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A Bold New Bible

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Sammlungen des Stiftes, Melk Austria/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Jörg Breu the Elder: ‘Pontius Pilate washing his hands,’ 1502, one of eight panels formerly decorating the altar at the Melk Abbey Church, Austria

This heroic enterprise, an expansive single-handed edition of the New Testament, is a substantial addition to the sixty-odd publications of the poet and translator Willis Barnstone. It appears in company with the fourth edition of a collection called Ancient Greek Lyrics, which contains practically all of Sappho and a large selection of other lyric poets—“our earliest songs in European antiquity”—that Barnstone “helped into English nearly half a century ago.”

Barnstone also translates from Chinese, German, and Spanish. He has collaborated on editions of several Gnostic texts, including the Gospel of Thomas, of which the original survives in Coptic; and has worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls, on the Christian Apocrypha—books found in the Greek version of the Jewish Bible (the Septuagint) but excluded from the Hebrew canon—and on the Jewish Pseudepigrapha, writings ascribed to authors of more antiquity and authority than their writers.

The languages one would need to know in order to do all this work are Hebrew, Greek—both classical and its “marketplace” version, koine (the language of the New Testament)—some Coptic, and some Aramaic (the Semitic vernacular used in Palestine and adjacent areas in the centuries when Hebrew was reserved for religious use). Add Latin, at the time of the New Testament the language of the Roman military occupation and later of the almost unchallengeably authoritative Vulgate, the Catholic Bible, and you might guess that after such a career a translator will surely have grasped the fact that Christianity is uniquely dependent on translations, and will have developed some ideas about the problems they raise. Barnstone has, but they are not always clear.

In a note on his translations of the Greek lyrics he remarks that it is

important to remember that the Greeks, as most poets in the past…wrote in a language which seemed natural and contemporary to their readers. My intention has been to use a contemporary idiom.

Would this apply to Pindar, for instance, or to Milton? Moreover, we seem to be faced with two conflicting senses of “contemporary”: the first concerns the simple contemporaneity of poet and first audience, the second implies the use of a form of the language contemporary not with the poetry but with a modern reader. These senses can get muddled when translators explain their wish to bring ancient text and modern reader together; and the results can be odd.

For similar reasons the translator will avoid rhyme when it is not a feature of the ancient text, as it very rarely is. The Bible, for instance, is very rich in verse but not in the sort that rhymes. Obviously rhyme would be a false archaism, everywhere to be avoided as a hindrance to the modern reader, except perhaps in the special case of Christian hymnody.

But the case is not entirely simple. Apart from Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator” and a few more rather obscure remarks of his on the subject, it seems—rather unexpectedly in view of the vast amount of translation that is always in progress—that there apparently isn’t a classic point of reference for discussion of theories of translation later than Matthew Arnold’s Oxford lectures “On Translating Homer” (1860–1861). The success of these lectures derived in part from Arnold’s fame, but also from the severity and brilliance of his attack on F.W. Newman’s version of the Iliad. Nor does Arnold spare more famous Homeric translators like Chapman, Pope, and Cowper. From his close readings of the failures of these poets Arnold can give clear expression to the principles they breached. Their faults point what he hopes may be the way forward for future attempts.

The gist of Arnold’s essay is his belief that Homer is rapid in movement, plain in style, simple in ideas, and noble. He is never, as Newman supposed, merely “quaint” or “antiquated,” never eccentric. His nobility of manner “invests his subject…with nobleness.” Arnold illustrates this quality by quoting some favorite passages from the Iliad: the one where Priam kisses the hand of Achilles, killer of his son Hector; another where Sarpedon addresses his stoical message to Glaucus; another where Achilles speaks sadly to his horse. All these passages are marked by a tragic nobility of manner. They avoid eccentricities of diction and use language that is always apt to the level of the material that is being presented. The Greek does not rhyme, nor should the English, and hexameters must also be avoided. The language of the Iliad, already ancient in Plato’s time, changed as languages must, but remained intelligible to Greeks because it was learned from the cradle, and was always suitable to any part of the poem—a model of what Arnold calls “the grand style.” Homer is not “elegant,” like Vergil; he is never “quaint” or conceited, as F.W. Newman believed. But Newman, having a mistaken notion that when Homer seems peculiar he should produce something peculiar too, offers a translation that makes Homer “odd and ignoble.”

Homer, who “sheds over the simplest matter he touches the charm of his grand manner” and “makes everything noble,” is thus disgraced by translators such as Newman, and the intention of the translator himself is frustrated; seeking to apply his genuine learning to the task of making the pleasures of Homer available to the Greekless reader, he went absolutely the wrong way about it, failed, and was then harshly called “ignoble.”

