Sunday, January 18, 2009

An Elizabethan Tea Time For Two

Eugene H. Peterson and Kent Richmond?

In a previous cogitation I wrote about teaching a two-semester high school course in "The (Collected) Plays of Shakespeare and The Bible". ("The Bible" part — by "The Bible" I mean one, and only one, thing: The Authorized King James Version — is the evangelical camel's nose poking inside the public education's big tent for many secularists.) Such a course could pass constitutional muster, since it say's "Hey! The Bible's just another book of early 1600s English literature (like Shakespeare) everyone should know!" And putting "The Bible" second in the sequence drives this point home. But more about "The Bible" part in a second.

Now both of these are written in so-called Early Modern English. One ("the Plays") is "original" — leaving aside whether William Shakespeare or Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe wrote them. The other is a "translation" of Ancient Hebrew and Greek. It would appear to be hard to make a case for a substitute in the syllabus in either case, but especially for the former. (Purists would puke over that as being like colorizing classic b&w movies. But I'm not a purist in the case of Shakespearean plays.) However, I think that serious consideration is due to Kent Richmond's Shakespeare Translation Project from Full Measure Press. This is a "verse translation" of the 1600s English original that preserves its poetical structure. (One can browse or download excerpts there and see for oneself.) And note, of course, this is in no way a No Fear Shakespeare "translation", which does not. Either the original or the full-measure translation: take your pick. (After all, most high school students read something like the Penguin Classics translation of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, not in 1300s English — Do purists rebel over that? I guess some do.)

As for "The Bible", again the "King James" purists think that KJV is such a classic of 1600s literature that it should be taught as such. But it isn't originally in English of any century — Homer isn't either, and modern English translations of that are taught — to begin with, and I have never understood why there is such a fetish (other than it was drilled into us as children) for its classic-ness. Consider the following versions of Psalm 23: KJV, TNIV (Today's New International Version, which I think is the best "strict" [sic] translation), and TM (The Message, which some disparagingly call a "paraphrase", by Eugene H. Peterson).


The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
    he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
    he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
    for his name's sake.


The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
    he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name's sake.


God, my shepherd! I don't need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
    you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
    you let me catch my breath
    and send me in the right direction.

One "Shakespearean" (and the version we were babywashed with); One sort of gutsy "Beat"; One "Whoa! Dude!"

I like the last one. Am I perverse? Am I a Philo-stine? You decide.