Ecclesiastes’s Prose in Modern English

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one.

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” pages 156–71 in George Orwell: A Collection of Essays (New York: Harcourt 1981), 163.

I read pages and pages of academic prose every week in my toils as a PhD student and this kind of garbage makes it much less enjoyable than it need be. Orwell’s “translation” here is perhaps the greatest example of the atrocities of academic (here “political”) prose that there is. My question: What keeps us writing so badly? Is it the gatekeepers at the publishing outlets? Is it the desire to appear erudite and esoteric? Is it sloppy thinking? Is it intentional obscurity? Is it inertia?

I believe that it is possible to write clearly and compellingly even for an academic audience. I believe that many will appreciate articles that are a joy to read, though some will doubt clear prose can convey complex thinking.



One thought on “Ecclesiastes’s Prose in Modern English

  1. I agree. Language itself is a medium. Clarity is merely, how can I say this without defeating my own point, an idea that successfully transfers from sender to listener. More words clutter. Profound words have the propensity to confuse. Yet, I think egocentricity is a human condition, that authors happen to demonstrate well. People fall in love with their own words and naturally resist condensing or restructuring them. So, as you say, the skills of brevity and clarity are often found second to ingenuity and chatter.

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