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Radio review: Start the Week and Compline

09 December 2022

Professor John Barton was a guest on Start the Week (Radio 4, Monday of last week), when he discussed his new book on biblical translation

Professor John Barton was a guest on Start the Week (Radio 4, Monday of last week), when he discussed his new book on biblical translation

YOU know that your preacher has been struggling when you hear an opening observation that, in the original Hebrew, a cockatrice is really a stick insect, or that the instrument of ten strings is, in fact, some kind of elaborate accounting device. But now, thanks to Professor John Barton’s new book, The Word (Allen Lane), many of these handy insights are easily accessible in a volume devoted to translations of the Bible (Books, 11 November).

The author appeared on Start the Week (Radio 4, Monday of last week) to discuss it, and was alongside two other authors who have engaged with the translation of religious texts. Indeed, any piece of literature which attempts to present the beliefs of the past to a modern audience must grapple with the same challenges of translation as biblical scholars do. Thus, the author Emma Donoghue had to decide whether to adopt a period or contemporary lexicon when writing her novel The Wonder (now also a film, Arts, 2 December), which tells of an Irish girl in the 19th century miraculously sustained by “manna from heaven”.

So, too, as Professor Barton explained, the choice for the translator of religious texts is between the historicist or functionalist approach: maintain Hebrew idioms, however abstruse, or make it sound as if it was written yesterday afternoon.

The Islamic poet Kaveh Akbar usefully reminded us that denotative understanding is not the only ambition of translation. Recitation of the Qur’an in its original language yields, for the faithful, an imaginative engagement that nurtures faith in a very different way. It is an argument that enthusiasts for the Authorised Version know well.

Radio 3 is marking Advent with weekly Compline (Thursdays). In my neck of the woods, this is the service that is bucking the trend: its immersive atmosphere and lack of participatory demand attract sizeable and youthful congregations. Few institutions are going to manage a vocal group as exquisitely polished as the Gesualdo Six, who performed for last week’s “liturgy”; so this seasonal extension of Radio 3’s religious output is welcome.

Liturgy comes in inverted commas, since what was presented last week amounted more to a sequence of compline-related works, interspersed with prayers from an uncredited speaker, rather than any office of compline that a purist might recognise. In fact, the structure of compline offers precisely the variety of register and pace which makes for a satisfactory performance; so it was curious to find, for instance, the hymn Te lucis ante terminum at the start, and the Nunc Dimittis at the end.

The highlight here was Judith Bingham’s anthem “In Mary’s Love”, which, I found, was a setting of an original poem by Ben Kaye. This, in turn, gets its inspiration from a Marian homily by the 12th-century Cistercian Amadeus of Lausanne. Radio 3 might care to provide such intriguing information up-front in future.

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