The Singer and the Song

Maggi Dawn, looking for debaters on the subject of scripture and translation, asked some questions on Twitter this morning which got me thinking.

@maggidawn: The Message: do you love it or hate it? I’m looking for debaters on the subject of translation
@maggidawn: The King James Version: beautiful or incomprehensible? I’m looking for debaters on the subject of scripture and translation
@maggidawn: who have you read/listened to that has most influenced you on translation and interpretation of the Bible, tweeps?

I have very little familiarity with “The Message” as a paraphrase or translation, and my familiarity with the King James Version is by no means complete. But I am also acutely aware that my Hebrew is very poor and I don’t understand Greek at all. When I read the King James Version I think I understand the language fairly well, but I know that isn’t true for everyone. If we are going to have scripture available to everyone that means we will need to renew our translations and interpretations as our use of language changes. So I find a certain irony in the existence of groups which believe the King James Version is the only valid scripture, given the Reformation value of accessibility of the text — despite the situation surrounding the actual translation, which I understand was made with certain goals regarding the status quo in church and politics.

A few years ago I read various books by Karen Armstrong, and was struck by her repeated assertion that in many faiths there has at some point been a tradition of compassionate exegesis. That is, the “rules” are that any interpretation of scripture which is harmful, violent or cruel, is necessarily incorrect. That helped me a lot in coming to terms with a collection of texts which is often contradictory. Indeed, learning to see the Bible as an anthology rather than as one coherent book was also helpful.

As far as interpretation is concerned, there’s a great post by the Three Minute Theologian which illustrates the difficulty of scriptural literalism. A musical score contains a certain amount of information about which notes are to be played when, and if you’re lucky you get instructions about volume and articulation, too. But all of that must be interpreted in the context of the performance expectations of the time: in some periods there is a great deal that nobody bothered to write down because it was just the done thing, for example repeated phrases having some variation in dynamic. Debussy and Brahms are both composers who wrote a huge amount of what they wanted on the page, so that it is possible to follow their instructions exactly and get a half-decent musical result, but both still require a sense of line and direction, and the knowledge to interpret things like the time signature, which doesn’t only tell the performer how many beats there are in a bar but how they should be stressed in relation to one another. Bach left much more to the discretion of the performer. As I commented there, an historically accurate interpretation of music requires study of contemporary performance practice, but an informed contrast to that tradition of interpretation also requires some understanding of how the music would have been performed. Performers always end up interpreting, too.

What is important in the interpretation of music, in the end, is not how correctly one interprets the dots and squiggles, but the impact of doing so on the listener. A very historically authentic performance and one that departs drastically from traditional performance practice can both be moving and inspiring; it is likely that neither will consist only of what is written on the page. The creative interpretation of the performer or performers is an intrinsic part of the music, whether the performance consists of singing, blowing air through tubes, drawing a bow across stretched strings or even putting together instructions for robots to play the music (I refer to various forms of digital music, most of which are so far outside my own area of training as to be incomprehensible to me in their performance techniques).

I’m not a theologian, but I’ll go out on a limb here: I believe that how people present scripture in the way they live their lives is a more important interpretation issue than which translation or tradition of interpretation they might use to read it. That doesn’t apply only to Christianity, either. Actions speak louder than words and actions are more important than which words you read.

What do we say in our daily actions?

(edited slightly for clarity)
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