Archives For Hebrew

How many languages can you translate into English? If the answer is >0, I envy you. I’ve studied four,* and passed all the tests, but have an actual aptitude in none.

If I were thus gifted, I would be transferring some of the world’s literary wealth into my native tongue—and vice versa.

One of my granddaughters is currently fascinated by language. She wants to speak a dozen or more, and has begun some study in Spanish and Japanese. However, I attribute most of her dream to a young teenager’s excitement at having the entire world before them. In time, we all learn that finite concerns, such as time, finances and obligations, erode our options.

I’ve written about translation before, most extensively in “C.S. Lewis’ School of Translation.”⁑

This week, while writing an article about a Lutheran approach to ministry with the newly bereaved, I came across an entertaining reference to translation, in the letters of Martin Luther. Luther, of course, was the Reformation leader who, among other things, strongly believed the Bible should be accessible to lay people in their own language.

Translating the Holy Scriptures

Martin Luther was a scholar. Yet, even scholars lack expertise in all subjects. Thus, when translating the Bible into German, he welcomed the cooperation of others. This was particularly wise, since the so-called “Luther Bible” was the first German translation from the original languages rather than the Latin Vulgate. Unsurprisingly, the New Testament was published first. The longer Jewish Scriptures required more time.

The following letter was written in 1524 to Luther’s friend George Spalatin, another German theologian. Luther playfully explains how faithfulness to the original Hebrew text has delayed the publication of the final portion of the Bible.  

All is well with us. We have so much trouble in translating Job, on account of the grandeur of his sublime style, that he seems to be much more impatient of our efforts to turn him into German than he was of the consolation of his friends.

Either he always wishes to sit on his dunghill, or else he is jealous of the translator who would share with him the credit of writing his book. This keeps the third part of the Bible from being printed.

This casual identification with Job, one of God’s most faithful followers, appeals to me. The older I become, the greater is my sense of connection with the “cloud of witnesses,” the saints who have gone before us. In fact, I am also growing progressively more eager to fellowship with the angels. Though different from humanity in countless ways, we share the wonder of being beloved creatures of God.

In The Four Loves, Lewis writes that “friendship . . . This love, free from instinct, free from all duties but those which love has freely assumed, almost wholly free from jealousy, and free without qualification from the need to be needed, is eminently spiritual. It is the sort of love one can imagine between angels.” In my mind, phileo is also the sort of love we will one day experience between angels and humans.

C.S. Lewis’ Work with the Hebrew Language

Lewis did not read Hebrew. That shortcoming is certainly quite forgivable, given the numerous arenas in which his talents excelled. In his Reflections on the Psalms, he acknowledges his limitation. At the same time, he notes that we have many accessible resources by those acquainted with the ancient language.

I have worked in the main from the translation which Anglicans find in their Prayer Book; that of Coverdale. Even of the old translators he is by no means the most accurate; and of course a sound modern scholar has more Hebrew in his little finger than poor Coverdale had in his whole body. But in beauty, in poetry, he, and St. Jerome, the great Latin translator, are beyond all whom I know. I have usually checked, and sometimes corrected, his version from that of Dr. Moffatt.

In his explanation, Lewis notes the value in referring to several authoritative sources. This is especially wise when words are rare or unclear in their usage. Even people fluent in various languages would be negligent to ignore such resources where there is a question regarding significant interpretations.

In the meantime, Luther’s reminder of Job’s “grandeur of his sublime style,” along with the book’s remarkable message, has me preparing to read that book once again. In translation, of course.


* Spanish in junior high, Latin in high school, classical Greek in college, and Hebrew in seminary. As the Austrian-British philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, said: “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” I am quite impressed by the fact that many of Mere Inkling’s readers from outside the States are at least bilingual.

⁑ If you’re interested in the subject, you might want to also (re)visit “C.S. Lewis as a Translator.”

C.S. Lewis & Tattoos

January 3, 2020 — 13 Comments

How is this for an odd New Year resolution? Getting a new tattoo—with a connection to the writings of C.S. Lewis.

I suppose I’m betraying my age here. Being a retired pastor, my body remains a totally uninked canvas. Not that I’ve never considered getting a tattoo. In fact, if I end up making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem before I journey to the New Jerusalem, I may still opt to get inked. In Jerusalem there is a tattooist whose family traces their art back for 700 years to when their Coptic family lived in Egypt.

Our ancestors  used tattoos to mark Christian Copts with a small cross on the inside of the wrist to grant them access to churches . . and from a very young age (sometimes even a few months old) Christians would tattoo their children with the cross identifying them as Copts. . . .

One of the most famous of Christian types of tattoos, however, is still in use today—that of the pilgrimage tattoo. At least as early as the 1500s, visitors to the Holy Land . . . often acquired a Christian tattoo symbol to commemorate their visit, particularly the Jerusalem Cross.

