Tuesday, March 15, 2016

What is Nicholas Ostler reading?

Featured at Writers Read: Nicholas Ostler, author of Passwords to Paradise: How Languages Have Re-invented World Religions.

His entry begins:
Having just moved to a new home in the town of Hungerford in Berkshire, I have been exploring new bookshops close at hand.

At the closest, a tiny shop just five minutes from my front door, I came across a book which I am amazed to have missed when it came out. This is Valerie Hansen's The Silk Road. It is on a popular theme in world history nowadays, but Hansen's account is based on data, a sort of literary archaeology using documents dug up from one and a half millennia ago. And the cover page mentions four largely unknown languages - Sogdian, Khotanese, Kuchean and Uighur - confident that that these will draw general readers in, not scare them off!

The book is distinctive in insisting that most trade on the Silk Road was not of the glamorous long-distance variety, but just local exchanges. Rather than private trade by entrepreneurial camel-driving Sogdians, she suggests that the key to long-distance Silk Road traffic was Chinese-government consignments of silk, often in defence contracts to pay for horses. The book is also exceedingly well illustrated for an academic book. It gives the reader an inkling of what the (predominantly dry) scenery was like, and how all the different language speakers were variously attired. It also seems to be well-informed by...[read on]
About Passwords to Paradise, from the publisher:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

So opens the Gospel of John, an ancient text translated into almost every language, at once a compelling and beguiling metaphor for the Christian story of the Beginning. To further complicate matters, the words we read now are in any number of languages that would have been unknown or unrecognizable at the time of their composition. The gospel may have been originally dictated or written in Aramaic, but our only written source for the story is in Greek. Today, as your average American reader of the New Testament picks up his or her Bible off the shelf, the phrase as it appears has been translated from various linguistic intermediaries before its current manifestation in modern English. How to understand these words then, when so many other translators, languages, and cultures have exercised some level of influence on them?

Christian tradition is not unique in facing this problem. All religions--if they have global aspirations--have to change in order to spread their influence, and often language has been the most powerful agent thereof. Passwords to Paradise explores the effects that language difference and language conversion have wrought on the world's great faiths, spanning more than two thousand years. It is an original and intriguing perspective on the history of religion by a master linguistic historian.
Visit Nicholas Ostler's website.

Writers Read: Nicholas Ostler (July 2009).

Writers Read: Nicholas Ostler.

--Marshal Zeringue