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“The Four Evangelists”, 1625-1630, by Jacob Jordaens

I’m walking down Piccadilly and my phone buzzes. An email. The New Testament. A new translation. 577 pages. And in English, my language.

People have been burnt at the stake for bringing the vernacular into the country and now it’s popped up into my inbox as I pass the Royal Academy. Legions of spies have been dispatched to seize treacherous translators; now David Bentley Hart has done this with total impunity.

Receive my confession: my spiritual life has of late been threadbare, even non-existent. Part of the problem, and maybe this is to cast blame, is that the text supposed to enliven my spirit, to shake up the day and re-orientate the week, to provide relief in times of tension and clarity in confusion, has for me become ossified into familiarity. The words of my various translations were no longer carrying their weight; and — brute that I am — I don’t have the Greek that would let me return ad fontes. The preface to the Book of Common Prayer recommends that, “by the daily hearing of holy scripture the people might continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God and be inflamed.” For me that was no longer the case.

But now David Bentley Hart has brought the Bible back to life. Drawing upon a lifetime’s scholarship (the foremost theologian in America today, Hart reads Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and Syriac), he has, as he says, sought to produce “a pitilessly literal translation”, hoping to “make the familiar strange, novel, and perhaps newly compelling”.

Vocabulary is changed up, for a start. Christ become The Anointed, throughout. Eternal Life becomes The Life of the Age. World is Cosmos. Blessed is Blissful. The effect is to pull you up at every juncture, to slow down your reading.

Prayer, too, had for me become devoid of meaning. The template, the Lord’s Prayer, felt tired. So, again, Hart’s translation has come as a revelation:

Our Father, who are in the heavens, let your name be held holy; Let your Kingdom come; let your will come to pass, as in heaven so also upon earth; Give to us today bread for the day ahead; And excuse us our debts, just as we have excused our debtors; And do not bring us to trial, but rescue us from him who is wicked. For yours is the Kingdom and the power and the glory unto the ages.

The prose is clunkier, less neat, more contorted, ramshackle, and thereby all the more authentic. The “daily bread” we’re all so used to is so abstract. “Bread for the day ahead” can focus my thoughts better. And what is a “trespass” if you’re no poacher? Hart opts for “debt”.  Okay. Now that’s something I can work with. This phenomenon I know — being in the grip of feeling someone owes me because they wronged me. I guess my spirituality felt at-one-remove from reality. Not now.
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Jeff Cannell
February 7th, 2018
2:02 PM
What a stellar commendation of this translation. There seems to be a unending battle between dynamic equivalence and a more literal jarring translation. I find this rather disconcerting. I like to switch it up between the two. Both disruption and familiarity can serve as tools to nurture the soul. Much like the vow of stability as well as the pilgrimage can nurture the soul while seemingly being at odds with one another. Would love to have a beer with Wright and Hart alongside of many who have spiritually benefited from their translation work swapping Jesus stories in lieu of translation method arguments.

February 7th, 2018
12:02 AM
Fantastic! Rarely does a review connect on so many levels - the artistic beauty of the work, it's faithfulness to the original, it's unavoidable agenda - Mumford unpacks it all. I am all the more glad I bought the book, wary of its agenda, delighting in its beauty, and motivated to dive in. Thank you for a superb review.

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