In Bethlehem, another Christian tattooist practices his art “near the Church of the Nativity, offering pilgrims ink to permanently mark their visit.” He offers designs featuring scriptural texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

Tattoos have a fascinating history, and it should be noted some people consider Torah prohibition to bar even religious tattoos. “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28). However, most Christians* and increasing numbers of Jews do not agree that the passage forbids the current practice.

That doesn’t mean all tattoos are appropriate, of course. Most tattoos are innocuous. Some are humorous. A small number are actually witty. Yet some tattoos can be downright malevolent.

Like so many human activities, the significance of a tattoo depends in great part on the intention of the person asking for this permanent mark. For example, my wife and I approved of our son and his wife having their wedding rings tattooed in recognition of God’s desire⁑ that a marriage will last as long as both individuals live.

What has this to do with C.S. Lewis?

Precious few writers have penned more inspiring and enlightening words than Lewis, that great scholar of Oxford and Cambridge. Because of this, it should come as no surprise that there are many Lewis-inspired tattoos gracing bodies. There is even a website devoted to C.S. Lewis-inspired body ink.

I imagine that Lewis himself would regard this as quite peculiar. I don’t believe he had any tattoos of his own, but it’s quite possible his brother Warnie—a retired veteran of the Royal Army—may have sported one or more.

In 1932, Lewis wrote to Warnie about his recent walking trip. Warnie was his frequent companion, when he was not elsewhere deployed. In this fascinating piece of correspondence, Lewis described his most recent excursion. I include a lengthy excerpt (comprising the first half of the journey) not because of its single passing mention of tattoos. Rather, because of the portrait it paints of the young and vigorous scholar in the prime of life. If you would prefer to skip to the mention of inking, see the sixth paragraph.

Since last writing I have had my usual Easter walk. It was in every way an abnormal one. First of all, Harwood was to bring a new Anthroposophical Anthroposophical member (not very happily phrased!) and I was bringing a new Christian one to balance him, in the person of my ex-pupil Griffiths. Then Harwood and his satellite ratted, and the walk finally consisted of Beckett, Barfield, Griffiths, and me.

As Harwood never missed before, and Beckett seldom comes, and Griffiths was new, the atmosphere I usually look for on these jaunts was lacking. At least that is how I explain a sort of disappointment I have been feeling ever since. Then, owing to some affairs of Barfield’s, we had to alter at the last minute our idea of going to Wales, and start (of all places!) from Eastbourne instead.

All the same, I would not have you think it was a bad walk: it was rather like Hodge who, though nowhere in a competition of Johnsonian cats, was, you will remember, ‘a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’

The first day we made Lewes, walking over the bare chalky South Downs all day. The country, except for an occasional gleam of the distant sea—we were avoiding the coast for fear of hikers—is almost exactly the same as the Berkshire downs or the higher parts of Salisbury Plain. The descent into Lewes offered a view of the kind I had hitherto seen only on posters—rounded hill with woods on the top, and one side quarried into a chalk cliff: sticking up dark and heavy against this a little town climbing up to a central Norman castle.

We had a very poor inn here, but I was fortunate in sharing a room with Griffiths who carried his asceticism so far as to fling off his eiderdown—greatly to my comfort. Next day we had a delicious morning—just such a day as downs are made for, with endless round green slopes in the sunshine, crossed by cloud shadows. The landscape was less like the Plain now. The sides of the hill—we were on a ridgeway—were steep and wooded, giving rather the same effect as the narrower parts of Malvern hills beyond the Wych.

We had a fine outlook over variegated blue country to the North Downs. After we had dropped into a village for lunch and climbed onto the ridge again for the afternoon, our troubles began. The sun disappeared: an icy wind took us in the flank: and soon there came a torrent of the sort of rain that feels as if one’s face were being tattooed and turns the mackintosh on the weather side into a sort of wet suit of tights.

At the same time Griffiths began to show his teeth (as I learned afterwards) having engaged Barfield in a metaphysico-religious conversation of such appalling severity and egotism that it included the speaker’s life history and a statement that most of us were infallibly damned. As Beckett and I, half a mile ahead, looked back over that rain beaten ridgeway we could always see the figures in close discussion. Griffiths very tall, thin, high-shouldered, stickless, with enormous pack: arrayed in perfectly cylindrical knickerbockers, very tight in the crutch. Barfield, as you know, with that peculiarly blowsy air, and an ever more expressive droop and shuffle.

For two mortal hours we walked nearly blind in the rain, our shoes full of water, and finally limped into the ill omened village of Bramber. Here, as we crowded to the fire in our inn, I tried to make room for us by shoving back a little miniature billiard table which stood in our way.

I was in that state of mind in which I discovered without the least surprise, a moment too late, that it was only a board supported on trestles. The trestles, of course, collapsed, and the board crashed to the ground. Slate broken right across. I haven’t had the bill yet, but I suppose it will equal the whole expences of the tour.

