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Writer Benson Bobrick

Writer Benson Bobrick. He's the author of the recently published "Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired." The book chronicles the difficulties scholars had in translating the Bible into English - efforts that culminated in the King James version. Bobrick is the author of several books and lives in Brattleboro, Vermont.


Other segments from the episode on April 18, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 18, 2001: Interview with Benson Bobrick; Commentary on trumpeter Lester Bowie; Commentary on language.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Author Benson Bobrick talks about his new book "Wide As
the Waters" and about the history of the English Bible

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

Here are just a few expressions that you might never know if it weren't for
early translations of the Bible into English: sour grapes; eat, drink and be
merry; tender mercies; forever and ever; the shadow of death; the land of the
living; give up the ghost. The first translations of the Good Book from
Greek, Hebrew and Latin, culminating with the King James version, enriched our
language immeasurably. But as historian Benson Bobrick argues in his new
book, "Wide as the Waters," the influence the English Bible had on politics
was far more dramatic. He credits the popular dissemination of the Bible with
inspiring the end of the divine right of kings and the rise of modern

Bobrick writes that the first English Bible translators themselves were
considered revolutionaries and heretics. Ever since St. Jerome's version of
the Bible in the 4th century, Latin was the only language the church accepted
for its teachings. Terry spoke with Benson Bobrick last week.

Mr. BENSON BOBRICK (Author, "Wide As the Waters"): Since Jerome's translation
had been accepted by the church as the only true and authentic version, it had
become, in effect, the language of Scripture. In fact, the church maintained,
and would long maintain and, in fact, still maintains, that St. Jerome's
translation was based on more accurate manuscripts of the Hebrew and Greek
originals than any that any longer existed. So, in other words, it preserved,
in effect, the true meaning and intent of what the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures
had said.


John Wycliffe sponsored the first complete translation of the Bible into


GROSS: He started this in 1380. What was his motivation?

Mr. BOBRICK: Well, he was a troublemaker for the church on a number of
counts. He was opposed to acquisition by the church of material wealth. He
felt the church was too much preoccupied with worldly possessions. He felt
that the clergy was, by and large, corrupt and not attendant to its flock.
He felt that various church practices, such as indulgences and buying Masses
for the dead, the worship of relics and so on were corrupting and idolatrous.
And he felt that one of the reasons why so many people led ungodly lives was

because they didn't have access to the Scriptures, and therefore couldn't know
what the life of Christ had been, the life of Christ being the model of a
Christian life. And so his fundamental purpose was to make the Scriptures
available to the people so that they could understand, from his point of view,
what true piety was and they could judge the clergy accordingly and even
whether the pope himself was leading a life that was consistent with Christian

GROSS: Are there elements of the John Wycliffe translation from the 1380s
that we would know today, that were eventually incorporated into the King
James Bible?

Mr. BOBRICK: There are a few phrases; `gave up the ghost,' `hold one's
peace,' `well-stricken with age,' and, actually, even the verb `to know,' in
the sense of carnal knowledge. All those come from Wycliffe.

GROSS: Let's skip ahead about 100 years after John Wycliffe commissioned his
English language Bible. William Tyndale, who was considered the father of the
English Bible as we know it, he was born. And he knew several languages,
including Greek, Hebrew, Latin and Italian. What were his motivations for a
complete translation of the Bible into English?

Mr. BOBRICK: Well, his were really akin to Wycliffe's. He had encountered,
as a country chaplain, ignorance among the clergy. He felt that the common
folk were cut off from the holy wellsprings of what Scripture taught. And he
was infuriated, as Wycliffe had been, with the fact that the church had
reserved Scripture unto a privileged caste, meaning its own clergy and church
hierarchy. He felt that Christ's teachings and Scripture itself had been
meant for everybody, and the only way that they could have access to it was if
it was translated into their mother tongue.

GROSS: But Tyndale couldn't work in his own country, England. There was an
edict against heretical books. What did the edict have to say?

