Master translator Willis Barnstone unveils ‘Poets of the Bible’

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

The vast majority of Americans tell pollsters they own a copy of the Bible—and read it. In fact, studies show that millions of Americans own multiple translations of the Bible. This overwhelming interest in the world’s all-time bestseller is a sign of the vitality of millions of small prayer and Bible-study groups coast to coast. And, while some traditionalist congregations prefer their members use a single translation, most Bible readers prefer an array of English renderings of the ancient Hebrew and Greek.

Enter the master translator Willis Barnstone, now 89 (and we may all pray for his good health to continue his work for many more years). Granted, he’s not a household name among American readers like J.K. Rowling or John Grisham, but the world’s literary treasures are grander and richer because of Barnstone’s work over many decades.

How long is Barnstone’s career? His biography includes a note that, as a child in the 1930s, he met Babe Ruth and wound up in the stadium watching Ruth and Lou Gehrig play in the World Series. A man of immense creative interests and scholarly abilities with language, Barnstone has produced a huge range of published work from biblical texts (and other ancient texts from the biblical era) as well as translations of poetry by Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda’s only play.

If you collect a range of Bibles, the one Barnstone book you are most likely to have on your shelf is the massive, 1,500-page Norton edition of The Restored New TestamentMuch of the innovation in that earlier work was rendering sacred texts in poetry that earlier were presented as prose—and then adding some additional books to the collection that usually are described as “gnostic.”

As you open this new volume—Poets of the Bible: From Solomon’s Song of Songs to John’s Revelation (also published by Norton)—Barnstone once again is presenting poetry and also includes books he believes should be read along with the Christian New Testament to understand a deeper context of Jesus’ life and the early Church. So, in this new book, he includes poetic renderings from the gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdalene and Judas.

Willis Barnstone. Photo by Sarah Handler; used with permission.

Genesis alone is worth the price of the book. The NIV, the most popular evangelical translation, these days, translates the opening scene of Genesis with the phrase “the Spirit of God … hovering over the waters.” In an effort to more closely reflect the original Hebrew, the mainline-Protestant NRSV translation uses the phrase “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This is close to the standard Jewish translation, these days, the JPS version: “a wind from God sweeping over the water.” While different in word and imagery—there is a similarity between all three translations: that is, they all translate the creation story in past tense.

The first thing you will notice in Barnstone’s translation is his choice of the present tense: “In the beginning God creates heaven and earth …” That’s how his Bible opens. And, this is no small matter! This startling change in verb tense is in keeping with those more progressive religious leaders who talk about God’s Creation as an ongoing process. Creation isn’t something that happened in ancient times and was forever fixed in stone. Creation continues, more progressive preachers and teachers argue.

Then, still in the opening lines of Genesis—when we reach the Spirit/wind phrasing—Barnstone gives us another flourish: “And a wind from God roars over the face of the waters.” Wow! “Roars!” Whole Bible study sessions and sermons could be developed from Barnstone’s addition of that one word in his attempt to capture the energy of the original Hebrew.

Readers may wonder at the nature of this poetry. Is this abstract, arcane stuff? Poetry sometimes is defined by its mysteries. However, in this case, Barnstone’s re-organization of the text into shorter, poetic lines turns some familiar stories into downright page turners. This book will be a revelation to anyone still having trouble slogging through the story of Abraham and Isaac—or the long tale of Joseph and his sojourn in Egypt—in those double-column King James Version editions of the Bible. In this book, your eye leaps from one short, poetic line to the next.

Of course there are phrases and choices in this new English narration that regular readers of the Bible—let alone Bible scholars steeped in the original Hebrew and Greek—would debate with Barnstone. That’s a natural benefit of any new translation—the ability to puzzle over these English renderings. And, these days, with the popularity of liberal paraphrases of scripture like The Message—even the evangelical world accepts the idea of comparing how the ancient language is turned into English for today’s readers. It’s a treasured part of Bible study, these days, in communities coast to coast. So, certainly, you will quibble over some sections of Barnstone’s book—it’s one of the pleasures of diving into such a work.

Anyone who loves these scriptures and reads the Bible regularly will enjoy this new collection (which, by the way, is priced considerably cheaper than his earlier Norton volume on Amazon). This would make a terrific autumn or year-end gift for someone on your shopping list. (Note: It’s not too soon to shop for intriguing new reading to prepare for the Jewish high holidays in September, even if Christmas is still months away.)

 

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