Paul Greenberg

There is no end to the writing of books, said the author of Ecclesiastes, and today he could have said it of translations of the Bible. Now there are translations not just for every denomination and generation but for every class, sex and age -- men, women, young people, conservative, liberal or neither . . . .

These days you can get a translation that's custom-made for your denomination or demographic, your politics or personality. So much for Saint Paul's assurance that there is no longer "Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female" in the New Dispensation.

Instead we get the Word in a variety not just of tongues but tastes. Designed to match our needs, preferences or just moods. Like luggage or scarves. Instead of fitting ourselves to the Word, we can fit it to us! Right down to our race, education and socially constructed gender. How enlightened. All the inaccuracies and prejudices in earlier translations can now be eliminated along with the poetry.

Many of the newer, spiffier versions of The Book cross the fatal line from translation into interpretation. Some even cross the line from translation into parody. The New English Bible, for example, washed out Joseph's coat of many colors, which became only "a long, sleeved robe" in its denatured English, a literary style that might best be described as Modern Drab.

Apparently there is no old translation of Scripture that cannot be disimproved by the application of modern semantics. Or is it called semiotics these days? Every translation, they say, is a betrayal. The modern ones may lack sufficient character to betray outright. They just soften the meaning, cushion the impact, blur the old words to make them more congenial.

I'd like to think that, if you placed one of the newer versions side by side with the King James, even someone who'd never heard of either could appreciate the superiority of the older translation. All it takes is an ear for the English language.

Compare the power and the glory, the stark faith of "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil," to the anemic version of the 23rd Psalm in a translation put out by the Jewish Publication Society, which mentions only "a valley of the deepest darkness."

Then there is the Anchor Bible's vapid abstraction, "Even though I should walk through the midst of total darkness."

I now have been favored with a copy of the new Women's Study Bible put out by Oxford University Press, whose version of the same psalm speaks of "Even when I walk through the darkest valley . . . ."

Is ours so euphemistic an age that we dare not speak even of the shadow of death? This newest version of The Book reflects the New Living Translation that first appeared more than a decade ago. Here's hoping that title didn't mean to infer that older ones, like the King James, are dead.

That the version of the Bible authorized by King James and the vast treasure that is Shakespeare's work should have appeared during the same epoch is surely no coincidence. Languages have their own rise and fall, their fruition and decay, just as nations do. And the Elizabethan/Jacobean era was the high tide of the English tongue.

Nor is it a coincidence that the American president who delivered the Second Inaugural -- The Second Inaugural -- should have grown up reading Shakespeare and the King James. Either of those works would have been sufficient to transform the rudest railsplitter on the American frontier into the most eloquent and visionary of American statesmen. Such is the power of the Elizabethans' language, which even now, centuries later, still replenishes us.

A biblical scholar named Chaim Raphael once tried to explain why the King James Version, whatever its technical inaccuracies, has a power that later versions lack. Like the original Hebrew, he pointed out, the English of the King James was already archaic by the time it was set down. So it conveyed much of "the archaism and mystery that is tangible in the original . . . ."

To quote Chaim Raphael, "The translators had a reverence for the text before them. When they could not understand it, they would produce an apparently literal translation that was a stab in the dark, sometimes quite meaningless, but still carrying with it the splendid orotund tone of the version as a whole." Which is why their work transcended "the workaday canons of clarity and reason, and had to be absorbed through a cloud of mystery."

Mystery is rare today; it is assumed that everything can be explained. For is not art but science in the making?

In George Orwell's "1984," poor Winston Smith is sure to come to a sad end because he is in love with old things and old concepts -- like freedom and honor and morality -- in a society dedicated to their eradication. Early in the book Winston has a subversive dream about a dark-haired girl who, with a single gesture, casts aside all the dull, stale, uniform wrappings of the modern police state that both are doomed to serve. "Winston woke up with the word 'Shakespeare' on his lips."