Last week it fell to me to help assemble a piece of exercise equipment. There was no brand name or country of origin specified, but the enclosed documentation suggested that it was written in a distant land or else by an associate professor of one of the social sciences. In that once put together the thing actually worked, I’ll assume the former.
Here’s advice it offers: “Sitting on the seat cushion the upper limb of the two legs are placed on the rubber wool on the top of the product, the feet are hooked on the rubber wool under the front vertical tube, and the back brain part is held by both hands for supine movement.” Close your eyes and try to picture the machine. Can’t do it, can you?
Let me relieve your pain: The item is a slant board, for exercising the abdominal muscles. It is knee-high at one end and on the floor at the other – hence the “slant” in its name. At the high end there are foam-rubber pads that go behind the knees and, below them, a second set of foam-rubber pads under which the user hooks his or her feet. The “rubber wool” is apparently the rubber pads, but the “brain part” may forever remain a mystery. There is no “seat cushion.”
This can’t be the first terribly translated instruction manual you’ve seen or heard of. Such things are common and often very funny. A friend in Lithuania often sends me translations, either computer-generated or done by hand, that he has encountered. They amuse and confuse. Anyone who has employed the famous Babelfish translation site or the evil-because-Google-is-evil “Google translate” has been puzzled by the result enough to wonder what the original material actually said.
This coming Sunday being Easter, it would be professional malpractice for me to write a column about the horrors and hilarity of mistranslation and fail to mention the atrocities recently committed against the Bible. While I think almost any translation later than, and including, the Revised Standard Version (in Protestant denominations) is pretty awful, Roman Catholicism has done much to convert that collection of holy scriptures into a flat, poetry-free book. Deep within the Vatican there must be a Congregation for the Uglification of Liturgy and Scripture. If so, it has been very effective. Its work comprises holy documents translated to newspeak by what is apparently an unholy assemblage of tin-ear lawyers and advertising executives.
I daresay there are many people who do not follow any particular religion who nevertheless know and perhaps take comfort in the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul … And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” It is beautiful and reassuring. But here is what the Church has done with that: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want. In verdant pastures he gives me repose; Beside restful waters he leads me. He refreshes my soul … And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.” “The valley of the shadow of death” has been transmogrified into “the dark valley.” The original is a description of and a call to faith; the revision, a brochure for an all-inclusive vacation package.
Maybe the best-known verse in the entire New Testament is the Gospel of John, Chapter 3, verse 16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” Here’s what has been done to it: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” See the difference? “Whosoever believeth in him” has beauty and fosters inspiration; “ everyone who believes in him” doesn’t. It’s the difference between “You take my breath away” and “You make me gasp for air.”
I could go on about this at some length, for the horizon stretches in all directions. The approved scriptures bear the dry gray drone of a committee having tried to write something. And don’t get me started on what pass for hymns – they’re now called “songs,” by the way – or the sense that reflective silence mustn’t be allowed. (Though in some places, such as here, there are beginning to be brief periods of blessed silence. In other places, and sometimes here, there’s unrelenting, mediocre music, as if there’s hope of marketing the soundtrack, which more often than not resembles an off- Broadway show that closed after two nights. All while Bach is available, for free.)
Catholicism isn’t alone causing and suffering from the problem. The Episcopal Church in which I was raised had liturgy of unsurpassed beauty and solemnity; even William F. Buckley, Jr., a devout Catholic, described the 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer as perhaps the most beautiful book in the English language. When it was “improved,” I ceased to be an Episcopalian. I did not leave the church but instead felt it had left me. Wrote Buckley at the time: “Perhaps it was ordained that the Anglicans, like their brothers the Catholics, should suffer. It is a time for weeping, and a time for rage.” I do not think it’s random coincidence that membership in both churches has steadily declined since that time.
Those are the denominations with which I’m familiar; I don’t know how the others are doing.
Back to the Bible. The only reliable modern translation I know of is the one done by Monsignor Ronald A. Knox during the 1940s. His work – he did it alone – is a wonderful story unto itself. (His experiences doing the translation in wartime England, where his quiet retreat became temporary home to scores of schoolgirls evacuated from London, lent themselves to several wonderful books, the famous “ … In Slow Motion” series.) Out of print for some time, the Knox translation was republished by Baronius Press in 2012. Unfortunately, it was set in the terrible combination of small print and a single column, meaning that the reader spends as much time locating the next line as reading it. Even so, looking up the daily readings in it after having read the currently approved translation leads one from annoyance to enlightenment. Ronald Knox knew about words and their meanings and flavors.
As Easter approaches, with the attendant, and one hopes sincere, good wishes for one and all, and considering the Bible, I find the last two lines of the poorly translated slant board instruction sheet entirely, if accidentally, appropriate. They read:
“Tips for maximum longevity:
“Use the device regularly.”