Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Without Twitting, or Hitting in the Teeth

I read the first two-thirds of Adam Nicolson’s God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible on the M5 going to and from my NY Bar prep course, and the last third over the course of the last two days, after several weeks’ break. While it goes without saying that I remember the last portion best (when I reentered the book, I reentered at the wrong bookmark, and didn’t recognize for three or four pages that I’d already read what I was reading), the bus portions made the biggest impression on me, perhaps because they were ultimately unsatisfying.

Mr. Nicolson, in the end, says very little about the process of translation. Rather, he tries to paint, broadly and specifically, the milieu from which the KJV emerged, from James’ installation on the throne to the Gunpowder Plot and the expulsion and arrest of various separatists. Shakespeare is (necessarily) mentioned, though briefly, and we learn about the personal lives of a few of the more prominent Translators. That so little is said about the translation appears to be because nobody thought to write contemporaneously about the process.

Most valuable, I found, were the section where we read King James’ directions to the translators, a list of rules for them to follow (i.e., “6. Noe marginal notes att all to be affixed, but only for ye explanation of ye Hebrew or Greeke Words, which cannot without some circumlocution soe breifly and fitly be expressed in ye Text” [sic]), and the notes one Translator took in the final committee meeting, as twelve Translators listened to, and made suggestions about, the finished product (someone suggested that James 1:5’s “and upbraideth not” should become “without twitting, or hitting in the teeth,” which, apparently, was vetoed).

KJV is the basis of English literature, its sonorities rising above any version previously or subsequently produced. Mr. Nicolson insists that it could not be translated today, because today we don’t have the faith that the Jacobeans had or, at least, we have nobody who can, without hypocrisy, straddle the divide between true belief and living practically in the world. In this I think he’s wrong, although he is correct that today’s translations, while perhaps more accurate, fail to understand that the poetry is not extraneous to the message, that form and function are inextricable linked. But I better understood him at the end, where he confesses that he is neither atheist nor churchgoer, because he cannot find the Bible’s beauty in church service; Mr. Nicolson wants High Church ceremony the liberal Western Christianity no longer has (ceremony that the Puritans decried in the Jacobean Anglican church as “papist” and unbiblical)—he wants to experience the Jacobean Translators, preaching the language they wrote.