Paul Johnson

A Good Book

The Bible In English

By

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TRANSLATION IS A mysterious business, which often subjects a text to the literary equivalent of a chemical change. It can flatten or heighten. Dostoevsky’s tales, for instance, are even more strange in Constance Garnett’s translation than in Russian. Edmund Wilson, who taught himself Hebrew to read the Old Testament in the original, said it was like discovering a different book. David Daniell’s enormous work of over 1,600 pages in small type deals only with English translations of the Bible and shows how complicated the process was. Much of the Bible most English speakers know, the King James Version, is the result of a process of transformation from Hebrew into Greek, then into Latin and finally into English, in addition to direct renderings from Hebrew or Greek. The King James text incorporates bits from William Tyndale’s translation, from the Geneva version, from the Catholic Douai version, on which I was raised, and from others.

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