Despite the force and clarity of his arguments, Arnold himself can be called unjust; his “grand style” is a vaguely moralistic quality unhelpful to a translator who has to deal with matters not in themselves self-evidently noble or possessing what Arnold called “high seriousness.” The translator of an ancient text might, in reading Arnold, feel he must somehow escape his own ignoble limitations before he can do his work.

Barnstone does not mention Arnold’s challenge, but when he took on the translation of the New Testament he had a clear idea of the nature of the problems he shared with other translators, from some of whom he could expect little help. Good modern versions exist; and he himself gives high praise to Richmond Lattimore’s and qualified approval to Reynolds Price’s. And there is certainly no shortage of translations that demonstrate how not to do it. The Cambridge History of the Bible (volume 3) provides specimens, instances of what Arnold would have called “ignoble” or even ridiculous. Even the entirely respectable New English Bible of 1961, which claimed to use idiomatic English and avoid archaism, was judged dull and disappointing, perhaps not ignoble but certainly remote from any notion of grand style.

What remains surprising is the continued vitality of the King James Version of 1611, with all its well-known faults; and there seems recently to have been a revival of interest in William Tyndale, whose vigorous early-sixteenth-century translation, intended for “the boy that driveth the plow,” was to be the chief source of the King James translation. Tyndale’s achievement reminds us that vernacular Bibles were politically as well as philologically risky: his led to him being strangled and burned at the stake.

Barnstone pays his respects to Tyndale and to King James’s diligent teams of scholars; but modern readers may find Tyndale’s early-modern English trying to read. The King James Version, having left indelible marks on secular and religious literature generally, remains on the whole secure in the affection of Anglophone readers, but it is often archaic and inaccurate. Inevitably there is something to be said against most or all modern versions, and Barnstone’s bold and enormous book is designed to replace them all; though not with a straightforward translation of the usual text.

The novelty of the work is that it gives so much attention to a thesis, to be stated roughly as follows: the New Testament as we have it in our Bibles is a corrupt version of a lost original. We now know why Barnstone’s title talks about “restoration.” The analogy is with a painting that requires thorough cleaning and repair; and Barnstone has undertaken to do the same job for the Christian Bible. Once cleaned it will be available in its true colors, as it was originally meant to be seen. Among other things, it would be less pro- Roman and far less anti-Semitic.

Almost his first decision was to restore to the personnel of the New Testament (if we may retain that as a working title) their original names; so Jesus is replaced, via Greek Iesous, by Yeshua; Mary reverts to the Hebrew Miryam. Many other names are changed in this “New Covenant” (preferred to “New Testament” as better Greek, and correctly rendering Paul’s diatheke, which means a pact, not a testament). John the Baptist is translated in another sense of the word, rather like Bottom the Weaver, and now appears as Yohanan the Dipper, a job description more obscure than the one it replaces, and eccentric, if not ludicrous, by Arnold’s standards.

Barnstone argues that English “baptize” misses some of the meaning of Greek baptizomai (it “does not convey the specific image of dipping in water”). Perhaps this would be felt as a lack by persons of Baptist origin and education. Judas becomes Yehuda, standing for the Jews in contradistinction to the other disciples (now called “students”) who, in keeping with the anti-Jewish intention of the evangelists, are not even represented as Jews. The Gospel of Judas, recently discovered and first published only in 2006, presents Judas/Yehuda as the privileged confidant of rabbi Jesus/Yeshua, an agent of the divine purpose; but the “Christianizing” tradition made him “villainous,” an enemy of the Messiah (mashiah) whose return the dissident Jewish Christians continued to expect.

In this matter of restoring the Hebrew and Greek names, Barnstone allows himself some inconsistency, for he retains the familiar names of the four evangelists. This concession would have been approved by King James’s advisers, for instructions given to the translators of the 1611 Bible required that “the names of the prophets and the holy writers, with other names in the text…be retained as near as may be, accordingly as they are vulgarly used.” That seems sensible and familiar, but is not consistent with Barnstone’s purpose of restoration, which is very remote from that of King James’s bishops. When the restorative cleaning is done we should, according to Barnstone, be left almost entirely with characters who have Aramaic or Greek names. “We will not watch Andrew and Mark pausing in London or Chicago but Andreas and Markos walking a Greek city.” But that may not make them more “contemporary” with us; the effect might well be to estrange them.

However, that may turn out to be consistent with the translator’s larger purpose. When, late in the first century, division developed between Jew and Christian-Jew, the latter party, Messianists or Christians (followers of the anointed one) reworked and distorted the Judaic message. What Barnstone wants is the restoration of the scriptures to their unadulterated original Jewish form, as they were before they were corrupted by the propaganda of the Messianists.

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