Monday, April 02, 2007
Books! The GOOD book!
We hear at Stevereads hope someday to write as rattling good a yarn as the Bible. It really is the trump, as Bertie Wooster (or Sebastian, if you want to bring in fictional characters) might say: it's got romance (though doomed and too often fraught with leprosy), action (including feats of espionage, derring-do, and high adventury, a disproportionate number of which deal with leprosy), a healthy bracing of moral precepts (including how badly you have to screw up to get leprosy), and a helpful smattering of hygiene tips (leprosy again). Considering its perennial spot atop the international bestseller lists, anybody could be forgiven for wishing they'd written it themselves. Even J.K. Rowling, it may be somewhat doubtingly proposed, must envy God.
Still, He gets the credit: the Earth, the Heavens, Sudoku, and ... the greatest book of 'em all.
Of course Biblical scholars (including my esteemed colleague Bathsheba) will say the Bible isn't, in fact, a book - that it's a compendium of books, a library between two covers. As such, it would seem to call for a brace of entirely different, entirely separate translators, each slaving away on their separate works. Alas, this wonderfully various Bible (a spectacular IDEA, in case any of the publishing hotshots who routinely monitor this site are wondering whom to credit with it) has yet to be made, so we're left with all the other efforts out there - from the almost unbelievable, heroically solitary efforts of errant individuals (William Tyndale and Desiderius Erasmus, take a bow!) to the austere corporate board-members throughout the ages who've come together, sometimes under uncomfortably intense scrutiny, to do the job together. The original texts are an almost unbelievable mish-mash, especially if you're trying to be philologically trustworthy to them all, and even moreso if some of them are linguistically impenetrable to you personally. Erasmus, for instance, tried very hard to wrap his mind around Hebrew (well, tried as hard as he was inclined to, which, after three ages of Latin and, gawd help us, ancient Greek, might not have been all that much), but he ended up relying more than was perhaps seemly on previous dog-eared Latin translations of the Old Testament.
There are about six humans alive on the planet today who can read up on the Bible in all its original texts and incarnations. Everybody else - including, we suspect, all you loyal ewoks out there reading this entry - have to rely on the artificial products of other brains.
And such an array of artificial products! Bibles are a growth industry like no other in publishing, with shelf upon shelf of different choices before the wary potential reader.
Most of these choices aren't really choices at all, just infinite permutations on the current fad of boneheaded niche-penetration: the black woman's Bible, the teen Bible, the lesbian Bible, the diabetic's Bible, ad nauseum. Also, a vast number of Bibles in bookstores today - especially those spawned and embraced by American evangelism - can scarcely be called Bibles at all, they've been so bowdlerized and contemporized and simplified (all with the goal in mind of making the Bible a COMFORTABLE book, something it never has been and never could be).
No, what we're really talking about here is SCHOLARLY EDITIONS of the Bible, for readers who want to take it seriously as a work (or many works) of literature. Some of you will know that we here at Stevereads have an abiding preference for the venerable King James version, its rolling cadences of gorgeous prose and verse still as thunderously good as when they were first assembled.
But we realize that some of those rolling cadences will sound a trifle archaic to the modern ear, and so we recommend the Jerusalem Bible, our candidate for the best of all 'modern' Bibles.
La Bible de Jerusalem was first published in French and given a definitive accompanying English translation in 1966, long before any of us were born. It has generous notes and maps and introductions and critical apparati, all of which will be a boon to modern readers. But the main thing we here at Stevereads like about it, naturally enough, is the clean, dignified sweep of its freshened prose. Modern readers have enough obstacles to enjoying the Bible as a work (or many works) of literature - surely grappling with Jacobean syntax should be left to the real enthusiasts.
Here are a few examples, to give you all a better idea of what kind of differences we're talking about. Take this helpful injunction, from that laff-riot of a book, Deuteronomy:
"When two men are fighting together, if the wife of one of them intervenes to protect her husband from the other's blows by putting out her hand and seizing the other by the private parts, you shall cut her hand off and show no pity."
Here's the corresponding passage in the good old King James:
"When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one putteth forth her hand and taketh him by the secrets, then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her."
Or take another example, this one from a New Testament assurance made by Jesus:
"Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light."
Here's the King James:
"Come unto me, all ye who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
Of course, no amount of modernizing can 'improve' on perfection, and sometimes the King James is simply perfect. So although we here at Stevereads heartily recommend the Jerusalem Bible the next time it crosses your path in a used bookstore, we'll end this long-delayed entry with a comparison in which it's conspicuously the loser. We're fickle that way.
From the Jerusalem Bible:
Yahweh is my shepherd,
I lack nothing.
In meadows of green grass he lets me lie.
To waters of repose he leads me;
There he revives my soul.
He guides me by paths of virtue
for the sake of his name.
Though I pass through a gloomy valley,
I fear no harm;
beside me your rod and staff
are there, the hearten me.
You prepare a table before me
under the eyes of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil,
my cup brims over.
Ah, how goodness and kindness pursue me,
every day of my life;
my home, the house of Yahweh,
as long as I live!
And the King James:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies
Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.