A Bold New Bible

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…

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