Mr. BOBRICK: These were laws meant to suppress any heretical doctrine or even
any discussion of ideas that might be deemed unorthodox. And among those
constitutions was a prohibition on not only the translation of Scripture into
the vernacular, but actually even also against its reading and circulation.
And, in fact, it was--and your listeners would probably be astonished to hear
it--a capital offense from 1408 into the middle of the reign of Henry VIII to
read, own or distribute the Scriptures in English.

GROSS: So how did he get around this?

Mr. BOBRICK: Well, he didn't...

GROSS: Did he leave England and write someplace else?

Mr. BOBRICK: Yeah, he did. He decided the only way he could see his project
through was to leave England and find some refuge on the Continent where he
could continue with his work. By that time he'd already translated most of
the New Testament in secret into English, but he needed a place that was safe
for him to finish it and then to see it into print.

GROSS: Yeah. In fact, the bishop who you mentioned, he issued a decree in
1526 to deliver within 30 days all books containing the translation of the New
Testament in the English tongue.


GROSS: And he used the word `pestiferous and most pernicious poison.'

Mr. BOBRICK: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I like `pestiferous,' especially `pestiferous' as describing an
English translation of the Bible. It's such an difficult idea to grasp...

Mr. BOBRICK: Well, and especially...

GROSS: ...that it would be considered so horrible.

Mr. BOBRICK: Yes. Right. And especially as applied to Tyndale's
translation, which was masterful and forms the basis of the King James version
of the New Testament. But it was an amazing tour de force in the way in which
he had rendered New Testament Greek into a homely, vigorous yet accurate

GROSS: How much of the King James Bible comes from Tyndale's translation?

Mr. BOBRICK: Well, probably about 90 percent of the New Testament does. And
Tyndale also translated, when he was on the Continent, the first five books
of Moses and, while he was in prison, most of the books between Joshua and I
Chronicles. He never translated the Old Testament entire. He didn't have the
opportunity to do that, because in 1535 he was--where he was--when he was in
Antwerp in hiding, he was trapped and abducted by imperial agents and taken to
the Vilvoorde Castle, which is some distance north of Brussels, and kept in
prison there for most of a year and then tried as a heretic, condemned,
strangled and burned at the stake.

GROSS: It's really just amazing. You write a lot about the language that
Tyndale used in his translation.


GROSS: And you describe how he took some of the constructions from the
original Hebrew and used those constructions in his English translation.


GROSS: And one typical construction is the use of a noun plus `of' plus a


GROSS: instead of Moses' Book, it's the Book of Moses.


GROSS: Are there other examples of that you can think of?

Mr. BOBRICK: Instead of the `best song,' `the song of songs'; instead of
`strong man,' `a man of strength.' That particular Biblical rhythm is really
his--one of his major contributions, since he caught the feel of the Hebrew
just right and he recognized that the word order in Hebrew was almost the same
as it is in English, so that there was a real possibility to render it
directly and with a natural, rhythmic ease into the English tongue.

GROSS: And you say that some of the phrases that he used were directly from
Hebrew turns of phrase, like `the Lord's anointed,' `flowing with milk and

Mr. BOBRICK: Right.

GROSS: ...`stranger in a strange land.' Can you talk more about that?

Mr. BOBRICK: Hebrew is very concrete and vigorous in its concrete images.
And Tyndale had a natural ability to capture that kind of concrete energy and
force in his own language. I think that's what makes many of his phrases so

GROSS: It's funny, because I always assumed that things--that phrases like
`song of songs,' `holy of holies'...


GROSS: know, `flowing with milk and honey,' that this had to do with
the English language of an earlier century. And you're saying it wasn't just
that, it was that he tried to go back to the Hebrew language.

Mr. BOBRICK: Well, there are similarities between Hebrew and Anglo-Saxon.
Anglo-Saxon also tends towards parallel construction, and it also favors
concrete images, so that there were English traditions which were consonant
with or, in any case, agreed in general with Hebrew linguistic traditions.
And, of course, the English language during Tyndale's time was still, in many
ways, being formed. And so he was enriching it, not only by carrying forward
earlier English language traditions, but by taking ways of phrasing from
Hebrew and Greek that have stayed with us.

