Language and Bible images. Do new translations reflect the `newness' of the Word?

Words and The Word: Language, poetics and biblical interpretation, by Stephen Prickett. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. 305 pp. $39.50. A sincere concern for words should take one back to ``The Word'' - or at least to Stephen Prickett's new book, ``Words and The Word.'' Acknowledging the ``inherent uncertainty of all recorded experience,'' Prickett, a professor at the Australian National University, first addresses problems that have arisen with the plethora of new Bible translations, then provides a magisterial survey of the Bible's role in modern literary history, and concludes with a discussion of ``metaphor and reality.''

It all turns out to be far from academic. A brief summary does scant justice to the sustained energy and pithy eloquence of these pages. It's refreshing to read, for example, about Robert Lowth, one of the most distinguished theologians of the late 18th century and an outstanding Near Eastern scholar. ``To Lowth,'' Prickett writes, ``we owe the rediscovery of the Bible as a work of literature within the context of ancient Hebrew life.'' Lowth's most original scholarly contribution was the rediscovery of Hebrew prosody. He appears to have been the first to notice the technique of ``parallelism,'' now universally accepted as the great principle of biblical form.

Prickett's analysis shows how Lowth influenced not only scholars but poets - especially William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins, but also William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Appreciating Lowth in Prickett's wonderfully well-informed survey helps clear the mind of cant (to paraphrase Samuel Johnson) at a time when the mass media of the Global Village seems to set the standards of communication.

Indeed, ``Words and The Word'' is indispensable for anyone who would understand the verbal situation today. As Prickett argues, the Bible can't be isolated from the context created by texts that draw on it. Furthermore, the Bible itself is ``a palimpsest of languages and contexts meeting and overlapping one another.'' The problems that arise in translating the Bible do not come only from our own age: They are rooted in the complexities of the text. And to simplify those complexities, Prickett argues, is to deform the Bible.

It's also to ignore the recent history of ideas. This is a well-documented study of the splitting off of the study of the Bible from the serious study of literature that goes back to the beginning of the 19th century in Germany. The split is reflected, Prickett argues convincingly, in the ways Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge thought of themselves, and in all subsequent theories of literature, including those that bedevil the universities today, as well as in our readings of the Bible.

Blowing through these thickly documented pages is the spirit of liberal interpretation illustrated by the well-known drawing of Saul Steinberg, shown here. Which is the ``real'' hand, which the ``image''? Compare this to a maze, and you get the point: There's no way out of some ambiguities.

Prickett is no relativist. In his opening discussion, he establishes the norm by quoting Coleridge. Commenting on his attitude toward the Bible, Coleridge said he could not be ``objective'' about a book that constitutes ``a large part of the light and life, in which and by which I see, love, and embrace'' its truths.

The Coleridgian norm is contrasted to the attitude taken by the translators of ``The Good News Bible'' of 1976. In their preface, they say that the task of translating is twofold: understanding ``correctly the meaning of the original,'' then expressing ``that meaning in a manner and form easily understood by the readers.'' Prickett notes that this kind of translation is called ``thought-by-thought'' and observes that it assumes an ``essence'' of meaning that can be grasped apart from the words of the text itself.

Prickett tests these contrasting attitudes against the well-known story from the Elijah cycle in I Kings 19: 8-12. There the presence of the Lord comes to the despairing prophet not in the wind, not in the fire, but in ``a still, small voice.'' Noting the accuracy of the King James version given here, Prickett then comments on successive attempts to turn ``a voice of thin silence'' (a literal translation from Hebrew) into a metaphor, making the voice into a ``sound,'' such as that of a breeze. Of the three major translations he cites, ``not one manages to suggest an inherent pecularity about the event that might indicate a quite new kind of experience,'' Prickett concludes. But Elijah's experience was new, and Elijah's God was showing himself in a new way.

Throughout ``Words and The Word,'' Prickett's primary concern, theoretical and practical, is for the way ``the new'' becomes encoded in language and for what happens to the special language of ``the new'' in translation. (He includes so-called ``miracles'' in the category of the unparaphrasable ``new.'') Is the mystery and freshness of the experience retained in translation? Or is it explained away to suit the conventions and expectations of modern readers? Confronted with an ambiguous passage, the translators of the King James Version said, ``We have not thought that the indefinite sense ought to be defined.''

Aside from tiny proofreading errors, and a possible mistake in accepting a famous etymology of the Greek word for ``truth,'' the book appears to be ``without spot,'' in Ben Jonson's phrase. The theoretical parts are truly theoretical - not arbitrary, discussable. The whole deserves to be read patiently. Theory can be difficult, but, as Prickett points out in another context, for the thinker, sometimes ``failure'' is ``a precondition to growth.''

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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