When I was nineteen, I was a novice in a Catholic religious order. That means I spent a year focused on the spiritual life—learning to meditate, reading only about spirituality, studying prayer and ritual. Every morning fifteen minutes of spiritual reading was built into the schedule, and for a few months I decided to read the gospels in Greek.
The Greek of the gospels is quite simple, with a limited vocabulary and familiar expressions. I had been studying Greek, so it wasn’t so difficult to read the gospels, which were originally written in Greek. During this little exercise, I realized that the stories and teachings of Jesus read in Greek are significantly different from those in English translation.
Jump ahead fifty years. I had been making a living as a writer and came to a quiet period when not much seemed to be happening. I had written a small book called Writing in Sand, my own take on what I think Jesus is all about. People asked me to recommend a gospel translation, and although I knew a few good ones, none of them made the crucial changes I thought were important.
I sat down to work and within two months I had eight hundred pages of translation and commentary. I had no thought of publishing the work, since I am not a scholar, like several of my friends are, and although I can get along in Greek, I’m no expert. I’m also aware that tens of thousands of people study the gospels closely and know them chapter and verse. I felt rather intimated.
But friends and family members kept encouraging me to get the work into print. Skylight Paths Publishing in Vermont expressed an interest, and for a few years I said no. But finally I felt ready, and I worked hard with an editor getting a four-volume work in shape. Finally, this winter, 2016, the first volume, Gospel: The Book of Matthew appeared.It would take too many words to describe the gist of my approach, but let me just say that you won’t find certain familiar words, such as heaven, sin, truth or repent, or phrases such as raise the dead or even heal the sick. I translate therapeia not as healing but, following Plato, as caring for. In my Book of Matthew the Lord’s Prayer begins:
Our father in the Sky
May your name be held sacred
May your kingdom be completed
and your dream fully realized…
I had two primary goals in translation: one, to put certain key terms into fresh English words that I consider more accurately reflect the Greek terms and the spirit of the gospel; and two, to use simple, graceful, flowing English that is neither at all archaic sounding nor too modern colloquial.
I have just finished my final revision of the Book of Mark and found the work even more exciting than Matthew. I discover new ideas every day in bold, imaginative theologians and literary critics. But as I write, I try to keep my own vision in mind and in the forefront. I’m speaking more about the commentary than the translation.
Mark has so much mystery and fantasy in his stories that I can’t wait to see my English version of his magical vision in print. Maybe that sounds rather ego-centric, but it’s more the excitement of a translator. Translating can be a deeply fulfilling activity. The focus is on words, and if you love words, as I do, you enjoy shaping your words so that the original text can sing.