GROSS: And let's just root this in terms of time.

Mr. BOBRICK: Sure.

GROSS: We're talking about--what year was his Bible published?

Mr. BOBRICK: The New Testament was published in 1526. At least that's when
copies reached English shores.

GROSS: And it was 10 years later that he was found guilty of heresy and

Mr. BOBRICK: Yes. Right.

GROSS: I'd like you to choose a passage from the Tyndale translation that
would be largely familiar to us today...

Mr. BOBRICK: Sure.

GROSS: ...a passage that you find particularly beautiful in its language.

Mr. BOBRICK: What I'd like to read is Tyndale's translation of The
Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-16, which is familiar to every English ear.

(Reading) `When he saw the people, he went up into a mountain, and when he was
set, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them,
saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the
meek, for they shall inherit the Earth. Blessed are they which hunger and
thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall
see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children
of God."'

GROSS: The construction that he keeps repeating there, `blessed are they,'
it's not from the Hebrew. This is the New Testament.


GROSS: Is that construction borrowed from the original language?

Mr. BOBRICK: Yes. I mean, it's an accurate and pretty literal translation of
how the Greek reads.

GROSS: And what do you particularly find beautiful in that passage?

Mr. BOBRICK: There's a simple directness and beauty to it for me because it
combines a lofty sentiment with a simple vocabulary and a simple directness of
speech. And that kind of combination, which somehow or other, is able to
convey the noblest and most profound spiritual thoughts in a clear and simple
way I think is one of the reasons why the English Bible, which owes so much to
Tyndale, really took hold and made such a difference in the life of the
English-speaking peoples.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Benson Bobrick and his new
book is a history of the English Bible and is called "Wide as the Waters."

Let's take a short break, here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Benson Bobrick and his new
book, "Wide as the Waters," is a history of the English Bible.

Some of the most famous lines from Genesis are also from Tyndale's


GROSS: You want to name a few?

Mr. BOBRICK: Sure. Actually, I could--if you like, I can read a passage

GROSS: Sure. That would be great.

Mr. BOBRICK: ...the Old Testament, as well. Here's Tyndale's translation of
the beginning of Genesis.

(Reading) `In the beginning, God created heaven and Earth. The earth was void
and empty and darkness was upon the deep and the spirit of God moved upon the
water. Then God said, "Let there be light." And God saw the light, that it
was good, and divided the light from the darkness and called the light day and
the darkness night. And so the evening and the morning was made the first

GROSS: And, again, the man responsible for that translation was executed as
a heretic. And his last words were, `Lord, open the king of England's eyes.'
The kind of England at the time was Henry VIII.

Mr. BOBRICK: That's right.

GROSS: What was Henry VIII's position on this English-language Bible?

Mr. BOBRICK: Well, by the time Tyndale was executed, Henry's position had
radically changed. In the beginning, he was a staunch supporter of the
Church of Rome and for as long as his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was
intact, he was an archenemy of Luther. They exchanged vitriolic pamphlets.
Henry called Luther a `limb of Satan' and Luther called Henry a `swine of
hell' and all sorts of things like that.

And it wasn't until he became infatuated with Ann Boleyn and wanted to divorce
Catherine that he began to take an interest in the ways in which English
Scripture could support his own break and his growing break with Rome. So as
his own determination to marry Ann proceeded, he began to look with a more
favorable eye on the translation of the Scriptures into English and their
distribution among his people. Because, after all, he was now becoming, and
would soon become, the head of a national church, and he wanted to break the
power of the Roman clergy that is the Latin clergy, which is what the majority
of the clergy in England then still were.

