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Harold Bloom: the English Bible is a “vast aesthetic improvement” on the Greek

September 19, 2011


I keep the Hebrew and Greek texts in mind throughout my discussions in this book, if only to meditate on the many places where the English version surpasses the original, and those where it comes short.  Tyndale’s New Testament is so vast an aesthetic improvement on the Greek text that I am perpetually delighted.  The Tanakh, a far stronger original, comes even in honors with Tyndale, Coverdale, Geneva, and the KJB committees.  Sometimes even Coverdale, who had little or no Hebrew, invented graces and glories beyond the ancestral text, but more frequently he crashes.  Tyndale, Geneva, and the KJB company rarely fail utterly, yet when they miss, it can be (and has been) lamentable.  The ongoing translations of the Hebrew Bible by Robert Alter and the marvelous notes in Herbert Marks’s Norton edition of the English Bible are exemplary antidotes.

– Harold Bloom, The Shadow of a Great Rock:  A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible (2011)  [emphasis added]

(I’m jealous that Bloom already has his copy of the Norton English Bible.  Mine is supposed to arrive next week.)

What do you think?  Does the English Bible improve on the Greek New Testament?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2011 9:25 pm

    Sometimes English crashes indeed – especially with Job and Jonah. Such lovely set-ups both of them. KJV misses the to my mind critical grand inclusio of Leviathan and the eyelids of dawn.

    Bloom is delightful to read – I especially love his comment in Jesus and Yahweh where he notes – יְהוָה is the most anthropomorphic God he knows and Jesus the most theomorphic human.

  2. September 19, 2011 9:41 pm

    Bloom on Jonah : “It may seem frivolous to speak of a favorite book in the Bible mine is Jonah, by far …. I was first charmed by Jonah as a little boy in synagogue on the afternoon of the Day of Atonement, when it is read aloud in full. It seemed to me so much at variance, in tone and implication from the rest of the service as to be almost Kafkan in effect.

    “William Tyndale translated Jonah, providing the KJB with its base text but not the humor that shines through its revisions. In a rather negative Prologue to his version (a powerful piece of narrative) Tyndale nastily compared the Jews who rejected Jesus to the people of Nineveh who believed Jonah and repented. The comparison is lame but reminds me that Tyndale,, a great writer, was also a bigot.

    “Jonah’s book is magnificent literature because it is so funny. Irony, even in Jonathan Swift, could not be more brilliant. Jonah himself is a sulking, unwilling prophet, cowardly and petulant…. Praying from the fish’s belly, he satirizes the situation of all psalmists whosoever…. What remains is [God’s] playfully rhetorical question: ‘And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also that much cattle?’

    “Presumably the cattle (‘beasts’ in the Hebrew) are able to tell one direction from another, unlike the citizens of Nineveh, Jerusalem, or New York City.”

  3. September 19, 2011 9:44 pm

    Bloom on Job is too lengthy to paraphrase in a comment, but Bloom concludes by quoting from Kierkegaard’s Edifying Discourses in translation: “And yet there is no hiding place in the wide world where troubles may not find you, and there has never lived a man who was able to say more than you can say, that you do not know when sorrow will visit your house. So be sincere with yourself, fix your eyes upon Job; even though he terrifies you, iti is not this he wishes, if yourself do not wish it.”

  4. September 20, 2011 5:34 pm

    I keep the Hebrew and Greek texts in mind throughout my discussions in this book, if only to meditate on the many places where the English version surpasses the original, and those where it comes short. Tyndale’s New Testament is so vast an aesthetic improvement on the Greek text that I am perpetually delighted.

    Harold Bloom reminds of George Steiner, who in English in his book Errata: An Examined Life, on page 106, has written to us readers of English:

    The obstacles posed, the theoretical and practical room for error, are such as to make of any mutual understanding, of any translation, however crass or rough-shod, something of a wonder. How is it possible to convey and decipher meaning, itself the most problematic of philosophic notions, across time, across space, across the more or less yawning gap between vocabularies, grammars, networks of diachronic and synchronic systems of sense which separate languages, communities, and civilizations? As I. A. Richards was fond of saying, an act of translation from classical Chinese into moder English may be the most complex process known on the planet. No translation, above the level of monosyllabic or technical tautology, is ever perfect. No understanding between speakers in the same language is perfect either. Nonetheless, the barriers to interlingual translation are or can seem so drastic as to render the labor self-defeating. There are poets and novelists and metaphysicians who have, with more of less sincere determination, condemned translation (I would cite Nabokov). In a number of religious cultures, the transfer of sacred and ritual texts into any language is prohibited. Translation not only falsifies: it despoils the original of its numinous, secret force. Why not, in the commanding cases, make the effort to acquire the language whose “world-texts” one is intent on reading at first hand? The Greek of the New Testament is almost introductory; Virgil’s Latin can be mastered (centuries of school education testify to the fact); there are those who read Dante, Lady Murasaki, or Pushkin in the original, though their own tongue is neither Italian nor Japanese nor Russian. These are reproachful, incontrovertible solicitations. They often humiliate me.

    Now, lest we think that Steiner or Bloom with their comparisons are dismissing the Greek of the New Testament as elementary or un-sophisticated, or without poetry or wordplay or enigma or parable or hapax legomena or literary allusion or rich ambiguity or dialektike or rhetorike or author’s voice or translator’s flare, let’s think again.

    Steiner, elsewhere, for example, (i.e., in Grammars of Creation, page 96), asserts the following. And I quote directly: “even direct quotation is set alight by context (eg, when St.Paul cites Euripides).” But with more force, (on page 75) he has already observed:

    Jesus’ discourse in parables, his statements of withdrawal from statement–of which the episode in which he writes in the dust and effaces his writing is the emblematic instance–give to linguistic verticality, to the containment of silence in language, a particular impetus. As do the constantly polysemic, stratified techniques of semantic motions in the Pauline Epistles. It is these parables and indirect communications, at once more internalized and open-ended than are the codes of classical rhetoric, which beget the seeming contradiction of enigmatic clarity, the “comprehendit imcomprehensible esse” celebrated in Anselm’s “Proslogion”. In turn, from these dramatizations of manifold sense, evolve the instruments of allegory, of analogy, of simile, of tropes and concealments in Western literature (though here also there are obvious and indispensible classical sources).

    And so, Tyndale and his English must bow to the Greek of Paul and Peter and Jude and Jacob (i.e., James) and the author of Hebrews, and to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and one John and another. Without them, Bloom would have nothing to say here.

  5. September 20, 2011 7:29 pm

    I’d leave an intelligent reply, Kurk, but instead I am simply stunned to realize that the “blockquote” tag works so well in WordPress comments. Now I half-tempted to go back and re-edit all my old comments.

  6. September 21, 2011 9:04 am

    LOL, Theophrastus. And how do the emoticons work in comments? They look just fine, it seems. 🙂


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