This year brings us to a great anniversary, which will have special significance for St Edwards, the church I serve in Cambridge. 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible, and two members of the team who made this great translation were members of St Edwards. But our connection goes deeper, for it was at St Edwards, three generations earlier, that people like Bilney, Barnes and Latimer, our three Martyrs, had grasped that the gospel needed translating in the deepest sense, not simply translating out of one language into another, but translating out of paper, and out of ritual, out of the past, translating into people’s lives in the here and now.
Indeed I believe that the very process of Translation goes to the heart of the Chrsitian Faith, because for Christians the Word of God has already made the greatest translation of all, the translation we have just celebrated at Christmas! The eternal Word, whom we could never have known or even apprehended, has translated Himself into our flesh and blood, translated eternity into time, and translated Love into action. For Christ’s followers the sayings of Jesus, the stories of His life enshrined in the scripture, only have their meaning when they are translated into the realities of everyday life, into ordinary conversation and action.
This perpetual and self-renewing translation has always been part of the life and work of St Edwards, and it has always been controversial! F D Maurice, for example, was pilloried for translating the gospel into social action, inclusion of women, education for the poor, and for moving away from the punitive and judgemental mindset that infected the church of his day, but in St Edwards he found a place where he could flourish and a community that would support his work. So, even as we celebrate a great treasure from the past and think of all the good that has come from 400 years of the KJV, we will be looking ahead to the future and seeing how to continue St Edwards historic mission to be a place where an ancient faith gives rise to new understandings and fresh expressions.
So during the course of this year I shall be posting to these pages some reflections on passages in the KJV whose language and phrasing I have found especially helpful but I will also be posting some more general reflections on translation itself, the translation and re-translation of secular as well as sacred texts. I will post some of my own translations of other people’s poetry and also some comments on the translations that have been made of my poems and other writings into different languages. To read what you have written when it is translated into a new language can sometimes be a very enlightening experience. Indeed the poet John Donne believed our own transition from earth to Heaven will be, thanks to Jesus Christ, a kind of translation. I’ll leave the last words of this post with him:
‘All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.’ (John Donne Meditation 17)