Glad News from Mark: a translation of the Greek text


My teaching career at the Brussels Institut Supérieur pour Traducteurs et Interprètes came to a close during a mid-life crisis, when, feeling a need to clarify my views on life, I chose to become a student again. A three year course in theology inspired a passion for exegesis Then, in a way, I came round full circle to link up once more with early loves: literature and poetry. The exception was that, this time round the languages were different: whereas formerly texts were in English and French, now they were in biblical Hebrew and Greek. I was delighted with my studies but where was this zigzag path leading me? One day the light dawned and I decided I would attempt to translate, re-translate of course, that fascinating book commonly known as The Book of Genesis. After nine years of painstaking research At the start… Genesis made new. A translation of the Hebrew text was published first by a poetry centre in Louvain, Belgium, in 1992, and then by Doubleday, NY, in 1993.

Crazy, but it gets crazier. Instead of moving on to the second book of the Bible, I had an irresistible urge to tackle the Gospel of Mark. Of the four canonical gospels, this one is my favourite. During my studies it had received special attention from Reverend Jean Mouson, a remarkable exegete whose courses I had followed in Brussels. My Greek was judged worthy of an A+ by King’s College, London, despite the fact that, flinging caution to the winds, I sat the exam after imbibing two half-beers, whereas usually I never drink more than one! So, all in all, the green light was on and I decided to plunge ahead!

My version of Mark’s Gospel is now ready for publication. I hope it will be accepted as a new, dynamic, contemporary space that can inspire actors, artists, linguists, psycho-therapists, students of the Scriptures… as well as the general reader interested in those roots of our culture which are linked to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The celebrated Russian artist, Irina Zatulovskaya, is joining in on the project. Irina has painted a dozen full-page illustrations and we look forward, she and I, to a beautiful book.  

The present article will now briefly introduce the source text, its origin, content and the languages that feed into it. It then looks at some details of the new translation. There are many ways of translating a text: the beautiful seventeenth century prose versions of the Scriptures represent one way; another way, in keeping with modern translational trends, seeks to convey a sense of authenticity to today’s reader by capturing the peculiar characteristics of the original. My purpose is to build a bridge between the old and the new, between past history and our fast-changing, modern world.


The source text

The Gospel of Mark is the oldest of the four canonical gospels (circa 60 Christian Era). It is also the shortest: it is divided into sixteen chapters, which end with verse 16, 8. The somewhat abrupt ending excludes manifestations of a risen Christ and accounts of an ecclesiastical mission. To compensate for these seeming omissions, various passages were proposed at a very early date: the best attested version of the complementary text appears in my translation under the heading appendix (Mk 16, 9-20). It draws for its content on the other three gospels, Acts, and the Pauline epistles. The theme and style of verses 16, 9-20 differ strikingly from the preceding chapters (1, 1-16, 8).

The main text is a patchwork of different pieces, or, to use the technical term, pericopes, originating in the oral tradition of a Christian community and more or less skilfully bound together by a redactor. The gospel communicates a sense of urgency. The word euthus/at once/all at once, which occurs forty-two times, is symptomatic. The story races ahead, leaving the receptive reader breathless and eager for more, ready to weep, ready to laugh. To illustrate this, on the one hand, the reader is subjected to the ominous note that increasingly pervades the story as it unfolds (vv 8, 31; 9, 30-31; 10, 33-34): chapter 13 is fearsome, apocalyptic; chapter 15 tells of the unjust assassination of innocence. On the other hand, the reader is invited to rejoice at the unquenchable vitality of nature: one pericope describes how the smallest possible seed develops and grows into a tree whose immense branches provide welcome shelter for birds (4, 30-32); another relates how some seeds survive predatory birds, shortage of earth, scorching sun and smothering brambles. Drawing sustenance from the earth, they grow, against all odds, and bear abundant fruit (4, 3-8).
The story follows a curve, comparable to a crescent moon lying on its back or a smile drawn by a child. There is much cause for joy before the line descends into suffering and death. Then it rises again with an evocation of life renewed beyond the grave (16, 6-8).


