Friday, June 13, 2008

Book Review: God's Secretaries

Now we enter the "preparing for London/Oxford" section of my summer reading. First up is Adam Nicolson's God's Secretaries, an account of how the King James Bible was translated. The basic message is that good things can come from committees. The translation process was so communal and anonymous that it's very difficult to reconstruct. It came from a society that was truly steeped in words, spoken and written, and that was the single most important factor in making this whole thing work. That and a less-than-strict adherence to literalism, interestingly enough.

The book is enjoyable but the writing seems strangely dense at times -- you're enjoying it and you want to keep finding out about that word and that translation process, but you also want to put it down because you feel vaguely tired by the author's style. I'm not sure how that happened, but it's not just me, I confirmed it with a colleague who's also read the book (or, more precisely, the first part of the book!).

The last part of the book holds the KJV up to more modern translations, which are also communal efforts but focus on getting it to be right rather than getting it to sound right. Some good criticisms in there, although I'm concerned that the deck has been intentially stacked by the author, and I'd like to know what happens with two other translations in particular: The Jerusalem Bible, which I think navigates literalism and beauty particularly well; and The Revised Standard Version, which purports to be derived from the KJV and is the most commonly used by scholars (at least the scholars I read). There are lots of problems with current translations, mostly along the line of "you get what you ask for" and the fact that the Bible is just not read as much, whether singly or communally.

Shakespeare was also a product of this same word-drenched period. So will that time never come again? Can there be no more Shakespeares? I like to think we've gained something with scholarly accuracy, but I do admit that there's something more to the KJV. Reading this book has convinced me to stick with KJV for personal reading for another year or two at least. After all, if it was good enough for Paul and Timothy, it's good enough for me.

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