The Message Bible--A translator's conundrum

“Poems are not perfect crimes. Too often, meaning is reduced to a feat of amateur detection which assumes that a poem is a kind of murder or a jewel theft, with a corpse, a hidden weapon, and a blueprint of the plumbing, all of which can be logically deduced by any Englishman with a large magnifying glass and credentials from Scotland Yard. But poems are not perfect crimes, for all their apparatus of passion, intention, and obsessive ingenuity in transforming fantasy into experience and experience into fantasy. Their procedure is vascular or sonal, rather than rational. They move like snails under a shell, carrying the coiled weight of their language over a sensitive paraphernalia of sticky horns and protoplasm in little bursts and thrusts, leaving the glistening accident of their chemistry behind them. Meaning is the trail of the snail.”--Ben Belitt

“The translation of poetry can never exceed the enigma of it, and be true.” --Ben Belitt

I’d like to discuss The Message Bible, a translation that has become extremely popular. It is written as a kind of “street language,” in a common tongue, easily understood and read. That is its mission, in a sense, to deliver the message of the Bible into thoughts that are easily grasped, and implied, easily propounded. Here is an example, from Galatians 3, The Message in red, NIV in blue:

The Message: Let me put this question to you: How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? 3 Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren’t smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it? 4 Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing? It is not yet a total loss, but it certainly will be if you keep this up!

NIV: I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? 4 Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain?

An important point here is to understand that neither of the above (and one could also include the KJV, ESV, or any other English translation) is actually the Bible. The Bible, always to be regarded as a library of books, not one book, is a result of a kind of “cutting and pasting” from thousands of versions of artefacts collected over hundreds of years. These artifacts are mostly in Greek and Hebrew. They, in order to be read in English, must be translated. Therefore, it is important to have some idea of translation theory as you pick and choose among the variety of Bibles out there.

There are a number of translations that seek a word-for-word style of translation. Is this possible, even? What are words? What is language? These are questions at the very heart of translation theory, at the very heart of humanity itself, for what is it to be human if we do not have the tool of language?

Let’s view words as little Russian nesting dolls, dolls filled with “meaning.” Not just one meaning, since this isn’t mathematics we are talking about. The meaning within even just one doll has within it another doll--these are nesting dolls, remember. Each word has multiple dolls within it, some many, some less. Some are so filled with other dolls that we wonder if we'll ever reach the final doll. In any case, let’s color our dolls red, to indicate Greek. We wish to re-color all these dolls to a blue color, to indicate English. How best to do that? Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message (and please don’t make the mistake that it is not he himself who is the author, not God Itself), reads the Bible as a story, and he himself has told us that he believes that we all as human beings create our stories, that we live our stories--this is how we perform our human lives. This is how we give meaning to life. We. Create. Stories. How wonderful to hear a pastor state that so clearly. And I agree, wholeheartedly. He tells us that every translation is basically a new story, because each language will breathe into the Bible a new outlook with the new language. Again, this is impossible to argue with. Translation is indeed a betrayal. But… Peterson has seemingly forgotten something here regarding translation. Translation is a carrying from one doll to another doll, of meaning, much as if we were to fill a bucket full of water (please excuse my mixing of metaphors) and then to carry that bucket to another, pouring it all into that second bucket. Except we note that some splashes out due to the endeavor to get that bucket over to the other. Some also splashes out as we pour. What we have is less than what we began with. On the other hand, we also note that there were some bits of other materials in the second bucket and it has colored the water. It looks different now...because it is different. It is different and it is less--and it is more--as it has been diminished by the work of carrying it to the second language/bucket.

But Peterson is marvelous in that he understands that to translate is to offer a new language, a new story. (I wonder how many pastors would agree with him on that.) He understands that reading, too, is a type of translation: the reader takes these nesting dolls, pops them open, and attempts to fill new dolls in his own mind...again though, something gets lost in the translation, things are added, too.

Ben Belitt, the brilliant poet and translator, who passed away about ten years ago, realized that you need to do something more than just empty the dolls and carry the water. You had to go to the original and experience the enigma of that original as for the first time. Belitt saw that there wasn’t just the original on the page, the spanish poem by Neruda, say, but the original that the poet, that Neruda himself, experienced as he was writing his spanish poem. Each translation was to be a tapping into the experience of the poet, and so each translation was a new poem, a new “story” as Peterson himself realizes, I think.

So Peterson, I conclude, errs not so much with his theory, but with his execution. I think he just doesn’t have the chops to bring the original experience into play. That isn’t to say he shouldn’t be praised for the effort. But the readings from The Message that I’ve heard do not elevate my spirit, and they do not contain the Spirit. (See those verses from Galatians? They even leave out the Holy Spirit entirely.)

Any serious biblical reader will still need to study a variety of translations, using principally the NIV and NRSV (the latter was composed by the very best scholars attending to meaning and ease of understanding). Though the King James and NKJ versions are the very best for English literature they also happen to be the very worst for scholarly attention. Still, it helped form, along with Chaucer and Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, the English language itself, so that is saying something.

One more word about The Message. There must be hundreds of different translations out there now. The Living Bible became very popular and gave rise to a number of versions that one suspects exist not so much for their perspicacious perspective on The Word, but for their sales figures. Is The Message just another way to line the pockets of the author, and his agent and publisher? I don’t know, but I suspect it is a factor. If The Message served to hook someone on to the Bible and some spiritual journey it would be a good thing; it might however make for a lazy man’s effort to forego the task of looking under the doll’s skirts, to continue my prior metaphor. In other words, if The Message is a beginning on a journey to more adult, more satisfying investigations then it is well worth plunking down a sawbuck or two for it. If it is merely the last effort to bring one into a dull, unsatisfying slog through some alien culture, then it is best to pass it by, since there simply isn’t enough meat there to sustain anyone for very long.


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