Longtime readers of this blog will know of my affection for the NEB/REB line of translation and the touches of literary excellence one finds therein. One particular phrase, “a wilderness of words”, has captivated me enough to make its way into my blog tagline and spawn several posts exploring the underlying Greek word, mataiologia, that it translates. But where did this alliterative phrase come from? Was it the original genius of a NEB translator or, like “thrice dyed villian“, are its roots in contemporary literature?
To this point, I have not been able to determine the exact NEB translators for 1 Timothy, where this phrase occurs. For what it’s worth, the New Testament translation team [source] consisted of:
- Professor C. H. Dodd (Convener)
- Dr. G. S. Duncan
- Dr. W. F. Howard
- Professor G. D. Kilpatrick
- Professor T. W. Manson
- Professor C. F. D. Moule
- J. A. T. Robinson
- G. M. Styler
- Professor R. V. G. Tasker
They were assisted by a Literary Committee:
- Professor Sir Roger Mynors
- Professor Basil Willey
- Sir Arthur Norrington
- Anne Ridler
- Canon Adam Fox
- Dr. John Carey
Whether all of these worked on each NT book or, as is more likely, each was a primary translator for individual books, I cannot say. Perhaps someone with a Cambridge Bible Commentary on 1 Timothy would be able to see if the translators are identified in the full text; the commentary itself elides this phrase.
I have, however, had more success in sourcing the phrase. As best as I can determine, it was coined by Joseph Conrad in his novel Under Western Eyes (1911), which is viewed as “a response to the themes explored” in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which Conrad reputedly detested.
[Under Western Eyes] is full of cynicism and conflict about the historical failures of revolutionary movements and ideals. Conrad remarks in this book, as well as others, on the irrationality of life, and the unfairness with which suffering is inflicted upon the innocent and poor and the careless disregard for fellow life with whom we share existence.
The phrase in question comes at almost the very beginning of the text, where the anonymous English narrator introduces himself and his Russian protagonist:
To begin with I wish to disclaim the possession of those high gifts of imagination and expression which would have enabled my pen to create for the reader the personality of the man who called himself, after the Russian custom, Cyril son of Isidor—Kirylo Sidorovitch—Razumov.
If I have ever had these gifts in any sort of living form they have been smothered out of existence a long time ago under a wilderness of words. Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality. I have been for many years a teacher of languages. It is an occupation which at length becomes fatal to whatever share of imagination, observation, and insight an ordinary person may be heir to. To a teacher of languages there comes a time when the world is but a place of many words and man appears a mere talking animal not much more wonderful than a parrot.
As has been explored in previous posts, the phrase “a wilderness of words” in the NEB/REB is used to translate the Greek mataiologia, which can be more literally translated as “empty words”, “meaningless talk” (NRSV) or “fruitless discussion” (NASB). This certainly fits with Conrad’s notion that words are “the great foes of reality” and fatal to “imagination and expression“, eventually more fitting of a parrot and the “empty talkers” of Paul’s day than of a human being.
The NEB translation team began work on the New Testament in 1946, some 35 years after Conrad’s novel was published, allowing for a generation or two of readers to become familiar with it. A 1989 article in Time magazine on the REB notes that “when the New English Bible was compiled, it was fashionable among some scholars to depart from the preserved texts of the Old Testament in favor of readings based on nonbiblical writings.”
In addition to departing from the standard Masoretic text, the NEB also departed from “the preserved texts” of the king of translations, the KJV. The NEB translators deliberately intended to use contemporary idioms in order to reach those for whom the standard KJV text was inaccessible. For the translators to thus appeal to contemporary literary idioms or phrases is not beyond the pale of imagination and fits well within their stated objectives.
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If I may, I conclude with two related items of trivia:
The phrase “a wilderness of words” has been used as the title of a critical work exploring “the problematical sense of an ending in Conrad’s tales and novellas.” Author Ted Billy “demonstrates that Conrad’s endings, instead of reinforcing the meaning of the narrative or lending finality, actually provide a contrasting perspective that clashes with the narrative’s general drift. Hence, Conrad’s artistic endgames celebrate indeterminancy and uncertainty — both in life and in the fictions we create to give our lives meaning.”
Finally, I must note an English word that has been used in reference to Conrad’s views on the function of language: “logomachy”, meaning “a dispute over or about words”. Note the similarity between logomachy and mataiologia? The Greek roots are different (machē, “battle” vs. mataios, “devoid of force, truth, success, result”), but the similarity cannot be denied, especially when taking Ambrose Bierce’s definition of logomachy in The Devil’s Dictionary:
A war in which the weapons are words and the wounds punctures in the swim-bladder of self-esteem — a kind of contest in which, the vanquished being unconscious of defeat, the victor is denied the reward of success.
Devoid of success indeed!