Q. Do you believe in using modern language in Bible and Siddur translations?
A. My mind has changed on this subject. There was a time when I couldn’t work fast enough to remove the archaisms from the sacred texts. Now, thought I, everyone will become a religious believer! All we need to do is to eliminate the “thous” and “wasts” from the translations, adopt user-friendly language, and religion will no longer be effete and obscurantist!
I hardly need to tell you that it didn’t work. Religion did eventually enjoy a modest come-back, but linguistic modernisms probably weren’t the reason.
The English translations of the Biblical terminology certainly needed adapting to the findings of archaeology and linguistic research, including the Dead Sea Scrolls; the unjustified christological distortions which made every Book of the Bible foreshadow Jesus needed to be eliminated; and the irritating use of “and” at the beginning of almost every sentence needed a fresh look.
However, turning the majestic cadences of the King James Version into the colloquialisms of the street and the television serials made a joke of the whole enterprise.
I often think of one of my aunts, who objected to the disrespectful way I addressed her in my childhood. “I’m not one of your mates from the school playground!” she told me, and she was right. God isn’t my mate either, at least not in that sense. The Bible is a classical text and there is no need to drag it down to the language of the school playground.
So these days I tend to prefer the rolling classical language of poetical literature (“The Lord is my Shepherd: I shall not want”) whilst still avoiding “thou”, “thee” and “thine”.
L’havdil, imagine turning Shakespeare into totally modern idiom – dropping “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”, in favour of “Come on mates, listen up!”