Saturday, January 9, 2016

St. Paul in the Trenches, Part 1 of 2

**Note, this is the 1st of 2 posts on the GWC Bible Translation - otherwise known as "St Paul in the Trenches".

While I do appreciate the feel of imitation leather and wispy paper, I often use a Bible App on my phone while at church.  (No, I’m not checking my fantasy football teams…..usually).  I’m not partial to any one translation and like having the option to flip through a few different versions on a given Sunday.

Now if I had to settle on a single translation it’d be the NRSV (though the app that I use doesn't have it).  My pastor uses the NKJV (having moved on from the NIV after many years, as have I), so when I want to follow along word for word I’ll go with that one.  The NET, CEB, HCSB, and the Message are some of the other translations that I’ll commonly use.  At other times I’ll turn to a translation that’s quite unfamiliar to me: the Orthodox Jewish Bible, the Tree of Life Bible, the Jubilee Bible.

While scanning the different translations available on the app, I noticed the GWC Translation - ”St. Paul From the Trenches 1916" - a translation of only 1st and 2nd Corinthians and the first 4 chapters of Ephesians.

And I love it.

By saying that “I love it”, I don’t want to imply that my relationship with the Bible is akin to a love affair, because it’s not.  Far from it actually. To be honest, I don’t buy ”the Bible as a Love Letter" trope - it strikes me as being rather…..(to keep things amicable)……disengaged with the actual text of the Bible. No, my relationship with the Bible is as messy and confusing as the Bible itself (whichever canon).  And yet something of this translation has fixed itself to me.

Now, I'm aware of the difficulty in translating the biblical texts.

Translators bring their own complex and highly personal theological presuppositions to the translation process.  They don't check their human selves at the door, passing through a magical sieve leaving only a mind purged of all but pure unsullied objectivity, masters standing over and above a perspicuous text.  Translations are thus inextricably tangled up with translators.  This is true no matter the time nor place nor stature of the translator.  Translation is thus as much an art as it is a science, a process involving the whole person and the person's surroundings.  That is, it involves words.

I’ve grown to love words, to appreciate their beauty and power, that beauty and power being found in both their precision and in their wideness.  They live and breathe, communicate what was, what is, what could be.  They connect people, a medium by which experiences are intimately shared and by which they live on.  A gift for words is truly a wonderful gift.  I admire the creative ability of the architects who build and create with the raw materials of these squiggly lines.

For all the perceived solidity of the finished product, however, words are also a dynamic thing; connected to culture, tied to symbols and experiences.  In the end though, they’re mere blots of ink spoken movements of air that have no meaning in and of themselves, no substance outside of shared experience and comprehension.  Language is born, it changes and evolves, and it dies.  A word or phrase that may once have been provocative or subversive may, over time, become stale or impotent.  As human understanding of reality grows and changes, language must grow and change with it.

So while the various Bible translations may ring at roughly the same frequency, they aren’t identical.  They simply aren’t.  Not only do they communicate different things, they each possess a unique timbre - a rhythm, order, and tone of their own that may resonate with the reader/listener in different ways *even when* they’re communicating something *substantially* similar.    One or two English words rendered differently, removed, added, put in a different order, etc. can significantly alter the meaning of a text.

Suffice it to say, it’s a conscious choice for me to turn to a number of different translations.

Back to St. Paul in the Trenches.

It has a cool backstory.

Gerald Warre Cornish, a professor of Ancient Greek at Manchester University, England in the early 20th century, is the author of the GWC. Cornish joined the English army during WW1 (I'm uncertain as to whether he was drafted or joined of his own accord), achieved the rank of Major, and was killed in action on September 16, 1916 at the age of 41.  Cornish began his translation of St Paul's letters during active service using only a Greek New Testament and King James Bible. The muddied journal housing the translation that later came to be known as "St. Paul in the Trenches" was found on his body, the words having quite literally been put to paper "in the trenches" of the "war to end all wars".

I’ve spent some time thinking about this backstory.

These are not words inked in the safety or sophistication of a warm library of dark wood, or bathed in the tranquility of firelight.  Flickering tongues of fire danced on a battlefield rather than within a hearth of sturdy brick.  There are no scholarly notes.  No board of directors nor co-translators.

It was penned in the midst of darkness, death, suffering, fear, and loss.  Bullets whizzing by. Bombs exploding. Cold, dirty, muddy.  Lonely.  I don’t believe this to be a sensationalized overstatement.

Does that matter?  What sort of timbre emerges from this muck and mire?  What rhythm, order, and tone?

Read part 2

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