Monday, April 16, 2012

Something I Didn't Know And Maybe You Don't Either

The bestselling book in Norway for the year 2011 was-- not a Scandinavian crime thriller, not a sex manual, not a history of the Eurovision Song Contest-- but the Bible! The first Norwegian translation in 30 years, as a matter of fact.

This is how The Guardian reported it (through gritted teeth, no doubt):

The first Norwegian translation of the Bible for 30 years topped the country's book charts almost every week between its publication in October and the end of the year, selling almost 80,000 copies so far and hugely exceeding expectations. Its launch in the autumn saw Harry Potter-style overnight queues, with bookshops selling out on the first day as Norwegians rushed to get their hands on the new edition.

"We only printed 25,000 to start with and thought it would last six to nine months, but it was launched mid-October and by the end of the year it had sold 79,000 copies – it's just incredible," said Stine Smemo Strachan, who worked on the project for the Norwegian Bible Society. "It has only been knocked off the number one spot once, by [literary author] Karl Ove Knausgård … There were people sleeping outside the day before the launch because it was embargoed – it's a bit ironic seeing that the content has been available for quite some time now."

Later in the article he observes that it can't be just Christians buying it, since there aren't enough practicing Christians in Norway to lead to such staggering demand-- much of the appeal had to do with the literary value of the translation, which was aided by prestigious authors who were not religious.

I think myself that it must have been partly a religious hunger that led to those queues, even if the people queueing didn't realise it themselves.

It reminds me of the time, in my agnostic days, that I read Dorothy L. Sayer's translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. I came to it looking for a purely literary experience, but I got a shock-- I learned from Sayer's extensive notes that Dante and his contemporaries were, you know, pretty intellectually sophisticated. And that there was more to medieval philosophy than speculations about whether Jesus sat or stood in the heavens.

It made me suspect that Dante might even have had a deeper and broader and more realistic worldview than me, the "heir of all the ages, in the foremost files of time".

Scandinavia and the Nordic countries are often presented as a model of healthy, happy secular humanism-- so, while one shouldn't read too much into something like this, it is quite encouraging. It reminds me of a haunting line I read in a book called God: A Biography by Jack Miles (which analysed the God of the Bible as a literary character). Even in a society that had turned its back on God, said Miles, "His is the restless breathing we still hear in our sleep".

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