Book Report: God's Secretaries
3 December 2004, 7:44 PM
First off, when Your Humble Blogger first put God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible on the want-to-read list, it was from a half-heard public radio thing, and not because the author is Harold Nicolson’s grandson. It turns out, though, that Adam Nicolson has written a book that I could well imagine Harold Nicolson writing, which is praise and criticism enough. And what I mean by that, for Gentle Readers who haven’t read H.N.’s biographies, is that it’s researched deeply but sloppily, and not footnoted, so it’s quite frustrating to read, if you’ve gotten used to non-fiction that’s more or less academic. He quotes from things without identifying them, and he describes things based on—what—some sort of primary source material, we assume, and a writer’s imagination. He’s clearly immersed himself in the original source material, and then convinced himself he has a sense of it, a sense of the people and of their relation to each other, and then he writes about them almost as if he were telling stories about his uncles. One thing I found particularly annoying was his habit of divining character traits from portraits, seeing stubbornness or ambition or curiosity in somebody’s painted eyes or forehead or beard. So be warned; this is one fellow’s interpretation of the Translators and the translation, well-researched, but scarcely scholarly.
That said, I found it fascinating. I knew next to nothing about Jacobean England (not my period, doncha know), and also next to nothing about the KJV (used Hertz in shul, and the Oxford Annotated RSV in school). So a lot of this stuff was new to me, and really enlightening. His main point, I think, is that King James (the sixth and first) was trying to unite the kingdoms not just politically but ecclesiastically. In context, there isn’t really a good distinction; King James is the head of the Church of England, a United Kingdom must be united under him and under his episcopate, and a challenge to one is a challenge to both. Mr. Nicolson insists that James’ intention is fundamentally irenic (one of Mr. Nicolson’s favorite words, evidently meaning more or less ‘conciliatory’ as opposed to ‘confrontational’).
There were, it seems, two serious challenges to the C of E in 1604 or so: first, of course, the Catholics, but also the Puritans. The Catholics might well challenge his kingship, but the Puritans in challenging the church hierarchy were challenging kingship itself. An official English Bible furthers the distance to Rome simply by being in English, but also by being official enforces the church hierarchy and tradition. And, of course, the King gets to choose the Translators, who are drawn from the Best and the Brightest of conservative C of E men, most of whom are themselves high up in the very hierarchy the Puritans despise.
So, when deciding whether Peter is the Rock on which the church is built, or on which the congregation is built, the good Translators naturally chose the former. Some of those who chose the latter (Congregationalists, and so on) were viciously persecuted and fled to the New World. All of which is totally new to me, and totally fascinating to me.
There are other points I had never thought of. The consequences to this translation of a vicious terrorist attack in the heart of London (foiled, fortunately), funded by a shadowy network of fanatical papists. The tiny world of ecclesiastical/academic Bright Boys, all of whom were at school together and got each other jobs in cathedrals, colleges and councils of translators. The committee work that gets this sort of thing done.
Finally, he emphasizes that this is a translation meant to be read ritually. It’s not a translation meant to be read silently by yourself, or to be studied. It’s meant to be part of the liturgy, and the choices of language are liturgical choices. We think, in a way, that the purpose of translating the bible is to make it easy to understand. The Xtreme Teen bible is risible but is in effect the idea of the RSV and most of the twentieth-century translations. The language of the KJV wasn’t the language of the Jacobean street or even the Jacobean courts and colleges, nor was it meant to be. This was something different, this was Scripture, and just the sound of it should be moving.
The sound of it, Mr. Nicolson argues, is the sound of majesty. That’s the sound the Translators were striving for, and the political effect as well. The more majestic the Scripture is, the more they are His Majesty’s scripture. All of this, of course, despite the King not being very majestic himself. And, of course, Mr. Nicolson’s sense of majesty comes in part from hearing the Scripture read at school chapel in majestic surroundings and in majestic voice. One of the most annoying things about the book is his habit of simply printing a verse in the KJV next to Tyndale or the New English and saying ‘see how much better it is?’ Well, sometimes I see it, but sometimes I don’t. He clearly thinks the majesty of the language is self-evident, but it isn’t, always, at least not to me. Of course, all scripture in translation sounds weak to me. I don’t have enough Hebrew to translate as I go, but the experience of following in Hebrew as the reader chants the actual thousand-year-old words and tunes is my own formative experience of Scripture, which the King James Version can’t match.
And Your Humble Blogger seems to have made it to the end of this note without quoting Amy-Jill Levine’s line about how reading the Scriptures in translation is like making love fully dressed. Dang.