And one of the ways in which to do that was to create a clergy that read the
Scriptures in English and that preached to the people in English from those

GROSS: Now Henry VIII got Miles Coverdale to oversee yet another translation.
Why did he want another translation? Why wasn't he happy with the Tyndale

Mr. BOBRICK: Henry had tried to suppress Tyndale's Scriptures--the
translation--during the time that he was supporting the Church of Rome. And,
in fact, the pope had declared Henry to be a defender of the faith, an epithet
that he'd much sought as giving him greater dignity. After he began to accept
the usefulness of having the Scriptures in English, he was--and this was
really more the work of Thomas Cromwell than it is Henry, but in any case, the
state thought that Coverdale's translation might be a little less
controversial and might, in some way or another, make an English translation
more acceptable to those of Catholic views, since there were a number of
ecclesiastical terms that were--the translation for which was much disputed.
And Miles Coverdale had a kind of linguistic tact and an ability to compromise
that Cromwell and Henry, through Cromwell, found appealing.

GROSS: And how much of this Coverdale translation would we be familiar with
today? How much of that was used in the King James edition?

Mr. BOBRICK: There are phrases which survive, phrases like `pride of life.'
And my favorite translation of his is `loving kindness' for the word `agape'
in Greek, which is alternately translated `charity' or, in Tyndale's
translation, as `love.' But `loving kindness,' I think, is probably the best
translation of that word that's ever been made.

GROSS: There's also `tender mercies' and `the valley of the shadow of death.'

Mr. BOBRICK: Yes, right. Those are also Coverdale's.

BOGAEV: Benson Bobrick's new book is "Wide as the Waters."

We'll hear more of Terry's conversation with Benson Bobrick in the second
half of our show. I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead continues his series on
so-called avant-garde jazz with the music of trumpeter Lester Bowie. Linguist
Geoff Nunberg talks about apologies. And more of our conversation about the
English Bible with historian Benson Bobrick.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross. Let's
continue now with Terry's interview with historian Benson Bobrick. His new
book, "As Wide As The Waters," tells of the long struggle to translate the
Bible into English and the political upheaval this caused. The mission to
bring the Scriptures to a general public culminated in 1605, when King James
commissioned a committee of scholars to come up with a new version of the
English Bible.

GROSS: What was King James' motivation in commissioning a new translation?

Mr. BOBRICK: Well, it was primarily to oversee and see that an authoritative
English Bible was established, which both Puritan and High Church and perhaps
even Catholic subjects could accept.

GROSS: So they were disagreeing about the previous translation.

Mr. BOBRICK: Oh, yes. The translations had been a matter of great
contention, especially, as I mentioned earlier, the translation of certain
Ecclesiastical terms. So there was a national interest in doing this, of
course, and also, he took pride in the project in a personal way because he
was a biblical scholar and had always been interested in one day presiding
over some such translation that would have lasting and enduring support.

GROSS: The King James Bible, in addition to interpolating in excerpts of
previous translations, also comes up with new translations for the Bible. I'm
going to ask you to read a couple of previously existing translations and then
the new King James translation of a famous--a famous--a very well-known
passage from the Bible.

Mr. BOBRICK: Yes. I'll begin with Coverdale's version of the fourth verse
of Isaiah, Chapter 2. `They shall break their swords and spears to make
scythes, sickles and saws thereof. From that time forth, shall not one people
lift up weapon against another. Neither shall they learn to fight from thence

The Geneva had reworked this to read, `They shall break their swords also into
mattocks and their spears into scythes. Nations shall not lift up a sword
against nation, neither shall they learn to fight anymore.'

But the finely tuned ear of the King James men found the just and enduring
phrase. `They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into
pruning hooks. Nations shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall
they learn war anymore.'

GROSS: And I think it's probably pretty clear, but tell us how you think the
King James version improves on the other two.

Mr. BOBRICK: Well, it's partly a rhythmic thing, I think. The word choice is
also a little different, but there's a more undulating rhythm literally to the
way the words flow forth, and the King James translators were very attentive
to nuances of that sort. There's this sort of indefinable eloquence in the
way in which they paste their translation and the way in which it tends to

GROSS: We could probably spend years talking about the impact of the King
James Bible on everything that happened in the world subsequent to its
publication. But since we don't have several years, I'm going to ask you for
the really short version of what would be a really long answer about the
impact of this Bible.

