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Forgive me, spirit of science

Richard Dawkins on his lifelong love of the King James Bible, which will be 400 years old next year.

The King James Bible occupies nearly 42 pages of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, only narrowly beaten by Shakespeare, with 45. Not just literature in the high sense but everyday speech is laced, suffused - riddled, even - with biblical phrases the status of which ranges from telling quotation ("They have sown the wind and they shall reap the whirlwind") to cliché ("No peace for the wicked") and all points between. A word in season and perhaps we can see eye to eye. Although I wouldn't call the Bible my ewe lamb, and I would have to go the extra mile before I killed the fatted calf for it, you don't need the wisdom of Solomon to see how biblical imagery dominates our English. If my words fall on stony ground - if you pass me by as a voice crying in the wilderness - be sure your sin will find you out. Between us there is a great gulf fixed and you are a thorn in my flesh. We have come to the parting of the ways. I fear it is a sign of the times.

It has to be the King James version, of course. Modern translations break the spell as surely as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. Listen
to this, if you can bear to, from the Good News Bible, whose clunking title matches its style:

It is useless, useless, said the Philosopher.
Life is useless, all useless./You spend your life working, labouring, and what do you have to show for it? Generations come and generations go, but the world stays just the same.

Older readers might hear the voice of Tony Hancock. Or is it Victor Meldrew? Anyway, now here's the real thing:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity./What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?/One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

Real thing? Well, let me not emulate that notorious slogan against the teaching of Spanish in Texas schools: "If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for the children of Texas." Hebrew, alas, is a sealed book to me (yes, that's another one: Isaiah 29:11), but I have it on respected authority that Ecclesiastes, at least, is pretty damn good poetry in the original. If so, it certainly doesn't make it through the Good News mangling. But I shall argue that poetry can gain in translation, and I believe this may have been achieved with the King James Bible.

It is often said (though often forgotten) that the Bible is not a book but a library. Obviously unable to cover it all, I shall attend to my two favourite books, neighbours in the Old Testament: Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. First, the world-weary Preacher's lament for the passing of youth and the privations of old age.

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them.

Compare that to the Good News version:

So remember your Creator while you are still young, before those dismal days and years come when you will say, "I don't enjoy life".

“I don't enjoy life"? How are the mighty fallen! If I can't have poetry, I'd prefer the blunt frankness of a beloved godfather who died this year at the age of 93. "Richard," this tall, handsome old man said, fixing me with his blue eyes for the only piece of solemn, godfatherly advice he ever gave me, "old age is a bugger."

My theory is that translation, and even mistranslation, can sometimes enhance the poetry. Here's an example.

. . . in the day when the keepers of the house
shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because
they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,/And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low . . .

Those "grinders" have always intrigued me, and I have been especially haunted by "when the sound of the grinding is low". Some sort of ancient mill rumbled through my imagination, resonating with "Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves" (no, that one's Milton, or at least via Milton). But the Good News Bible finds a more down-to-earth meaning of grind­ers and "those that look out of the windows". It's simply that the poor old chap had cataracts (darkened windows) and lost his teeth ("grinders" is kin to Wodehousian "snappers"), and there's a similarly anatomical come-down at the beginning of the passage, too:

Then your arms, that have protected you, will tremble, and your legs, now strong, will grow weak. Your teeth will be too few to chew your food, and your eyes too dim to see clearly.

That may be less poetic, but it has the ring of plausibility. Hebrew scholars may correct me, but I suspect that this Good News banality may be closer to the original than my much-loved 1611 flight of poetry.

Naturally, I have to come down on the side of accuracy, even at the expense of poetry. From the religious point of view, however, I can't help wondering whether accuracy of translation is desirable. If you are trying to persuade people to follow your religion, do you really want them to understand it? When the Roman Church gave up Latin, the congregations suddenly saw, with merciless clarity, exactly what it was they had been reciting all those years.

Let me not try to charm a deaf adder (Psalm 58), but did the hierarchy fully think through the implications of switching to the vernacular? And doesn't something similar apply to the Bible? Ecclesiastes is hardly religious at all, but in those books where the message is a religious one we might ask, in the nicest possible way, what there is to be accurate about. In any case, my interest is in the translated poetry, and I am suggesting that while some meaning may be lost, poetic value may paradoxically be gained in translation. Even more paradoxically, mistranslation may enhance the effect.

After Ecclesiastes, my second favourite book of the Bible is the Song of Solomon (not by Solo­mon, needless to say):

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over
and gone;/The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land . . .

I regret the day I first learned the real meaning of "turtle" in this lovely passage, and I am not about to shatter anybody else's illusions by exposing the mistranslation.

O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely./Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes./My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies./Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether.

I can guess the true meaning of the short verse about foxes and vines but - forgive me, spirit of science - I'm not sure that I can bear to spell it out. nd the same goes for the last sentence of the following: "Behold, thou art fair, my love: behold, thou art fair; thou has doves' eyes./Be­hold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant: also our bed is green." Isn't it the unexpectedness - incongruity even - of "also our bed is green" that gives it its appeal, an appeal that in this case is more comic than poetic?

On the other hand, I admit to being curious about what the other hand is really doing at the end of this passage: "Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love./His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me." If that means what I think it means, coupled with "My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him", it casts into an even funnier light the charming Bowdlerism that heads the page: "The mutual love of Christ and his church".

I suspect that the poetry of those flagons and apples, too, gains in translation. And, back to my favourite book again, how about this inscrutable line: "Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days." For all I know, that is a dull cliché in the original, but the translation gives me the authentic tingling of poetic enigma. As for the following, the eight verses are so familiar I needn't complete them, and the cadences so intrinsically musical that Pete Seeger hardly needed to compose the tune:

To every thing there is a season, and a
time to every purpose under the heaven:/
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time
to plant, and a time to . . .

Let's celebrate the 400th anniversary of this astonishing piece of English literature. Warts and all - for I have not mentioned the carnage, the smiting, the vindictive, genocidally racist, jealous monster god of the Old Testament. Warts and all - for I have drawn a veil over the New Testament misogyny of Paul, the founder of Christianity, or the Pauline obscenity of every baby being born in sin, saved only by the divine scapegoat suffering on the cross because the Creator of the universe couldn't think of a better way to forgive everybody. Warts and all, let's encourage our schools to bring this precious English heritage to all our children, whatever their background, not as history, not as science and not (oh, please not) as morality. But as literature.

Richard Dawkins's "The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution" is published by Black Swan (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special