Wouldn’t it have been amazing to join C.S. Lewis on one of these walking trips? A Lewisian tattoo is no substitute, to be sure, but I imagine it does offer certain people a sense of connection to the great author. Perhaps, if I were a younger man . . .


* Two recent converts to Christianity, Kanye West and Justin Bieber have made public their recent religious additions to their vast tattoo collections.

⁑ As Jesus said, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

The motivational poster above was created by Mere Inkling, and represents only an infinitesimal number of the misspelled tattoos adorning human bodies. What a travesty . . . one that may have been prevented by remaining sober. The tattoo below, on the other hand, strikes me (being a writer) as quite clever.

Sanctified Languages

January 6, 2015 — 8 Comments

petrusOne major difference between Christianity and Islam is their view of language. For the Muslim, Arabic is the language by which the Quran is to be known. For the Christian, there is a great impulse to translate the Scriptures into every tongue in the world.

In Islamic worship, the Quran is properly recited only in Arabic, whether the individual understands Arabic or not. This is similar to the way that most Hindus chant mantras in ancient Sanskrit.

A parallel can be drawn with the medieval practice in the Western branches of Christianity where Latin continued to be used for worship, even after it lost its role as the shared language.

The fact, however, that the Bible had even been translated into Latin was due to the Christian desire to make God’s word accessible to all people. Jerome, an early Christian theologian, became a linguistic scholar with the goal of translating the Vulgate, into the common language of his day.

It would have been a great shock to him, and to Pope Damasus I who commissioned his effort, to see the Latin so ingrained in the church’s usage that their heirs in leadership lost sight of the desire to bring the Lord’s words directly to the people so that all could understand them.

One of the great successes of the Reformation was the successful translation and distribution of the Scriptures into the vernacular of various language groups. Martin Luther’s translation, in fact, standardized the German language which had evolved into several different dialects.

Coincidentally, Lutherans have remained at the forefront of Bible translation, and Lutheran Bible Translators continue that vital work today. They currently have twenty-two Bible translations in process. LBT works in conjunction with Wycliffe Bible Translators, which is an even larger organization.

C.S. Lewis delivered a lecture at the University of London entitled “The Literary Impact of The Authorised Version.” In one portion he addressed the influence of the King James translation on the English language. While not nearly so pronounced as Luther’s on German, it is measurable.

The history of the Authorised Version has been told so often that I will not attempt to re-tell it, and its beauties praised so lavishly that I will not praise them. Instead, I will proceed at once to its influence as an English book. I shall attempt to define that influence, for I think there has been misunderstanding about it and even a little exaggeration.

Lewis’ argument is that the Bible has a profound influence on English literature, the particular translation, less so.

Ideally, all Christians would understand Hebrew and Greek, and be able to read the Scriptures in their original languages. However, there is no stigma in reading a translation. In fact, there are small pockets of people who do not understand the history of the Bible who believe that one particular translation (i.e. the King James Version) is the only authoritative text.

Sadly, I once saw an advertisement in a newspaper inviting worshipers that read: “Are you tired of people changing the Authorized Version of God’s Word with Greek and other languages? If so, come and join us at . . .”

Fortunately, the vast majority of Jesus’ disciples celebrate the translation of God’s word of life into every language spoken today.

Meanwhile, memorization of the Quran in Arabic (even when that is not the reciter’s actual language) remains highly regarded in Islam. Arabic has been regarded as so holy, in fact, that there was great reluctance to contaminate the Quran by using a printing press.

During the Ottoman Empire, until 1729, printing anything in Arabic was a crime. Somewhat ironically, the first printing utilizing Arabic movable type was done by Pope Julius II in the first decade of the sixteenth century. It was created for the benefit of Christians living in Arabic lands.

To provide a powerful illustration of a Christian validation of the authentic inspiration and power of God’s words—in any language—we turn once again to the German reformer.

Since it becomes Christians then to make good use of the Holy Scriptures as their one and only book and it is a sin and a shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God, it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. . . .

In proportion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages. For it was not without purpose that God caused his Scriptures to be set down in these two languages alone—the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. Now if God did not despise them but chose them above all others for his word, then we too ought to honor them above all others. St. Paul declared it to be the peculiar glory and distinction of Hebrew that God’s word was given in that language, when he said in Romans 3, “What advantage or profit have those who are circumcised? Much indeed. To begin with, God’s speech is entrusted to them. . . .”

Similarly, the Greek language too may be called sacred, because it was chosen above all others as the language in which the New Testament was to be written, and because by it other languages too have been sanctified as it spilled over into them like a fountain through the medium of translation. (Martin Luther, “To the Councilmen of Germany”).

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The image above is an illuminated “P” which begins the name Petrus (Peter). The manuscript is displayed in Malmesbury Abbey in England, but was originally transcribed in Belgium circa 1400.