Saturday, November 7, 2009

Concordance in translation

As you can guess, I am just starting on Biblical Greek. Yup I can read it about as well as I read Hebrew but colloquially speaking I am out to lunch when it comes to idiom in these languages. So? I still seek to sound alike, feel alike, game alike, and mean alike when I translate. But of course I have no confessional stance. I am neither an atheist nor a theist, neither polytheist nor monotheist, you could even say neither Christian nor Jew, neither Greek nor pagan when it comes to translation. I do sing and teach at an Anglican Church - neither Catholic but catholic, neither Protestant but one whose protests are sometimes rude. I sang and taught at an Anglican Church when I really called myself atheist in the old days 40 odd years ago. So what is my bias - an ignorant Anglican with an axe to grind? I have only one bias - that I have through a living set of metaphors come to know what my teachers did not know and what is hidden from many today. Life is a game of hide and seek. God hides behind a quirky character portrayal in the midst of a violent and deaf people. That covenant that God somewhat one-sidedly holds for us all has startling repercussions.

It is for this hidden joy that I dare to translate the psalms (my first project) or Job (my second project - over 100 links beginning at that link including a full translation as concordant as I could manage) or Ruth (project in process - I am taking longer with Ruth than Job - I intend to read it in Hebrew before I translate this time). It is for this hidden joy that I sing the full catholic liturgy, that I have traveled to Italy, Greece, and Turkey to see the places where these things happened and to write stories (a project which will never be complete). It is for this joy that I plant bulbs and bushes, flowers and trees in the garden - to watch the joy of the bees, to root out the morning glory that grips the soil and strangles others - to walk among the plants and not just to look, to hear them complain of the terrible soil and take action to mitigate their pain.

So how would you translate this?
אָז תִּפָּקַחְנָה
עֵינֵי עִוְרִים
וְאָזְנֵי חֵרְשִׁים
First listen and note the balance: az tipaqachenah // eyney `ivrim // veazneyim hershim // tipatachenah
It is a curious pair of words that begin and end the phrase. Quite apart from choosing a gloss or two, I would try and imitate the structure - in this case the sound - so I need two striking words in the target language and I begin with one and end with the other. They should differ by one or two letters and have a certain assonance.

Difficult - but when you read this slowly - all sorts of decisions become apparent that have nothing to do with communicating in the present to a target audience. Important though that may be - it is not really in your power as translator to do the work that your reader must do. What is in your power as you develop it is to choose words that match in tone and form the language that your ancient poet used. Your primary job is to communicate with that ancient writer and only secondarily to form a sentence or poem for the modern reader.

So what does it mean? Uh - meaning is not the first question. At least not for me. How could it be glossed? And where else are these words used in the Hebrew - and for Matthew - in the Greek? Also has it got multiple glosses that tell you this is really several words that are homonyms where a natural speaker would immediately recognize multiple meanings and possibly a pun?

Here's the real problem of concordance and I will only manage it one word at a time initially - the longest journey begins with such small steps. The first word פקח is glossed 'open' 20 times in the KJV. 19 of those 20 are about 'opening' eyes. The other one (Isaiah 42:20) is about 'opening' ears! It appears to be passive (Niphal) only in Genesis 3:5 and Genesis 3:7. This particular form of the word only occurs here and in Genesis 3:7. That may be significant - this is a positive eye-opener but Genesis was more ambivalent.

The second word פתח is more frequent: 107 times as open in the KJV occurring altogether 144 times. This is a more generic opening - the verb is used for opening all sorts of things besides ears - but only rarely eyes (Chronicles and Nehemiah). E.g. opening the heavens at the start of the rain on the ark.

Interesting that two different words are used for opening eyes (that have a lid) and opening ears (that have no lid but are much harder to open being usually metaphorically plugged.) So now - how does one translate this rare form with two matching openings in the order A-B-C B'C'A' where the initial sound of the temporal particle sounds also like the first part of ear (C'). But before we do that, let's look at the Greek where this is quoted in the New Testament in Matthew 11:5. Well - it's not an exact quote but really an allusion. It seems to me though with my limited Greek that it is a piling on of clauses saying about John - just listen and look at what's going on. The prior verse instructs them to 'tell him what you hear and see'. So eyes are open and ears unstopped.
τυφλοὶ ἀναβλέπουσιν καὶ χωλοὶ περιπατοῦσιν
λεπροὶ καθαρίζονται καὶ κωφοὶ ἀκούουσιν
νεκροὶ ἐγείρονται καὶ πτωχοὶ εὐαγγελίζονται
אָז תִּפָּקַחְנָה
עֵינֵי עִוְרִים
וְאָזְנֵי חֵרְשִׁים
After all this, we may just say there's no gloss I can think of that will be very striking and we may even compromise on the word order since English often does not do well with Hebraic thought sequence. And the King James is pretty good for us moderns - unstopped is a lovely strike. And I did learn something about the ancient poet. Isaiah was using a common word for eye-opening in a rare form. Perhaps he had the opposite of Genesis 3:7 in mind. If so - the meaning is figurative (not literal). So here's my English:

then cleared will be the eyes of the blind
and the ears of the deaf will be unblocked

At Sunday School, I may use a different rendering (image here),

then wide apart will be the eyes of the blind
and the ears of the deaf wide open
(but wide apart might be seen in the wrong dimension!)

I have stuck with the passive in both cases and only changed the word order to hold to the ancient poet's order. If I chose this word, I would have to chose clear for each of the 20 other uses of the word. And certainly for Genesis. Any takers for other thoughts? (This is a low volume blog - so no one may see these words or be listening.)