Why the Gospel truth is often lost in translation

The Word John Barton Allen Lane £25 Kathryn Hughes



dmg media (UK)



Do you remember the bit in the Old Testament when a woman called Achsah lets her new husband know that she’s angry with him by deliberately breaking wind? If the answer is no, it’s because the version of the Bible that you know translates the phrase from Hebrew in a different way. Not out of primness, or worry about causing offence, but because the language in the original has more than one possible meaning. Full disclosure: John Barton, the author of this scrupulously scholarly account of the Bible’s many translations, says that the breakingwind version really is a bit left-field. All the same, he maintains that, far from being set in stone, the Bible remains a wonderfully flexible document. Depending on who is doing the translating, it can be warmly informal, concerned with anecdotes of private life, or else brisk and managerial, occupied with setting out rules about ideal behaviour and what happens when people fail to live up to them. That doesn’t mean, though, that translators can assume ‘anything goes’. For instance, Jesus and his disciples would have had strong Galilean accents, quite different from the people in Jerusalem. Does that mean that an English translator should render all their speech in broad cockney or thick Yorkshire? Not only would the effect be crassly comical, but it also poses unanswerable questions as to whether Galileans were seen by their contemporaries as quickwitted East Enders or salt-of-theearth Northerners. Better, in the circumstances, to do nothing. And what about the vexed question of inclusivity? The majority of the Bible uses the word ‘men’ when today we would say ‘men and women’ or even simply ‘people’. Many translators have insisted on updating the language so that it plays better in today’s environment. Feminist scholars, however, have objected strenuously, arguing that it’s important we know how male-centric Christianity has always been in order to decide what to do about it. Sometimes, though, style wins out over substance. In the hymn Dear Lord And Father Of Mankind, there’s that wonderful quote from the King James Bible about ‘the still small voice of calm’ vanquishing our worldly desires. In fact, says Barton, if you go back to the original Hebrew, the phrase should really be translated ‘a low murmuring sound’. Who wants to sing about that? John Barton is a distinguished Oxford scholar, and his learning shines through in every sentence. Also on display is an even-handed approach to a subject that historically has caused bloodshed. (In 1536 Henry VIII ordered William Tyndale, one of the first translators of the Bible into English, to be burned at the stake.) Even if you’re not a big reader of the Bible, you finish Barton’s fine book with a huge appreciation for the skill of the translators who make it readable around the world.