I just received a “complementary” leather bound copy of the Common English Bible’s Christian New Testament translation and boy am I disappointed. I thought “common” meant vulgar and I was expecting a lot of profanity and dirty words. So far, and that isn’t very far, I haven’t found a single one.
I’m not completely sure why I received this “complementary copy.” How did these common bible people get my name and address? Was it from my recent CBQ paper or from my SBL or CBA membership? From time to time, I get unsolicited books in the hope I will review them. I never do. First, such “complementary copies” are seldom books I actually want or am interested in. I generally have to pay for books that are abnormally interesting. Second, I’m not very good at reviewing books. That doesn’t mean I don’t form an impression of them. But I tend to either express my impression in useless generalities – I liked it; I learned from it; I hated it; it was a waste of time – or I express my impression with pedantic excess. I’ve never been able to find the correct balance.
For example, here are first two sentences of the last paragraph of the cover letter that came with my “complementary copy” of the Common English Bible New Testament.
You have received this volume because you are an expert who translates and interprets the Bible. By having this volume on hand, you may formulate your own judgments while you engage in the academic critique that makes your vocation so valuable.
I offer two reviews of these sentences.
Review A: These sentences are irrelevant.
Review B: I take “you” in these sentences to refer to me. The package with the letter and the book had my name and address on it. Therefore, I will evaluate these two sentences in terms of my own understanding of who I am and what interests me. If the letter had been more general so would have I. As to the first sentence: it contains a false premise. I am not an expert and certainly not an expert in the Christian New Testament. I very seldom even try to translate it. I do look at its Greek text once in a while and because I am not an expert, I general look at some translation also. I have cited it from time to time but I always worry that I’ve missed something important. So saying that I am an “expert who translates and interprets” that part of the Bible they sent me is simply wrong. But the error goes beyond that. While I have written on the Hebrew Bible and its cultural context, I am an amateur, hardly an expert even on that part of the Bible I do know something about and whose languages I try to understand on a more or less regular basis.
As to the second sentence: I likely won’t have the volume on hand for long. It will almost certainly go into a section of my library where I keep books that I seldom if ever consult. In that way, it will be far more out of hand than on hand. I can never throw a book away no matter how unwanted. I still have a copy of the Blue Book of the John Birch Society! Once in a while, I can bring myself to give away a book. It is highly unlikely that I will formulate any meaningful judgments regarding this translation now or in the future. Like most translations of the Christian New Testament, this translation just doesn’t fall within my normal abnormal interests. Had they provided me with their translation of the Hebrew Bible, I might have been a little more interested in it but it is unlikely that I would formulate any significant judgments concerning it even then. A reference work, and that’s what a translation is, is, in general, to be distrusted. The less you know of the source language and literature, the more one should distrust a translation. The word “vocation” troubles me. This is particularly true in a religions context and 99.99 times out of 100, a translation of the Bible involves religion. The more so if the translators are from seminaries and bible schools. “Vocation” has meaning and I certainly don’t have vocation in that sense. What I do regarding the Bible is a hobby. I study what I study for fun. If someone learns something from it, it pleases me but that isn’t why I study these ancient texts. Remember, these are for me abnormal interests and, truth be know, I think they should be abnormal for just about everyone else. While I understand the broad interest in things biblical, there is a sense in which I am baffled that in this supposedly enlightened era the Society of Biblical Literature has so many more members (8,500 in 2009) than, say, the American Philological Association (3,140 in 2009). It also surprises me that there are so many translations of the Bible. Why should I bother with another one?
And that’s why I don’t review books.