The gospel portrays a man of exceptional energy. He is a healer, a teacher. His very presence draws the crowds, while his freedom of spirit provokes deadly animosity. He is quick to anger (1, 41. 43; 3, 5), confrontational (4, 40), capable of biting irony (7, 6), irritated by the slow understanding of his disciples (8, 17-18), outspoken to the point of harshness (8, 33; 11, 17), ready to undertake fierce argument with the local authorities (11, 27-33). He experiences weariness (8, 21) and frustration (9, 19), yet in the long run he is infinitely patient with his followers (10, 35-40).His essential message affirms the proximity of a transcendent dimension and consequently he summons his listeners to a change of heart (1, 15), the ‘heart’ being the seat of understanding as well as sentiment. Whereas in Hebrew-Jewish tradition the prevailing metaphor for the divine was kingship, he lays new emphasis on a father-son relationship so intimate that in a moment of agonised apprehension before his death he cries out abba, which literally means ‘Dad’ (14, 36).


The languages of the source text: Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, Latin

The gospels are written in Greek, the lingua franca of the Mediterranean countries after the time of Alexander the Great in the third century B.C.E. (Before Christian Era). Today's readers are sometimes surprised to learn that they are not written in Aramaic, the spoken language of the day in Palestine. Although some Aramaic speech is recorded in Mark, it is translated into Greek in the text. To give an example:

He took hold of the little child’s hand and said to her
talitha cum!
which is translated
Girl, I say to you, awake!  (5, 41)

The same applies to the Aramaic place-name, Golgotha, which is followed by its Greek name: ‘They brought him to the place Golgotha – which is translated Skull Rock’ (literally, Place-of-a-Skull, so named because the rock looked like a skull) (15, 22).

The third language to play a role in the text is Hebrew. The gospel draws heavily on the Hebrew Bible. Verses 13, 22-27, for instance, abound in biblical imagery. It is noteworthy, however, that biblical references bear the imprint of the Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint (3rd century B.C.E.). Nevertheless, Hebrew words without translation are found in the text, for example, Rabbi (9, 5), Rabboni (10, 51), Hosanna (11, 9). Furthermore, Greek grammar is affected by Hebrew usage. Verse 2, 15, for instance, follows a Hebrew construction: ‘Yes, they were many and they followed him’ meaning ‘There were many who followed him’. There are also cases of tautology, which is typical of Hebrew: ‘they feared with great fear’ (4, 41); ‘they were amazed with great amazement’ (5, 42)….

The fourth language is Latin. The text is peppered with Latin loanwords. To illustrate, here are some examples with their English renderings: legio/legion (5, 9); speculator/headsman (6, 27); denarius/denarius (6, 37); census/poll-tax (12, 14); flagellare/flog (15, 15); centurion/centurion (15, 39). Moreover , in certain Greek phrases it is possible to discern an underlying Latin verb, for instance: iter facere/ to make one’s way (2, 23); satis facere/satisfy (15, 15); genua ponere/ bend the knee (15, 19)…Finally, the meaning of Greek vocabulary is sometimes amplified with a reference to Latin. In one case, the Greek word for court is explained by the Latin word, praetorium: ‘The soldiers led him away inside the court – that is the praetorium – and called together the whole cohort’ (15, 16). In another case, the value of two Greek coins, lepta duo, is estimated in terms of a Roman coin, the quadrans: ‘And there came a poor widow who threw two copper coins - which make a quadrans’ (12, 42). Clearly, the use of Latin words is related to the Roman occupation. The word praetorium occurs in a specifically Roman context: the court is that of Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator. The case of the Jewess with her copper coins is more puzzling. Suffice it to say that the handling of Roman coins bearing Caesar’s image and inscription would be considered contaminating for a Jew. I must leave it at that.

In summary, four languages were current in Palestine, three of which, Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin, add their colour to the Greek of the source text.


The new translation: Glad News from Mark

The new translation is based onthe Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland, Deutsche Bibelstiftung Stuttgart 1979, which is standard in academia. The texts of the New Testament have, of course, been translated and re-translated over the centuries. Can I still hope to do something different? One thing works in my favour: much loved translations such as The Revised Standard Version have acquired a sacred character with the result that translators in this field tend to be conservative; they do not look for novelty.