Mr. BOBRICK: Well, essentially, I think by giving the people direct access to
the sacred text, it created habits of reading and reflection. And these, in
turn, led to the ever-widening circulation and printing of books. It led to
the rise of a literate public. It led to the rise of free discussion. It led
to the rise of dissent among the people because it gave authority to
individual interpretation, and ultimately, I think it led to the democratic
systems of government, which we enjoy today, because free discussion and the
idea that the people had a right to decide things for themselves--really the
English Bible sanctioned the right and capacity of the people to think for
themselves. All that is the fundamental prerequisite for the democratic forms
of government that we enjoy.

GROSS: Knowing what you know about the various translations of the Bible and
specifically the history of the King James version, how do you react to the
fundamentalism that takes each word in the Bible as the literal Word of God?

Mr. BOBRICK: Well, I would say it's subject to dispute. I'm not sure anyone
should be confident of saying what the Word of God actually says, because
every passage is subject to varying interpretations, and I think to be
dogmatic about anything in the Bible that way is a mistake.

GROSS: But it sounds like every word in the Bible or many words of the Bible
are subject to different translations, as well as interpretations.

Mr. BOBRICK: Yes. They're subject to different--well, that's one of the
ways in which the interpretation has expressed itself, is in the difference in
translation. The great dispute between Tyndale and Sir Thomas More was over
just that fact. Tyndale had translated certain Greek words with complete
literal accuracy. Ecclesia, which the Catholic Church insisted on translating
or understanding as `church,' he translated as `authorized assembly,' which is
actually what the Greek word meant at the time that it was used in the New
Testament. Tyndale insisted on translating the Greek word prosputer(ph) as
elder, and the Catholic Church insisted that it meant `priest,' but, in fact,
when it was used in the New Testament at that time, it did mean elder, and so

Now the Catholic position was--and for all I know, they're right, but it's
hard to know for sure--that those words, even though they literally meant what
Tyndale said they had meant, had been endowed by the church and the church's
use of them with a higher and different meaning. And that tradition,
according to Catholic authorities, went back to apostolic times. That might
be true, but there was no way of testing it. And so Tyndale's translation, in
a literal linguistic sense, was accurate, and More couldn't really dispute it
on those grounds. He had to dispute it in terms of church teaching.

GROSS: So what was at stake here was whether the Bible was putting the
authority in the hands of the church hierarchy or in something broader, like
elders at an authorized assembly.

Mr. BOBRICK: Yes. Right. Exactly. And the most disputed word of all was
the word that had been, in Greek, metanoya(ph), which means really a turning
of the mind from the past towards a new beginning. Tyndale translated that as
penitence, and the church insisted on translating it as penance. And
Protestants were convinced that they insisted on that translation because the
church made so much money off of penance and payments made in the form of
indulgences for sins. So that was probably, of all the words that were
disputed, the most fiercely debated.

GROSS: Your new book is dedicated to your grandfather who you describe as
having been a classical scholar, bishop of the Methodist Church and a founder
of the World Council of Churches. And you say he knew the Bible by heart.
Did he quote passages a lot to you when you were growing up?

Mr. BOBRICK: Yes. He seemed to be completely fluent in Scripture, and he
had an amazing memory. I remember towards the very end of his life when he
was blind and he couldn't read his books for himself, he would go along the
bookshelves and feel for his favorite books with his hand. He'd recognize
them by their touch, and he'd stop and stand there and recite long passages
from them. And that was the way he kept in touch with the books that he loved
so much. And his favorite book of all was, of course, the Bible, and he
did--I suppose if anyone ever has, he did know it by heart.

GROSS: Well, Benson Bobrick, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BOBRICK: Well, thank you very much.

