The Gospel of Vic: Translating the Bible in Australia

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I’ve been getting into translation theory recently. I suppose it’s the inevitably side-effect of hanging around Bible translators. And in a completely separate, but obviously related incident, I ended up revisiting The Gospel of Vic, by my friend and Alchemy collaborator, Marcus Curnow.

It’s one of the the most extraordinary pieces of Bible translation I have encountered, so I wanted to share it here, and also reflect on it a bit.

It needs some introduction. You get one with the interview that precedes it (which is worth reading). But also I thought I would add my own.

In practical terms, Marcus’ approach was to change as little as possible from his English-translation source text. But he chooses carefully some characters and settings to swap out, and some particular phrases to include – and the result is a powerful piece of political writing, rooted firmly in Australian (specifically Victorian) language, mythology and geography.

As a translation, it is not inter-lingual as is usually the case in Bible translation. Inter-lingual translation moves between one language and another – in the case of the Bible, between Ancient- Hebrew and/or Greek and the ‘host’ language of a given community. The Gospel According to Vic is an intra-lingual translation, a movement within a given language. There are endless English-language translations of the Bible, but most – for reasons of faithfulness to the original – constrain themselves to attempts at re-presenting the words, grammar and syntax of the source text. Some, like the Good News translation, or The Message, have attempted to paraphrase the original, to restate a ‘dynamic equivalence’ of meaning. But all of these still attempt to render the text as a piece of literature that emerges from its historical context.

The gulf of context, however, between text and reader can make interpretation a frustrating task. I do not believe there is such a thing as the meaning of a text; language is far too autonomous for that. But reading an ancient text from a different time and place can be tough work. The meanings, the associations of personalities, places, idioms and customs are lost in the chasm of history and memory, not because translations do not convey the words in contemporary language, but because without a knowledge of ancient history and religion those words do not easily give up much meaning for us to contend with.

What Marcus has done is to walk us across the chasm, from the community addressed by ‘Mark’ in his gospel, to a very specific time and place. In some ways this is what preachers do all the time. But their sermons are usually expositions on the ancient text. This is a rewriting of the text itself.

For me this is translation as political art. It’s an incredibly specific response to an incredibly specific context – in this case, the state government of Victoria, Australia, at the end of the last Millennium and the premiership of Jeff Kennett. The Economic Rationalists (the ‘Eco-Rats’) had been in the ascendancy, pursuing the kind of savage austerity economics the UK and US had begun a decade earlier under Thatcher and Reagan. The Crown Casino was licensed under the Kennett premiership, a vast complex on the South Bank of the Yarra, its lease and management shrouded in controversy. Community services were being cut left, right and centre. And a guy re-translates an ancient text in an attempt to name the problem and call time on its legitimacy. I love the description of the late-90s original as “bound in a loose leaf folder, stuffed with newspaper clippings and cartoons to illustrate the context in which it was written,” and its distribution, passed around an underground network of young activists in excited tones.

It’s a uniquely Australian piece of writing. Those who advocate for it refuse to take themselves too seriously. An example from the intro: “Marcus himself doubts the relevancy of this tale now that a few years have passed… Please dont consider this an important and lofty work.” And yet it is extremely direct and doesn’t pull any punches. There is no British verve or American swagger. This is a deadly serious rant that its proponents can laugh about.

It’s also doggedly Australian in its use of setting and idiom. The action all takes place in very specific locations around Victoria, and even at specific buildings in Melbourne’s CBD. And the narrative makes use of a very careful blend of Aboriginal and ‘Aussie’ culture. (If you’re not familiar with Aussie slang, you might need a quick tutorial.) Disciples of Jesus are not ‘fishers of men’, but those who cut tall poppies, the Australian way of describing the uncompromising take-down of anyone who attempts to get above themselves. This Gospel is not written to be comprehended elsewhere; it is written for the state of Victoria in 1999.

There’s definitely something about The Gospel of Vic which is a little forced – deliberately I think. It’s a piece of literary art, but it’s not designed to win prizes in literature. It’s potency is in its immediacy, but also in the depth of scholarship that underpins it. This is the Mark’s Gospel of Ched Myers’ seminal commentary, Binding the Strong Man. It is an exposé of political, economic and religious oppression. It’s a translation from a tradition of activist-academics. Language is used to name reality and expose the oppression of imperial ideology. In some ways the hermeneutic of this approach is quite conservative: the Scriptures describe reality and to invoke it is to inscribe a material change in the world. The difference is that this tradition does not read conservative values in the text; instead, it reads the very opposite.

I would like to see more Bible translations like this. Raw, uncut storytelling which unashamedly names present-day narratives within the arc of ancient texts. They are a way both of re-energising the meaning-making experiences we have with the Bible, which have become far too domesticated – often due to a spectacular failure of readerly imagination – and also of invoking alternatives in the present. It’s not necessary to hold a prior theological commitment to the Bible for a text to profoundly name a present-day experience. It is the meaning uncovered by the storytelling which is enervated with unpredictable power.

For Marcus’ community this was a translation that lived briefly, powerfully, and then faded away. Less than a year after The Gospel of Vic emerged, the Kennett government fell in a shock election, decided by precisely the swing voters from the regions named in Marcus’ text. Was this translation partly responsible?

Soon after, 9/11 plunged the world into a new era, where the anti-capitalist surge of the late Millennium was swept aside in a new world order that entirely reframed the nature of globalisation.

And so the text died. And the text is longing to be reborn, translated again.

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