Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Power of Language

John Steinbeck's East of Eden revolves around a translation. The story of Cain and Abel is one of sixteen verses, and yet has been remembered for centuries. The characters in the book wonder about the different versions it has taken according to translations of the Bible. In the King James version, God promises to Cain "if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him". By contrast, the American Standard version says "Do thou rule over him".

The importance of such seemingly small differences came home to me at the weekend, when I was reading in Church. The reading is quite a well-known one, beginning

"I beseech thee, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye commend your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service." (Romans 12:1)

Or rather, that is the version I remembered from a long time ago. The reading in the new translation of the Bible my church uses is:

"I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, which is your spiritual worship."

For me, the difference between the two pieces is as profound as the difference established in East of Eden. If the commending of your body to God is a reasonable service, it emphasises that the rule of God is one that is based upon reason, of covenant; that the will of God is ultimately knowable. If it is a spiritual worship, there is a much more emotional nature to the following of God, which instantly makes Him more unknowable.

Especially when we try and rationalise disasters of epic proportions, the nature of God is vital to our understanding. An unknowable and omnipotent God can wreak havoc on earth simply as an exercising of his power; a reasonable God would surely need more concrete reasons, based on wrongdoing and the breaking of covenants, to wreak such destruction.

Unfortunately, unlike Steinbeck's character Lee, I don't have a family of Chinese elders which I can encourage to go away and study the original Hebrew. The changes that can be made on a seemingly simple translation, however, underline the power of language. Words and commands have meanings that aren't necessarily easy to transmit between cultures - despite their ultimate power.