The Guardian Unlimited Arts Blog is sort of hurting for page views, I guess. Please do visit their rather interesting site more often so they don’t have to publish ridiculous works like Sam Jordison’s review of the Bible. I think it’s safe to say he’s unimpressed.
The literary quality of the Bible is an issue that I think is worth addressing. Firstly, there’s the simple point that if the Bible really were the word of God, you’d think that He would be able to make it more interesting. Secondly, there’s a war being waged against reason at the moment and it’s gone time that reason started landing a few punches of its own. Why not freely state the obvious, but hitherto rarely mentioned, truth? The Good Book is not, as is so often suggested, a damn good read. It’s crap. If the two Testaments tell the greatest story ever told, I am a monkey (and not just the distant descendant of one).
Now, Jordison does make one decent critical observation in his otherwise junior-high-school-ish essay. He points out, in reminder, that the Bible is a work of translation. With any great non-English work of literature I often wonder what I’ve fallen in love with, the work, or the translation. Jordison suggests that, in this case, us lovers of the Bible have fallen in love with the translation. Our otherwise keen critical senses, so sharp when reading Dostoevsky or Chekov, have left us too dull-witted to see past the translators gloss.
Or if not gloss, careful shine. The Bible has had a sort of checkered history when it comes to translation but it’s been a long one. I’m not sure if any other collection of ancient documents has been under such intense scrutiny, much of it under people who would like to see the object of study destroyed. Regardless of your opinion of the truth of the thing (which itself involves sensitivity to literary style often missing in these sort of arguments) suggesting that one of the most carefully translated foreign works on the planet, editions existing both gussied-up and dressed-down, is hiding behind overly-benign translation sounds, well, ridiculous.
Of course, I don’t really know, do I? I don’t read Hebrew or Greek. I have to take this sort of thing on authority — and you know me, I love checking with the authorities. For an interesting experiment in Biblical translation with important literary connections I’d recommend The Book of J by Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg. The bulk of the book is pretty much an introduction by the always entertaining Bloom to the last chapter, Rosenberg’s attempt at a very literal translation of the hypothesized J Document, the earliest textual strand in the first six books of the Bible. Rosenberg’s translation tries to tease this strand, the J Document, out of the hands of it’s later editors. His translation leaves it very ironic and very rough — often ignoring English grammar for a presumed foreign sound — and contains no gloss whatsoever. And there’s no denying it’s literary qualities.