I started out on my task by working on the vocabulary (see Word links below), at the same time taking into account formal aspects of the text and creating a new format, which reflects the word order and rhythms of the Greek. When the body of the translation was ready, I felt able to take several bold decisions.

The first innovation concerns the title. The NTG proposes Kata Markon, literally According to Mark. Here I follow traditional English versions but with a difference. The name ‘Mark’ distinguishes this gospel from the others, so the title includes ‘Mark’ but not the usual ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’. I take ‘glad’ from ‘glad tidings’ and end up with Glad news from Mark. (For information, the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were attributed to the gospel texts as late as the second century C.E. They came to stay).


Naming: Jeshua, god, LORD and I AM

Another important option affects the name of the central figure. In English versions he is known as Jesus. ‘Jesus’ is a transcription of the Greek, whereas the original Hebrew name is Jeshua. Jeshua, meaning ‘God will save’ is the name his father gave him (Mt 1, 25). I prefer to reject the over-burdened, not to say hackneyed, name ‘Jesus’and write ‘Jeshua’.

Furthermore, the source text records theos/god with a small letter and the word is usually preceded by the definite article. The equivalent of theos in earlier Hebrew tradition is elohim, meaning god or gods. Neither theos nor elohim are personal names of the deity. In the new translation therefore theos is rendered as ‘god’ with a small letter.
The word ‘God’, written with a capital, has generally come to be understood as the personal name of the deity but this view is not supported by scriptural tradition. In the Hebrew Bible the divine name is mysterious. Known as the tetragrammaton, it is made up of four consonants which are unpronounceable. (In At the start…Genesis made new I transcribed the four letters as YHWH).What happens then when the Hebrew text is recited or read aloud? When I once asked an elderly Jew to read from the Bible, he first glanced through the text to see where the tetragrammaton occurred in order to prepare himself for a silent pause. That is one way round the difficulty. Another current way is to replace the tetragrammaton by adonaï/Lord/s, which gives kurios in Greek. As a relic of the divine name, I translate kurios as ‘LORD’ without an article and write it with capital letters. In ancient manuscripts the tetragrammaton is often written in ways that distinguish it from the body of the text.

Something more can be said about the tetragrammaton. The four consonants are related to the verb ‘to be’ and, in Exodus 3, 14, the divine name is revealed to Moses as ‘I AM’. Curiously, the expression ego eimi/I AM is found three times in the Gospel of Mark (Mk 6, 50; 13, 6; 14, 62). Here is one example:

   But when they saw him walking on the sea
   they thought it was a ghost
   They shrieked
   Yes, all saw him and were disturbed
   At once he spoke with them
   Said to them, Courage! I AM!
   Have no fear (6, 49-50)

The scriptural tradition described above, not to mention the extraordinary feat of walking on the sea, which here symbolises evil and death, favours in my opinion an esoteric rendering: ‘I AM’. By way of comparison, The Revised Standard Version adapts ego eimi to the immediate context: in this case it reads‘Take heart, it is I; have no fear’ (6, 50b).


Word links

A basic novelty in this new version concerns the rendering of Greek vocabulary in English. A great deal of spadework has gone into the translation of each word in order to ensure that every Greek word has a corresponding English word. With the help of a concordance, Concordance to the New Testament, Moulton and Geden, T & T Clark, Edinburgh 1989, it is possible to study a particular word in all its contexts and thus opt for the best possible rendering. This research provides the raw material for my translation. The result may be considered poetic rather than didactic, yet it is significant for exegetical studies. For example, in chapter six, seven Greek words used of John the washer appear in the English text as follows: ‘he is awakened’ (6, 16); ‘take hold’ (6, 17); ‘bound’ (6, 17); ‘kill’ (6, 19); ‘opportunity’ (6, 21); ‘corpse’ (6, 29); ‘a grave’ (6, 29). The same Greek words re-occur in later chapters, with reference to Jeshua and exactly the same English words are chosen to translate them: ‘he is awakened’ (16, 6); ‘take hold’ (14, 44); ‘bound’ (15, 1); ‘kill’ (14, 1); ‘opportunity’ (14, 11); ‘corpse’ (15, 45); ‘a grave’ (15, 46). It is suggested that the preservation of word links here represents a gain: it underscores what is common to John and Jeshua, pointing at semantic level to Mark’s presentation of John as Jeshua’s precursor.
By way of comparison, the RSV reads ‘he has been raised’ (6, 16) and ‘he has risen’ (16, 6). Two verbs ‘raise’ and ‘rise’ and two moods, the passive and the active, establish a difference between John and Jeshua which I do not find in the source text.

