August 7, 2022

Recovering the powerful poetry of translating the Bible in the 16th century [Unscripted column] | Entertainment


I say this as a lay person: Read the Bible. It will make you a better writer.

The more biblical prose there is in you, the less likely you are to write a really bad English sentence. Don’t take my word for it; try it.

But you’ll need a very old translation, written over a century where writers, even clergymen, have instinctively felt how to make sense of their sentences with the right rhythm and metrics.

William Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament, for example. It sits between Chaucer and Shakespeare. His pen is sensitive to the uplift and slippage of the English language in its vigor. And it includes the mastery of a poet: the precise and graceful arrangement of sounds.

If you know a modern Bible, try the same stories in Tyndale. The voices will know how to support you, especially the little ones.

“Lord at this time, it stinks. “

“… the baby burst into her womb.”

“Zache attonce come doune for daye I must abyde at your house.”

For the latter, a modern interpretation has something like “Zacchaeus, hurry up and go downstairs because today I have to stay with you.”

(Zachy was a stocky, honest guy who ran a tavern in Jericho. He invaded a tree to rise above the tallest heads when the city turned out to be watching the new prophet. And the prophet has it. spotted and called him by name and told him to come home and get ready for a special client.)

Part of the effect comes from the charming quirks of 16th century spelling and composition, but mostly from the sound. Jesus in robust 16th-century English doesn’t quite have the same tone as bland 20th-century Jesus. (I deliberately chose one of the worst moderns.)

The voices change register. Tyndale’s Jesus sounds totally vigorous and alive. He is more demanding and he is more familiar. It treats the Bible as literature, not scriptures. But, as poets know, sound makes up about a third of what we call meaning. I leave it to the preachers to know what to think of it.

Powerful writing

Tyndale’s version is more potent than the plain dishwater of the other text because it packs some of its power into the ups and downs of the speaking voice. Modern translation never seems to think of being heard, even though it is one of the books most often read aloud.

“Zache attonce come doune …” Read it aloud: It scans. Firm and well-spaced dactyls give the order to occupy themselves, then the anapestes rush in. It is dramatic poetry. It is literature, in a way the other, by its unconsciousness, can never be.

When spoken, words flow in measured and varying times. He chose them for the length of their syllables and the balance of stress as well as for their meaning. They are pleased by the rules of regularity and by the astute violation of those rules. They make simple sorrow more plaintive, noble thoughts more memorable.

This word flow is not a classroom study. It is as human as the dance and the drum. Young children seem to respond instinctively. Hip-hop rhymes are brilliantly aware of a few qualities.

Ruskin taught the full range using elementary musical notation and popular 18th-century Scottish border ballads. For a negative example, try anything from Black Sabbath, who botches it so regularly and perfectly that they have to try.

The art that elevated Tyndale’s New Testament to literature is all that modern translations drop in the pursuit of simplicity. Alright, they do a different job for a different time than William Tyndale, tried for heresy on the mainland 10 years after this translation, strangled to death this fall while tied to the stake, where his corpse was then burned.

Years before, Tyndale had told a senior Church official who sniffed him for heresy that, if he, Tyndale, had the chance, “he would make a boy who drives the plow know more about it. the Scriptures that (the priest) did not make. “

He was ahead of his time, but only a little. Less than four years after his death, four English translations of the Bible came off English presses, on the orders of the king who had wanted Tyndale killed.

All were based on Tyndale’s work. Tyndale chose the diction from our Bible; King James’ translators, nearly a century later, kept his word choices, with some corrections, and improved metrics.

Usually. In the Our Father, Tyndale’s “forgive those who offend us” is far better than the whispers of “offending us”. The transitive use of “intrusion” is strange, but the meaning is clear. But I leave the rest to theologians.

“Zachy, come down right now.” You can feel poor Zachy’s heart racing with a shake.

“Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.