The flattening of language is a flattening of meaning

I am now reading God’s Secretaries, a great book by Adam Nicolson about the making of the King James Bible. It was a new translation made by a whole team of learned men upon request of King James. This version of the Bible shaped the British history and was shaped by it. Nicolson’s book  is a wonderful reading, but one passage especially attracted my attention as it described what we would call now the workflow of a translation team in the early 17th century England. A copy of a Bible with the translators’ notes and markings was accidentally discovered in a British library.

Here’s an excerpt from Nicolson’s book.

The book which Dr Willoughby discovered was an edition of the Bishops’ Bible printed in 1602. (…) It was acquired by the library in 1646 for 13s 4d and catalogued as “a large Bible wherein is written down all the Alterations of the last translacon”. What no one realised at the time, or for another three centuries, was that this Bible was not only an account of the alterations made; it was an instrument in the translation itself.

As another American scholar, Dr Ward Allen, has shown, one can trace in this Bible the very heart of the process. Marked on its pages are the first suggestions of an individual Translator who had this Bible in his rooms. He would then have taken it to the weekly meeting of his company, where the others would discuss and analyse his choices and decisions. Their comments and corrections were then added. One can read it now like an oscilloscope trace of the very act of translation itself.

This is not the place for a long analysis, but it is instructive to look at one example from Luke. In Luke 1:57, the moment when Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, the herald of Christ, gives birth, the Bishops’ Bible text reads:

Elizabeths time came that she should bee delivered, and she brought forth a son.

This, incidentally, is almost exactly the wording of William Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament. It is an uncomplicated and straight­forward moment, almost certainly too prosaic for Jacobean taste and, in one minute particular, inaccurate. The King James Trans­lator on his own in his room marked the verse very carefully with Greek letters, as follows:

кElizabeths time λcame that she should bee delivered, and she brought forth a son.

and in the margin beside it wrote ‘k Now1 and ‘λ was fulfilled’ with the intention presumably that the verse should read:

Now Elizabeths time was fulfilled that she should bee delivered, and she brought forth a son.

That is the suggestion he took to the weekly meeting. His co-Translators didn’t entirely like what he had done. They accepted his inclusion ‘Now’, translating a word which is in the Greek, and giving an extra flick both of vitality and of conver­sational engagement to the verse, the storyteller drawing you in. But his other suggestion was rejected. The phrase was fulfilled’ was a brave attempt at just the kind of lexical enrichment the Jacobeans enjoyed, and on which the King James Bible, almost subliminally, often relies. It carries a double hidden pun: not only had the time come for Elizabeth’s son to be born, but she was both filled full with the child in her womb and fulfilled in her role and duty as the mother of the Baptist.

The idea is marvellous but the word is not quite right, a little dense, even a little technical. So ‘was fulfilled’ is crossed out in the margin and replaced with ‘full time came’. As a result, the reading in the King James Bible, with which the English-speaking world has been familiar ever since, is Tyndale plus first Oxford Translator plus revision by the Oxford company:

Now Elizabeths full time came that she should bee deliuered, and she brought forth a sonne.

It is undoubtedly the best, more accurate for its inclusion of ‘Now’ and wonderfully subtle in the phrase they landed on. ‘Full time came’ is irreproachably English, simple, accessible, conceptually rich, as full of potent and resonant meanings as Elizabeth was with child. In Jacobean English, full can mean plump, perfect and overbrimming, and all of those meanings are here. It is difficult to imagine anything being better done, but it wasn’t thought good enough for the twentieth-century trans­lators of the New English Bible. They settled on:

Now the time came for Elizabeth’s child to be born, and she gave birth to a son.

That is a descent to dreariness, to a level of banality below Tyndale’s, perhaps even unaware of what the second Oxford company’s subtle minds had given them. The modern world had lost the thing which informs every act and gesture of Hatfield, of the King James Bible, and of that incomparable age: a sense of encompassing richness which stretches unbroken from the divine to the sculptural, from theology to cushions, from a sense of the beauty of the created world to the extraordinary capabili­ties of language to embody it.

This is about more than mere sonority or the beeswaxed heritage-appeal of antique vocabulary and grammar. The flat­tening of language is a flattening of meaning. Language which is not taut with a sense of its own significance, which is apologetic in its desire to be acceptable to a modern consciousness, language in other words which submits to its audience, rather than in­structing, informing, moving, challenging and even entertaining them, is no longer a language which can carry the freight the Bible requires. It has, in short, lost all authority. The language of the King James Bible is the language of Hatfield, of patriarchy, of an instructed order, of richness as a form of beauty, of auth­ority as a form of good; the New English Bible is motivated by the opposite, an anxiety not to bore or intimidate. It is driven, in other words, by the desire to please and, in that way, is a form of language which has died.


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