LRB, 13 June). Davie sounds like the hillbilly who didn’t see why his kids should study a foreign language: ‘If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me!’
The fraud of David Rosenberg’s translation and Harold Bloom’s commentary has to be seen to be believed. For example, Rosenberg’s translates Genesis 3.14 (my italics):
‘Since you did this,’ said Yahweh to the snake, ‘you are bound apart from flocks, from any creature of the field, bound to the ground … I make you an enemy to woman, enmity bound between your seed and hers … ’
As an example of Rosenberg’s excellence, Bloom cites his version of the Tower of Babel:
‘If we bring ourselves together,’ they said, ‘we can build a city and tower, its top touching the sky – to arrive at fame. Without a name we’re unbound, scattered over the face of the earth.’ Yahweh came down to watch the city and tower the sons of man were bound to build. ‘They are one people, with the same tongue,’ said Yahweh. ‘They conceive this between them, and it leads until no boundary exists to what they will touch. Between us, let’s descend, baffle their tongue until each is scatterbrain to his friend.’
From there Yahweh scattered them over the whole face of the earth; the city became unbound.
Bloom comments: ‘J plays incessantly, in these passages and elsewhere, upon the Hebrew stem ’rr, which means “to restrain or bind, as by a magical spell”. In J, ’rr is not quite a curse, but does constitute an antithesis to the Blessing of Yahweh, in which time loses its boundaries. My penultimate section in this book, “The Blessing: Exiles, Boundaries, Jealousies”, deals in part with this complex.’
In the snake passage, the prime root ARAR does occur, but only once, not three times; God does indeed curse the snake. In the Tower of Babel passage ARAR is not the verb in any of the phrases in which Rosenberg translates ‘bound’ – the verbs in question may be transliterated PEN-NAFUTS, BANU and LIVNOT (same verb), and LO YIBBATSAR.
Amusingly, I think we can see how this sorry cheat came about. Rosenberg looked up ‘cursed’ (ARUR) in the snake passage in the great Hebrew and English Lexicon by Brown, Driver and Briggs, where ARAR (sic) is defined as ‘curse’. But, oh dear, he saw that the Hebrew is related to the Assyrian and Babylonian for ‘bind’. (The word no more means ‘bind’ in Hebrew than ‘jolly’ means ‘beautiful’ in English because it comes from Old French joli.) Bloom read Rosenberg’s ‘bound’ and knee-jerked to William Blake’s god Urizen, who is the ‘bound or outward circumference of Energy’ in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan