Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Begotten 3: Illuminate the Negative

(Yes, I know the song doesn't go that way.)

So what about Lisa T. Bergren's The Begotten almost made me hack up a hairball? Two main things: research and a kind of revisionism. They're closely related.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a language geek. The Begotten has a large amount of Latin. Hands up, anyone who sees what's coming! I've got a long list of bugs in the text, but most of them would take way too long to explain. So let's hit a few examples.

In the prolog, an iconoclast Byzantine bishop (say that three times fast) encounters a Latin text and totally blows the translation for no discernible reason: "Abyssus ad abyssum invocat" (Bergren omits "ad" so I put it back at no extra charge). It's from Psalm 42:1, but he reads it as "Hell calls to Hell." Get real. "Abyssus" is a Greek loanword; however little Latin he may know (and he gets "invocat" right), if he read the Septuagint at all he'd recognize the reference: "Deep calls to deep."

We run into more Latin when the word for "wisdom" is given as "sapientiam" (p 174--why the accusative ending here?) and "healing" is rendered "sanem" (p 206). But "sanem" isn't even a noun: it's a verb meaning "(that) I might heal."

The Lady Daria has a habit of translating the Vulgate for us as text from the NIV. The two translations use different source texts and translation philosophies, so while they generally agree, there are amusing spots where they don't.

Non-linguistically, at various points there is concern expressed that the Gifted will be grabbed by the Inquisition for committing miracles without a license. However, this was more than a century before the Spanish Inquisition, so Cardinal Fang and the Comfy Chair hadn't been invented yet. All they had to play with at that point was the papal inquisition, which wasn't even in full swing, the Cathars and Waldensians having been reduced to occasionally recurring roles.

As a related point, Gianni supposedly has hauled away a lot of jaywalkers and other heretics in his career to date. But this was a lull period, heretic-wise: a century earlier or a century and a half later, sure, but not in the first half of the fourteenth century, so far as I can tell.

For that matter, the Catholic Church didn't mind people going around healing and such anyway; they just checked to make sure it wasn't a fraud and didn't lead people astray. Many saints did miracles. As to the teaching of heresy--well, the Lady Daria eventually shows that they may have had a point. We'll get to that in a bit. (If you're one of those rare individuals who would rather know the truth about the Inquisition than unquestioningly accept the usual myths--the Wikipedia site is helpful, but you might also check here.)

Another oddity is handfasting. It turns up at various points as an entrenched tradition in fourteenth-century Siena, but I find no reason to believe it was known then and there. It apparently originated in Ireland, migrated to Scotland, and from there eventually became known elsewhere. The sources I've checked say that it was either a quickie marriage for those who didn't want to wait for all the formalities or else simply a betrothal. It was not a trial marriage, which is implied in the book. I thought there was a clue in the Italian Wikipedia, which has an article on the topic, but the very fact that the title of the page is the English word argues that it wasn't a common practice in Italy--otherwise they would have a native word for it. The article doesn't say otherwise. Today, handfasting is mostly associated with Neo-pagans and Wiccans.

Remember what I said about the Church taking a dim view of unlicensed preachers? On pp 290-294, the Lady Daria gives a sermon on the topic "All You Need is Love." It certainly out-kumbayas Jesus' usual message about repentance as the warm fuzzies lead to belief and salvation. No repentance, though. Maybe they didn't need it. In any case, it sounds a lot like the fuzzy sermons you can hear in a lot of modern churches. Where are Cardinal Fang and the Comfy Chair when you need them?

Then there's the Raptured Pope Syndrome, named in honor(?) of Tim LaHaye. As Is Well Known, the more godly a Catholic becomes, the more Protestant he becomes. A sufficiently godly Catholic will turn into a Baptist or perhaps even Tim LaHaye. This shows up late in the story. It starts with Father Piero informing the Lady Daria that she doesn't need to confess to him; she can take it directly to God (pp 236-237). I'm not even Catholic, and I could present an extremely strong argument for the Catholic doctrine of confession. Why can't he? Answer: because his scriptwriter is a Protestant who doesn't seem to understand Catholicism. (Fiddly point: at the close of this section, we get an actual quote from the mysterious epistle. It refers to Jesus as the Word--more Johannine than Pauline.)

A more troubling case arises on pp 248-249: Believing that spiritual conflict is imminent, Father Piero decides to baptize a couple recruits without the usual waiting period and other niceties. Does the urgency of the situation justify the move? Consider a very similar case in 1 Sam 13:8-14. As Samuel noted in another, slightly less similar case, "Obedience is better than sacrifice" (1 Sam 15:22--and v. 23 too, as long as you're in the neighborhood). Why doesn't Piero simply commend them to the care of the God in whom they believe? This is almost salvation by works.

(For the curious: it's true that baptism in the NT was usually without ceremony, but it was also often done by people passing through the area quickly. I don't consider the preparation period necessary, but I do consider it wise. Meanwhile, flouting standard operating procedure out of panic sets a bad precedent. Piero does seem to have a rebellious streak.)

So what about the story as a whole? I doubt most people will read it at the same level I did, but they will still pick up good and bad ideas. The problems are annoying, but they aren't fatal. I just wish Bergren would take the time to understand the Catholic and medieval viewpoints. They weren't idiots back then, and (Thank God!) they weren't precursive clones of us. C. S. Lewis said that every age has its own errors and that it is blind to its own and misunderstands those of other ages. The Begotten proves him right, but perhaps the sequel will do better.

So as a yarn with some good points, I'll recommend it with reservations and hope for an improvement in the sequel.

Other blogs on the tour:
Brandon Barr
Jim Black
Justin Boyer
Jackie Castle
Karri Compton
CSFF Blog Tour
Gene Curtis
D. G. D. Davidson
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Karina Fabian
Beth Goddard
Marcus Goodyear
Todd Michael Greene
Michael Heald
Christopher Hopper
Joleen Howell
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Mike Lynch
Terri Main
Melissa Meeks
Pamela Morrisson
John W. Otte
Ashley Rutherford
Chawna Schroeder
James Somers
Rachelle Sperling
Stuart Stockton
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Robert Treskillard
Laura Williams
Timothy Wise


Robert Treskillard said...

Great post with incredible detail!

Thanks for the critique.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

I always look forward to reading your posts, Steve. You put great thought into your reading and that converts into informative reviews.


Lisa Tawn Bergren said...

Dear Brother in Christ,

I'm properly humbled by the many things you found that were annoying. My characters were built out of my own imagination, however flawed, in thinking of very unique people called by God to serve in a far-off world. I put in a decent amount of research (12 months, primarily on medieval life and politics), but obviously, could have done more. There's always so much more! Especially given this era.

I spent three days over the year of writing THE BEGOTTEN seeking a language expert, to no avail. Could I have spent more time on it? Probably. I queried author friends, contacted universities and seminaries, and was unsuccessful in finding assistance (even for pay). Very frustrating, to say the least. How I wish I had known you at that point! I confess I gave up then, believing that less than 1/2% of the population might know the true translations and that they wouldn't be my most probable readers. Yes, yes. I gambled. Please forgive me. I considered the Latin "flavoring" and took my best Internet trans. stab at it.

What you call "revisionism" is what I would largely call "fiction"--story. My characters, essentially, can do anything I want them to do. That's the glory of being an author! Ahh, the power...that said, I do wish for them to be as authentic and appropriate for the age as possible, yet still propel plot forward. Handfasting was something I found during my research, a stretch, but possible among the nobility of Italy in this time, and a nice plot device. And my characters ARE misplaced in a way--intentionally--because I wanted them to be precursors of the Reformation and Renaissance and even we of the modern age. I wanted the reader to identify with them and yet see their struggle, the obstacles ahead.

Anyway, yada yada. I don't believe I'll ever make a Gifted trilogy believer out of you, Steve. And that's all right. Everyone has their own taste and I know from personal experience that once you have a bad taste in your mouth, all you want to do is spit it out! And I don't wish to enter a long debate on what was or wasn't done in my books--you'd undoubtedly win and I'd throw in the towel on this whole writing gig! But my family still needs to eat...

What I'm pleading for, as your sister in Christ, is your immediate help.

What grates on me the most are the errors in Latin, essentially translations I pulled off the Internet. NIV translation, however laughable you find it, is necessary to "translate" to the reader of today. I didn't want some pre-King James translation that made the reader say, "W-what?" The goal is to translate Scripture, give the reader an a-ha, as well as my characters (who had mostly never known the Scriptures in their own language). Oh, and not slow down pace in a suspense novel while I was at it. If you have a better suggestion on how to accomplish a Latin-preKingJames-Italian-modern English translation, I'm all ears. It's a conundrum.

But the blatantly wrong Latin? Ugh. That kept me up all night after reading your posts. I'd be happy to send you copies of THE BEGOTTEN, and galleys of THE BETRAYED and THE BLESSED for your review, correction, comment. And I'm willing to pay you for your time. The only problem? I have immediate deadlines on #2 and #3.

Let me know if you're willing! I'd love it if you helped me fix some of the things that irritated you the most!

Lisa Bergren

Steve said...

Apparently I came across as more negative than I felt. Research bobbles annoy me, but I doubt very many people are as picky as I am.

The larger issue is that, partly because of the length of the post, I didn't do the obvious thing: suggest alternatives. For example, instead of NIV to translate the Latin, use a Catholic Bible from the middle of the last century. (I think the Jerusalem Bible would fit, depending on the edition.) That would still be fairly modern, but it would also tend to follow the Vulgate.

But in any case the goal is not to pillory the author. This is a Christian book by a Christian author, and it's better than some "Christian" fiction I've seen lately. Better than most, actually. And most of the problems are not fundamental: fixing them would not change the story much.

I'm also impressed that the author actually cares. As an editor, I'm used to the opposite attitude: so long as the reader can understand, even wading through bad grammar and usage, all is well.

Not caring is common. Caring is professional. So we can clearly see which Lisa Bergren is, and it's a refreshing change from the ordinary.

As to editing help: I'm always ready to help people who need it for a Christian work. I'll help out pro bono if need be. (Most beginning writers can't afford the usual fees.) What we do is offered as unto the Lord, and he deserves our best. If I can help improve someone's offering, I'll do it.

Steve said...

As a postscript to my amazing and probably free offer, if you need fact-checking or just regular editing, my stable e-mail address is at Yahoo, with the funny "a" word in this blog's URL as the user ID.

Lisa Tawn Bergren said...

Bless you, Steve, for your kind and generous response. Query emails coming soon...

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