BOGAEV: Benson Bobrick. His new book, "As Wide As The Waters." Coming up,
Kevin Whitehead on the music of Lester Bowie. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Trumpeter Lester Bowie

Today we hear the second installment in our Avant Garde Made Easy Series. We
invited jazz critic Kevin Whitehead to tell us about a half-dozen modern jazz
mavericks he thinks are important and to point out things to listen for. This
time, we consider trumpeter Lester Bowie.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Lester Bowie with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a band he played with
for more than 30 years until his death in 1999 at age 58. Bowie came from a
family of brass players and grew up mostly in St. Louis, which also spawned
trumpeters Clark Terry and Miles Davis. But his avowed idol was Louis

(Soundbite of music)


Some listeners are now asking themselves why would a talented musician make
such awful sounds instead of nice, pretty ones? One short answer is jazz,
like the visual arts, move toward the greater abstraction in the 20th century.
You might hear Lester Bowie's splattery textures as analogous to Jackson
Pollock's drip painting technique. They redefine conventional notions of
beauty, extending the expressive potential of the medium.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Pre-jazz players were often accused of turning their backs on the
tradition, but their music's often rich with echoes of the old masters.
Bowie's rubbery bent notes owe a lot to cornetist Rex Stewart's half-valved
slurs with Duke Ellington in the 1940s.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: In early jazz, trumpet was often used to impersonate barnyard
animals or mimic speech cadences or syllabics, mostly for comic effect. By
the 1950s, such effects were considered corny and undignified. But the '60s
avant-garde reclaimed such early jazz devices, and no trumpeter did so more
aggressively than Lester Bowie.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Bowie came to prominence as a member of the cooperative group the
Art Ensemble of Chicago. Starting in the mid-1960s, they mixed toy
instruments, early jazz march rhythms and open improvising with a subversive
sense of humor akin to Spike Jones.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: The early Art Ensemble of Chicago was such a collective
enterprise, you can hardly single out Bowie. But when its members began to
pursue their own side projects, it was clear he had the keenest sense of humor
and took from the Art Ensemble's broad mix the idea that most any music could
be grist for the mill.

(Soundbite from song)

Unidentified Man: Hey, kids, what time is it?

Group of People: (In unison) It's "Howdy Doody" time.

WHITEHEAD: Lester Bowie from his 1981 album "The Great Pretender." On his
own records, Bowie helped revive the old jazz practice, lost since rock 'n'
roll came in, of playing the pop music of his own time. In the '80s and '90s,
he led a horn choir, Brass Fantasy, which played radio hits like "Smooth
Operator" and "Saving All My Love For You." But Bowie also reflected the
non-musical rhythms of his time. Where others talk about a relationship
between the noble arts of jazz and boxing, Bowie's 1975 "Rope-A-Dope"
graphically depicts Muhammad Ali wearing down an opponent. Drums and congas
shadow the jabs and fancy footwork, but the slow motion brass of Lester and
his trombonist brother Joseph Bowie eerily anticipate the stylized fights in
Scorsese's "Raging Bull."

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: You can hear Lester Bowie's influence on diverse brass players,
including Butch Morris, Hugh Ragin, Paul Smoker, Dave Douglas and Wynton
Marselis, who played in a multiple trumpet band with Bowie in the early '80s
and soon after began using some of the same early jazz brass techniques.
Bowie made some forgettable records, and in the '90s didn't sound like he
practiced too much. But by then, his reputation was secure. Few modern
musicians worked harder to keep jazz connected to our own time or had more
infectious fun while doing it.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Kevin Whitehead is currently based in Chicago. Information on the
music for the Avant Garde Made Easy Series can be found on the FRESH AIR Web
site. Next week, we continue with composer and saxophonist Anthony Braxton.
Coming up, different takes on saving face. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Eastern and Western ways of saying `I'm sorry'

The return of the American servicemen and women downed over China hinged on a
carefully worded apology from our government. Linguist Geoff Nunberg has
these thoughts on Eastern and Western ways of saying `I'm sorry.'

GEOFF NUNBERG reporting:

The sociologist Erving Goffman used to talk about apologizing as a kind of
face work, the maneuvers that help people get through their interactions with
everybody's self-image intact. That sense of face comes from a translation of
the Chinese expression for lose face, (Chinese spoken). The phrase entered
English in the 1860s at a time when the Western powers were carving up China
into zones of influence.