A second example: the Greek word sindon/a linen cloth, occurs four times in the Gospel of Mark, twice in verses 14, 51-52 and twice again in verse 15, 46:

   A young man followed him
   wrapped in a linen cloth over his naked body
   They took hold of him
   But he left the linen cloth behind
   and naked fled (14, 51-52)

   He (Joseph) bought a linen cloth
   lifted him (Jeshua) down
   swathed him in the linen cloth
   and put him in a tomb hewn out of the rock
   Then he rolled a stone up against the door of the grave (15, 46)

As there is no mention of a linen cloth elsewhere in the gospel, the double mention in each of these two passages creates a striking cross connection between the episode of the young man and the burial of Jeshua. The episode of the young man is puzzling. Who is he? Why in two brief verses, is attention drawn to his unconventional attire, to his naked body and the ‘linen cloth’that covers it? This passage has long remained an enigma for readers and exegetes alike. When connected with verse 15, 46, however, the ‘linen cloth’acquires particular significance. In this verse it is used to swathe Jeshua's corpse: it suggests preparation for burial. Furthermore, in the light of the link established between the young man and Jeshua, the young man’s abandonment of the ‘linen cloth’ and his flight foreshadow Jeshua's ultimate escape from the grave.

In summary, thanks to a word link, the episode of the young man and the story of Jeshua are seen to be mutually enlightening. Remembering that no manifestations of a risen Christ are recorded in the gospel, I suggest that this esoteric evocation is particularly significant.


Restoring and renewing the vocabulary of the source text

The language of the gospel is lively, down to earth and rich in metaphor. Whereas translators generally tend to neutralise colourful expressions relating to Jeshua, the present version attempts to echo them. Here are some examples. When Jeshua masters an unclean spirit (1, 25) or the tempestuous wind (4, 39), he says ‘Down, beast!’ (literally, ‘Be muzzled’). When dying on the cross, he ‘shouts out’. A verb such as ‘shout’ is generally felt to be unsuitable and several Greek verbs are toned down to one English verb, ‘cry’. I have ‘Jeshua shouted out A great cry!’. When he faces the needy crowds, the Greek verb used to denote sympathy evokes a turning upside down of the innards, so I write ‘he felt for them in the pit of his stomach’ (6, 34). When he heals a man with skin disease, the Greek participle is akin to the snorting of an animal: it expresses inner turmoil and emotion, anger and displeasure. This seems in keeping with the rough action of the main verb: ‘Fuming at him, he cast him out at once’ (1, 43).When Jeshua invites his friends to follow him he says ‘I will make you catch human fish’…

Moreover, inspired by the desire to modernise, the new version makes a deliberate attempt to update the vocabulary of the gospel. Here are a few examples with their current translations: ‘riddle’ for ‘parable’ ‘secret’, for ‘mystery’; ‘trust’ for ‘faith’; ‘change’ for ‘conversion’; ‘trip’ for ‘stumble’. I also prefer ‘put him on the cross’ to ‘crucify’: it has a beat, easily picked up by a crowd….
The following passage, quoted first from the RSV, then from my rendering, illustrates the difference of effect:

John the baptiser appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (RSV 1, 4-5)

   there appeared in the desert John the washer
   He proclaimed a washing, a change of heart
   freedom from sins
   All the country of Judea came out to him
   all the inhabitants of Jerusalem also
   They were washed by him in the river Jordan
   owning their sins (1, 4-5)

It is not easy to break with the long-standing religious tradition that characterises translation of the Scriptures and these few lines required a great deal of thought on my part!


