top of page

Modern English Versions - Cautious Verdict, Part 2 of 2




Edmonson's modernized version is called The Most Difficult Journey You'll Ever Make. The Introdiuction and notes in the text are actually by Tony Jones. Jones is the one who points out that even a modernized translation -that word again- will have unfamiliar word and phrases; 'chances are that you're going to have to read this book with a dictionary (or computer) by your side.' (ix) He offers the provision of editorial notes along the way to 'help you through a difficult place' - which makes the text sound a little like the Slough of Despond! At the same time, Jones shares Bunyan's goal, 'I hope that this work will aid you in prayer, guide your devotion, and, ultimately, bring you closer to Jesus.'(x)


Those reader notes definitely contributes to a discontinuous reading that points to reflection beyond the story plot itself. The tone of the notes is often casual and fun: Obstinate and Pliable 'would make a good comedy team' (6) 'Christian's no dummy. He's starting to catch on to the meaning of these dioramas, especially this one that looks like a war movie'(42). Jones explains Trinity (34), and Sanctification (36), and Catechism (119). He calls out anti-semitism of Bunyan's day in his treatment of Mt Sinai - even if this is an interesting charge against Bunyan's source text by Paul in Galatians. He suggests that at Doubting Castle, the Giants Despair and Distrust might today be called 'by another name: Depression. As the leading cause of suicide, untreated depression is a real problem in our world, and Bunyan gives voice to some suicidal thoughts...'(164). This is pastorally well meant, even if spiritual depression may be a different diagnosis than clinical depression, and therefore the latter should not be so easily addressed as by Christian finding the key of Promise in his bosom/chest pocket...So Jones notes as a follow up at that escape point: 'We do, indeed, know more about depression today than John Bunyan did, so it might seem a little too easy to get past suicidal thoughts by finding a Promise in your pocket' (169).


All this to point out that Edmonson's modernized text, which, as we have seen, removes obstacles of format/ dialogue, while placing bible references embedded in the text, breaks up the challenge of Bunyan's thought world with interpretative notes, within the text block of the page, as a kind of empathetic and explanatory relief to the modern reader. Edmonson's religious order, indicated by the suffix, C.J, is that of the Catholic Josephite Fathers, or St Joseph's Society of the Sacred Heart - a missionary order dedicated to serving the African American community. This underlines the decision to remove skin color reference for the Flatterer. This also points to the value of recognizing this Paraclete Press edition as a rarer ecumenical rather than conservative Protestant publication effort. So, while some readers are seeking out Bunyan precisely to encourage their Protestant or evangelical convictions, this edition shows how PP has found a home in a broader Christian commonwealth, even if it means reading against the grain at times.



Alan Vermilye's text is the most recent revision, and the most thorough going in adapting to contemporary novelistic writing patterns. For example, at the trial at Vanity (132-133), his Pickthank, named Flatterer, doesn't just speak. His speech is shaped by narrative description from Vermilye - interpretative and embellishing. So when he begins, Vermilye writes ...'began Flatterer, who was eager to please the court and those in attendance' which is implicit for the reader in the dialogue Bunyan gives him but not stated as such. Also mid speech, Vermilye adds that Flatterer 'paused as if for effect then continued'. When Judge Hate-Good responds we don't just have the words of his reply but this emotional framing, that he 'angrily spat' the words out. And then Faithful response is also couched, and the reader coached, with 'Faithful calmly replied' where Bunyan has his words but no dispositional description. And then, the judge's reply is again embellished with the little detail, '"You scoundrel!" the judge said, almost coming out of this seat.'


In his introduction, Vermilye states his goal to 'convert this antiquated text into simple conversational English without being unfaithful to the original. In fact, if you compare my version with the original, you will find no key element missing' (8). So here is the suggestion that the key elements of the text are not the language of the text but the meaning behind it. The novelistic narration described above is owned up front as Vermilye points to his 'interpretation of character reactions modified or enhanced to produce a more contemporary style of expression without sacrificing the intrinsic meaning' (8). Again, the meaning is intrinsic rather than bound to the original formulation.


In her preface to the Faithfully Retold version, Cheryl Ford comments that 'Today's Christian is increasingly bring drawn towards a clash of cultures. He finds himself in growing opposition to the surrounding culture, not unlike the setting in which Bunyan found himself.'(xii). Teaching PP for a high school Sunday School class, Ford determined that a modern version was needed 'that would be complete and faithful to the original, without taking great liberties to embellish the story on the one hand and without subtracting from it on the other.' Her goal is to produce a text that is 'easy to read yet true to the story'(xv). Ultimately the test is to meet the need to 'communicate with our generation while still sounding like John Bunyan.' Or, in other words, changing what Bunyan sounds like to what you imagine he would sound like if he said the same thing today, while staying faithful to how he said it originally - which ends up sounding rather odd, but also gets at the tight rope being walked by modernizing authors. With no explanatory notes, Ford is confident that the text will speak clearly once syntactical, grammatical, and lexical difficulties are removed.


Ford's culture clash comment places here firmly in the American evangelical context. Her respect for the theology of the text does not call for notes to correct Bunyan or point out problems. And we've seen that she, like Edmonson and Vermilye, silently removes the racialized description of the Flatterer.


There is no easy way to render a verdict. My bias is to allow the text to present its theology without revisionist commentary - the reader can assess, so I lean away from the style of presentation of the Edmonson text, which assumes necessarily that we have moved beyond Bunyan. This could be true of any reader, of course, but need not be primed. Otherwise the Edmonson text is presented in a way that welcomes new readers - even with the nice touch of the revised title, The Most Difficult Journey.


Between Vermilye and Ford, I find myself making judgements for purpose. Vermilye's novelistic embellishments do make the story more accessible. The formatting into chapters is well done, even though the episodes of the Interpreter's House are oddly spaced out on the page. I think this is, as Vermilye intended, a good adaptation or translation to contemporary English reading patterns. I should note the there remain puzzles for the modern reader because Bunyan's choice of story and form of theological argument and proof texting will be alien to those outside Christian circles - but that speaks to Vermilye's faithfulness in terms of content. He does not abridge.


Ford's book, containing both Parts I and II, meets my needs as a professor teaching PP, allowing that students may be reading outside of their native language, or with relatively little literary experience with older texts. I allow students to choose between a seventeenth century language edition and Ford's. Part of the motivation of this blog series was to see if I wanted to revise that quick judgment, made in course preparation four years ago. I find I will stick with my decision. I like that she lays the page out with marginal references and some of the marginal notations.


Overall, I'm left pondering what revisers understand themselves to mean when seeking to be 'faithful' to Bunyan - this can be read theologically, literarily, stylistically; it could point to a pre-text in his presumed psychology or personality, or a likelihood of meaning something clear but writing it unclearly (as opposed to just having written something unclearly because his thinking really was just unclear at that point).


And, by the way, this survey was somewhat random: I missed out other potential modernizations which would get treatment in a fuller write up, including C J Lovik's edition for Crossway, and Edward Hazelbakers' for Bridge-Logos. (James H Thomas's retelling into Today's English is, however, very much yesterday's, dating as it does to 1964.)






41 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page