Faith and Reason: Weak words giving the wrong message: In the fourth in our series of articles on Christian liturgy, the novelist Penelope Lively laments the blandness and inaccuracy of new versions of the Bible and Prayer Book.
Saturday 05 December 1992
The Bible, first. My old black cloth-bound edition is falling apart - a measure of how much, once upon a time, I visited it. It was the basis of narrative, in my eccentric, home-based, expatriate education. And in appreciating the narrative - which is in places a pretty stirring one, if disturbing - I revelled unconsideringly in the language.
I remember rolling those lavish words upon the tongue: 'tabernacle', 'Israelite', 'covenant'. That I didn't know precisely what they meant was neither here nor there. Those majestic cavalcades of clauses reverberated in my head - the antithesis of mundane daily syntax and therefore the more intriguing.
And now look at what today's young may find. Try Genesis, verses 6 and 7. The New International Version first: 'And God said, 'Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.' So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. God called the expanse 'sky'.' The appalling Good News Bible is odder still: 'Then God commanded, 'Let there be a dome to divide the water and to keep it in two separate places.' He named the dome 'Sky'.'.
He did no such thing. He said: 'Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters . . . And God called the firmament Heaven.' Dome? Expanse? The stated purpose of both the Good News Bible and the New International Version is accuracy and clarity. I can see that the word 'firmament' might induce squeamishness; it seems to imply solidity, but is in fact derived from the medieval Latin firmamentum, meaning the sky as fixed above the earth, a concept which is of course significant in itself. Expanse is a limp cop-out; dome suggests a precise construction, and seems entirely misleading. Lost is that evocative word firmament. And why the flight from the term 'heaven'?
It would be possible to quarrel with dozens of such instances of rephrasing that seem to me at the least baffling and at the worst downright wrongheaded. The Good News Bible is by far the most repellent - my edition is adorned throughout with cartoonish little drawings, which seem to underline the cosy, approachable effect that is sought. The introduction to the New International Version makes much of its scholarly credentials where translation is concerned and concludes smugly that 'It may well be that no other translation has been made by a more thorough process of review and revision from committee to committee than this one.' Very likely. But the consequence is dismaying. The resonances of the King James version are lost entirely, and along with them most words that carry any freight of opacity or ambiguity. The expression 'biblical language' must now be meaningless to most people under 40.
The atrocities committed upon the Book of Common Prayer are quite as distressing. Take the Confession: '. . . we have sinned against you and against our fellow men, in thought and word and deed, in the evil we have done and in the good we have not done, through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault. We are truly sorry and repent of all our sins . . .' Bland, prosaic and a fatal diminishment of the original.
I say 'fatal' deliberately, because it seems to me that here the reduction of language also crucially diminishes the purpose of the prayer itself. It displays a fear of hyperbole. 'We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts . . . have mercy upon us miserable offenders.' And with the loss of that strength of language, and the measured piling up of clauses to a celebratory conclusion, there is lost also that climax of purgation and absolution which is surely the whole function of the liturgy. If I were a Christian, I would mourn that loss quite as much as the dilution of the language.
These crass reductions are everywhere. 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,' becomes: 'even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid' (GNB). 'Be fruitful, and multiply and replenish the earth' becomes: 'Have many children, so that your descendants will live all over the earth' (GNB). And as often as not the rewriting seems entirely perverse - novelty for the sake of it. The Alternative Services version of the Venite turns 'In his hand are all the corners of the earth: and the strength of the hills is his also' into 'In his hands are the depths of the earth: and the peaks of the mountains are his also.' Why? What was elusive or inaccurate about the original?
One cannot but feel that an element in the rewriting has been a conviction that all change is for the better, and this I find both arrogant and patronising. The 17th century saw the flowering of the English language; it has not been used with such elegance or accuracy before or since. It is an alarming complacency that allows the Church itself to tamper with it in the interest of accessibility, thereby depriving generations of a prose heritage which is central to an understanding of English literature. And, to my mind, diminishing the message and the ritual in the process.
I find it supremely ironic that my unbaptised grandchildren will probably be introduced to the Bible and the Prayer Book in their archaic splendour by their firmly agnostic grandmother.
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