Reproducing formal aspects of the source text

Besides echoing tautology (see above), other characteristics of the source text are reproduced as follows. First, traces of spoken language which survive in the written text from the early oral tradition are maintained as such. The following passage provides an example:

   He ordered them not to take anything for the way
   - only a stick -
   no bread, no bag
   no copper for the belt
   but shod in sandals
   Do not clothe yourselves with two tunics!(6, 8)

Second, when part of a sentence is missing in the source text, it is left missing in the translation. In the following sentence, for instance, an imprecation is implied but not stated. The underlying Hebrew construction expresses strong condemnation:

   Amen I tell you
   … if a sign is given to this generation! (8, 12)

Another example: in a moment of great loneliness and agonised apprehension, Jeshua makes the following plea;

   Said, abba – Father –
   all things are possible to you
   Bear this cup away from me
   Nevertheless, not what I want
   but rather what you… (14, 36)

The blank space is suggestive. The sentence is suspended and what follows is left to the imagination.

Third, as redactor, Mark assembles pericopes inherited from an oral past to form a continuous text. The written text sometimes bears traces of his editorial work. Verse 12, 35, for instance, begins: ‘In response Jeshua said, as he taught in the temple…(12, 35).
The words ‘In response’ open a new pericope, but there is no reference in the preceding passage to the why and wherefore of Jeshua's response. On the contrary, the preceding sentence says ‘No one dared to question him any more’, so ‘In response’ is particularly inappropriate.

Fourth, an interesting example of underlying Hebrew usage is found in the phrase ‘on the one of the week’ (16, 2). The Greek form: ‘on the first of the week’ occurs in verse 16, 9. Comparable to fossils in the rock, these two phrases indicate two distinct historical strata: the early text and the subsequent appendix. Such detail is interesting for the exegete and delights someone like me who loves digging in the text and grubbing about with words!

In summary, irregular grammatical forms, awkward constructions, blank spaces, rough-edged transitions and odd phraseology are all carried over from the source text to the new version. Standard translations smooth over these weaknesses in the name of good prose writing. My version maintains them. I feel that they bear witness to the history of the text, preserve local colour and create an impression of authenticity which helps convey the reader to another time, another place.


The format of the new version

Glad News from Mark is presented with a new layout. The spoken rhythms of the source text, which was initially recited, read aloud and listened to, are reflected in a free verse form. The proposed line division makes the conjunction kai/and, which is current in the source text and is even found at the beginning of a new sentence, superfluous. The free verse form and the sparing use of kai lighten the text and make for an easy read as the eye travels down the page.
Moreover, the new form draws attention to repetition in the text: verses 3, 23- 26, for example, read as follows:

   He called them to him and told them in riddles
   How can satan cast out satan?
   If a kingdom is divided against itself
   that kingdom cannot stand
   If a household is divided against itself
   that household will not be able to stand
   If the satan rises up against himself and is divided
   he cannot stand and that is an end of him (3, 23-26)

Following some modern writers, I also sometimes drop the subject pronoun and write ‘said’, for instance, rather than ‘he said’. One word in place of two speeds up the read and underscores the lively style of the original. It also corresponds to the Greek, where pronoun and verb form a single word.

Punctuation is generally omitted. The absence of punctuation links up with the old and the new: punctuation as we know it was unknown to the ancients and it is often minimised or excluded in modern poetics. In the present version, however, I take the liberty of inserting exclamation marks for purposes of clarification or to enhance dramatic effect.

Finally, to allow the reader to perceive the gospel as a complete work of dramatic intensity, the translation is presented without those titles, subtitles or footnotes which have been added with time for the reader’s guidance but which are not found in the original text. However, divisions into chapter and verse, which are also subsequent additions, are maintained to facilitate consultation, or comparison with other versions.

Now, before a storm breaks out over my head, may I drink to your health with a couple of (half)-pints?

Published by the Translators Association, U.K. in In Other Words 2010, No 35, p 45