Scripture and Texts

I have this problem. I hold the Scriptures to be Holy, to contain in one sense or another the mind of God expressed through his donated words. That means in effect they make God accessible to me, and afford me directives as to my understanding, happiness and duty. As in ‘Simon Says’, God’s imperative voice is absolute.

Yet the transmission of that voice through media that render it almost infinitely relative. It comes strained through a thousand translations. And the very words used in translations are themselves subject to erosion and decay.

That is my problem. Like other whole-hearted believers. I do not just want the Scriptures to be simple, unambiguous and easy to understand: I need them to be so. The jots and tittles of God are crucial, and I cannot afford any manky scholarship to come between them and my own understanding, shifty as it is.

The business of translating Scripture in the general insufficiency of one language trying to do the work of another. Even related languages are flawed with family misunderstandings. When I bought a ‘flan’ in France that should have been cheese and egg and it turned out to be a custard tart, I thought there was some universal force in the deceit, something that went back to Babel and an Olympian snigger. It is as if every word of translation should carry a sticker saying caveat emptor.

And, of course, it is an historico-mythological fact that we have no pre-Babelian language to compare our tongues with, our modern tongues with their built-in confusion and obsolescence. Yet it is exactly something like that, a language so clear and precise that it cannot be misunderstood, that any translator is aiming at, and believes - against all experience - to be possible. Without that delusion he would not begin: without that fantasy he could not continue.

The situation for the translator, and those dependent on him like the preacher and teacher, would be impossible if it were not for the compensation God permitted the sons and daughters of Babel. To some he had charged with the responsibility of proffering his word he gave the gift of inspiration: the prophet spoke the word of God with the breath of God, though in his own disabled speech.

And what obtained for the prophets and poets of the past also obtains for the translators of those ancient voices, now venerable who in their own day were vilified, if the translator be fit for his task. I therefore make a distinction between the individual scholar, or the committee of scholars, or the representative conference of scholars, working away and voting on every word and rhythm, and the quixotic fool with a bee in his bonnet and the Holy Ghost breathing down his neck.

By this image I am able to satisfy my own understanding as to why Tyndale and Coverdale are such seemingly sufficient translators while so many other triers fail to improve on them. It is this conviction that is the ground of such like-mindedness that makes for a Tyndale Society. Yet Tyndale for all his personal and scholarly heroics, and despite the Holy Ghost, has not left us perfection. Had he lived I believe he would have added inspired revisions to his inspired text, and that for as long as he lived.

But that is where my problem finds its focus. Why does the absolute word of God submit itself through the relative words of man? Why is Holy Scripture, however we have it, always inadequate? Why does the Holy Ghost come potted in earthen vessels?

It is my problem because I do not know the answer. God knows.

But I do know this. Translators who seek to catch the essence of scripture by verbal sense alone, by denotation, and by occasional connotation, of particular words, and by picking on semantic near-equivalents, without the charge of afflatus (or holy breath) are missing an essential element. This is that inward power of word or phrase that permits the reader, on some particular occasion, to realise that this word is meant for me, now. The momentary realisation comes as a shock, a shock and a reward. The same passage a week later has regained its old opacity, but the memory of the living word survives, the knowledge of the present voice of God as vivid as a bush that burns without consuming.

What I cannot tell is whether this works through words that are artistically fine and bold. Presumably God is able to use the trite and the banal in the same way. If he does, and you can give me an example, I should be pleased if you would, it would assist my understanding.

This little essay - no, I think it is a letter - arises from a verse I read in the Coverdale Psalter this morning:

Yea, the darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day. (Psalm 139, v.11).

Gordon Jackson, September 2000

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