Monday, December 27, 2010

King James's Bible: perhaps the greatest work of translation ever

Comment by Daniel Hannan -- who is is a writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the European Union is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free

I can’t be the only English-speaker who suspects, deep down, that the Almighty expressed Himself in the language of the Authorised Version. Even now, I do a double-take when I listen to a biblical passage in another tongue. I struggled to repress a chuckle the other day when I heard Matthew 5:5 rendered as “Bienheureux sont les débonnaires; car ils hériteront la terre.”

Yesterday, the Queen reminded us that her ninth-great-grandfather, James VI & I, had commissioned the translation in the hope of impressing a measure of unity on the various theological currents then swirling about Britain. And, in a sense, he succeeded. The Church of England is unusual among Christian denominations in that it combines an extraordinary heterogeneity of doctrine with political and – until very recently – liturgical conformity.

More than this, though, the Authorised Version, along with the Prayer Book, has shaped our everyday idiom. As Bruce Anderson writes in the current Spectator, few Anglophone atheists can remain indifferent to the cadences of those two works: “‘Dearly beloved’ is one of the loveliest phrases in the language, as is ‘with my body I thee worship’ and many others from the Anglican liturgy.”

Bruce’s article reminded me of the good-natured struggle I had to persuade the vicar to use the unexpurgated 1662 Prayer Book at my own wedding. [I did the same at my last wedding -- JR] Looking back, I think the poor fellow was shy about declaring that marriage is not intended “to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding”. Of course, his embarrassment was itself testimony to the power of the writing.

The Authorised Version and the Book of Common Prayer have defined our language more than any texts except (obviously) Shakespeare’s corpus. A Muslim friend once told me that his religion left little space for miracles. The only supernatural event that he personally accepted, he said, was the dictation of the Koran; and even this miracle required no great leap of faith, since, as an Arabic speaker, he could infer the divine nature of the message from the quality of the language in which it was expressed.

The English and their kindred peoples are, in my experience, rather less spiritual than Arabs, and it would not occur to them to make an equivalent claim. None the less, the Authorised Version stands as perhaps the greatest translation of all time. The day will eventually come when our power dwindles, and all our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre. But as long as English is spoken, and our canon preserved, ours will never be just another country.


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