John Walsh: The Bible Society's debt to Arthur C Clarke?

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The Independent Online

Well, who'd have thought it? The Bible Society is in the news and they're still bringing the good news about Jesus to the furthest-flung bits of the world. The Society has been around since 1804. It started life in a London tavern, and its first translation was to render St John's Gospel into Canadian Indian Mohawk. I assume the Mohawks were grateful. At all events, word spread, donations poured in and over the next 50 years the Society supplied 28 million copies of Holy Writ in 152 languages and dialects.

Viewed from our modern, atheistic perspective, the global dissemination of the world's best-selling book is a rare phenomenon. It's astonishing to think of the million pungent stories, myths, legends, proverbs and jeremiads, and the blizzard of metaphysical bollocks, that this one printed work has brought to the most uncivilised parts of the globe. Without it, whole societies might have evolved, over the last 200 years, without knowing a thing about the vengeful, demanding, capricious, homophobic, merciless and tyrannical Supreme Being of the World, as described in the Old Testament. Innumerable tribes of indentured labourers might never have learnt that their reward for obedience lay in Heaven and they could expect nothing much on Earth except slavery and sweat, had it not been for the Bible and the missionaries that bore it to the outer reaches of the Empire.

The Society has always had a collector's instinct for new languages to translate the Bible into. During the First World War, they managed 32 new languages; in the Second World War, it was 29. They distributed 3 million Bibles in China in 1917, bringing to 3 million tyrannised agricultural coolies the reassuring advice to turn the other cheek if anyone struck them.

Now, as the Independent reported yesterday, a team of computer whizzes has created an advanced programme of translations: the software can deal with the most obscure languages on earth. There are in fact 4,400 languages still waiting for a translation of Genesis, once the Bible Society has discovered what the local patois name for "God" might be. Once it would have taken centuries. Thanks to the Society's Paratext software, it could take months.

But hang on – am I alone in being spooked, when young, by an Arthur C Clarke short story called The Nine Billion Names of God? In it, two American computer boffins travel to a monastery in Tibet, where the monks have toiled for centuries to encode the names of God that exist in all the world's languages; they believe that the Universe was created to discover all the names of God – and that, when the list is complete, the whole point of the Universe will be over. The naming process would have taken the monks thousands of years, so they rent a computer to speed things up.

The visiting boffins are afraid that the monks may cut up rough when they discover, after all their labours, that the world doesn't end, so the scientists decide to fly home just as the research is ending. En route to the airfield, they calculate that the last of the nine billion names is being written down. Someone shouts "Look!" The last line is: "Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out."

Oo-er. Someone should have a quiet word with the Bible Society without delay.



There's nothing trashy about Carla



Speaking of languages, what a charming première femme Carla Bruni-Sarkozy is turning out to be. I like the way a steady drip of smut has hit the press and screen media ever since she got near the President. Her 1996 appearance on Eurotrash (now available on YouTube) is rather sweet, as she explains to Antoine des Caunes and Jean-Paul Gaultier the importance of Hot International sex guides on your travels. To demonstrate, she shows them how to say, "Do you like my titties" and "Put your finger in my bottom" in four languages. "The video," says some spoilsport at the Elysée Palace, "throws a disappointing shadow over the dignity of the position of the First Lady."

Oh, I don't know. Presidential banquets would be much more fun if the head of state sitting beside Ms Bruni spends dinner wondering if she knows this phrase or that phrase in his native tongue.



A perfect storm



My son Max has flown off at last on his gap-year travels: he left on Sunday, flying BA from Heathrow to Bangkok. Do you see the number of perils contained in those few short words? For 10 days before his departure, we gibbered with nerves about how much could go wrong. BA was on strike and his flight would be cancelled; then BA wasn't; then it was. The unpronounceable volcano was re-erupting and British airspace would be unavailable to 18-year-olds with rucksacks; then it settled down again; then it was back up again. In Bangkok, the Red Shirt protestors were keeping the police busy; then some were being shot; then even more were shot by police. The Foreign Office warned all travellers to steer clear of Bangkok unless their journey was crucial (that means you, sonny.)

On some evenings, three consecutive items on the News at Ten seemed designed specifically to screw up Max's travel plans. Miraculously, everything turned out OK. But next month, after exhausting the splendours of Thailand's islands, he's off to Cuba. Given his record so far, his visit will probably coincide with the assassination of Castro by a squad of British mercenaries, Havana airport will close down, while in the Isla de la Juventud, an unexpected volcano will start to rumble....

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