The British had made some new demands, and when the Chinese resisted, the
British sent a force headed by Lord Elgin to press their case. They burned
the summer palace outside Beijing, but Elgin decided to spare the Forbidden
City itself. He feared that its destruction would result in such a loss of
face for the Manchus that the dynasty might fall, an unsettling prospect for
Western trade.

In the end, the British came out of the affair with some economic concessions,
the Kowloon territory and a useful new phrase. And while nowadays, we talk
about losing face in all sorts of contexts, the words still have a slightly
orientalist ring. So it wasn't surprising that journalists and politicians
kept talking about the importance of saving face in connection with the spy
plane incident.

Some people argued that the administration had to make some sort of verbal
concession so that the Chinese could get out of the impasse in a face-saving
way. But others claimed that any apology would cause the US to lose face in
Chinese eyes and weaken us in our further dealings with them. And when Bush's
letter to the Chinese was released, those critics were quick to describe it
using another expression borrowed from Chinese. An editorial in the National
Review said that to apologize for a landing forced by Chinese recklessness
veers near kowtow territory.

Kowtow came into English after an earlier diplomatic confrontation between
China and the West. In 1793, Great Britain sent Lord George McCartney(ph) to
China as a trade envoy. The Chinese insisted that McCartney kowtow to the
emperor, touching his forehead to the ground in a sign of submission.
McCartney refused to do anymore than bend his knee, as he would to an English
sovereign. In his report, he said that the Chinese had acceded to his
conditions, though according to Chinese accounts, he actually did touch his

Lose face, kowtow. When we borrow words like that, there's always the
implication that we're in exotic cultural territory and that these things
matter more to the Chinese than they do to us. That perception was heightened
last week when the Chinese versions of the American statement were released,
and the newspapers called in language specialists to explain the subtleties of
the translations. You came away with the impression that Chinese was a
language with as many words for `sorry' as the Eskimos are supposed to have
for `snow.' The American coverage made the whole affair sound like one of
those familiar cross-cultural confrontations: a simple, plainspoken people
with little patience for social rituals up against an Eastern culture that
insists on elaborate shows of deference.

But the fact is that when it comes to a belief in the ritual potency of
apologies, Americans bow to no one. American public life has become a theater
of contrition. Politicians ask forgiveness for their sexual and financial
peccadillos, athletes apologize for making racially insensitive remarks,
journalists flagellate themselves when they're caught fabricating stories.
And not a week goes by without some group calling for an official apology for
some wrong that the government visited on them in the past.

In response, English has developed a vocabulary of penitence that can go
verb-to-verb and adjective-to-adjective with any other language on Earth. We
have expressions for every gradation of responsibility and remorse:
regrettable, inexcusable, an unfortunate error of judgment, I acknowledge my
personal responsibility, we apologize for any inconvenience. The hard disks
of corporate publicists are full of boilerplate mea culpas and nostra
culpas(ph) to cover everything from oil spills to accounting irregularities.
Unacceptable is a recent favorite here. Our last quarter's revenues were
unacceptable. It's an elegant way of appropriating the indignation without
accepting the blame.

So when some suitably placating noises were called for last week, the State
Department was up to the challenge. The only question is whether the Chinese
were as adept at interpreting the US response as Americans would be. After
the statement was released, the Chinese media were announcing that the US
really had apologized for the collision. A lot of Americans were put out by
that. There's nothing more irritating than to have somebody think you
apologized when you know you didn't. Of course, it's likely that those
Chinese reports were just face-saving propaganda, like their claims about Lord
McCartney's alleged kowtow to the emperor 200 years ago.

But you never know. Maybe the Chinese really did miss some of the nuances of
the American response. They may have a longer tradition of face work than we
do, but they've always gone about it in a very demonstrative way. They
measure degrees of contrition by how deeply you prostrate your body. With us,
it can be simply a question of how sincerely you bite your lip. It must be
hard for them to fathom the subtleties of Western ways.

BOGAEV: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox Palo
Alto Research Center.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: Sorry. Gee, I'm sorry. Really sorry everything turned
out this way...


BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.

Unidentified Singer: I admire you, and desire you. That's what makes this
farewell so hard to take.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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