Dear Bible Society

The Word of God as soundbite? Nah, it doth not truly work, and neither does your new Bible ...
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The Independent Online
Ican think of 125,000,000 reasons to launch a new Bible translation: that is the number of copies the Good News Bible has sold around the world in the past 20 years. The Contemporary English version, which you are launching this week, is only the latest in a long line of attempts to make the language of the Bible comprehensible to modern Americans, and it is much less awful than some. At least it does not have King Saul entering a cave "to go to the bathroom", as one recent American translation did.

Your new translation has been nicknamed, in America, "the graceless version", because it omits the word "grace" as being too difficult for the modern mind. I'm not sure that this need be a sin: words do change their meanings, and it may be that that "grace" means nothing to modern Americans except as a cow's name, unlikely though this seems. No, if anything deserves the title of "graceless" in your new translation, it is the dialogue, which gets more bizarre the more I read it. Here, for instance, King David gets into a spot of bother over ethnic cleansing:

"After he returned from a raid, David always went to see Achish, who would ask 'Where did you attack today?'

"David would answer, 'Oh, we attacked some desert town that belonged to the Judah tribe.' Sometimes David would say 'Oh, we attacked a town in the desert where the Jerahmeel clan lives,' or 'We attacked a town in the desert where the Kenites live.' That's why David killed everyone in the towns he attacked. He thought, 'If I let any of them live, they might come to Gath and tell what I have really been doing'."

This really is the language of daytime television, or perhaps of the big American news magazines: it is so well pasteurised and homogenised that what lies beneath it can no longer be tasted. This isn't really the fault of the translators. Once you set out to turn the Bible into the language of the modern mass media, you are doomed, however well you do your job. Indeed, the better you do it, the more you are doomed.

The problem is not only that holy texts ought to be incomprehensible, though there is a strong argument that the holy ought to be fenced off from ordinary speech. It is that the Bible in particular, even when comprehensible, is sometimes complicated; and the whole trend of the mass media is to assure us that nothing that really matters can be too complicated; and that everything important can be understood literally.

The effects on the Bible of this shrinkage can be comical: some of us have missed in all translations since the Authorised Version the divine infliction on some uppity Philistines of a plague of haemorrhoids (nowadays bowdlerised as tumours).

Haemorrhoids bring out the intrinsic oddity of God in the way that "tumours" simply can't. But the new, homogenised and pasteurised bibles make the good news as predictable as the bad. It doesn't really help the Word of God to turn it into the soundbite of God.

ANDREW BROWN

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