Thursday, September 30, 2010

My essay on Translating Biblical Poetry

Beloved - do we know what we are doing?

It is frequently the case in translation that we do not know what we are doing. To pretend otherwise is to be in error. But - not to despair - the Spirit comes to us in our weakness.

Re not knowing - must I list my authorities? I already mentioned Rosenberg and Zlotowitz. Robert Alter has plenty of similar warnings. And if you read a half-dozen grammar books, you will quickly notice that there is considerable discussion on verb forms and not a little confusion of nomenclature. They say some things are untranslatable - and so it is true - for translation betrays as that Italianate phrase (traduttore traditore) goes. But perhaps also translation should trick - that we might fall into joy. So untranslatable is the least of the problems.

What are the problems?

At base there is no one-for-one gloss or word choice between the host and the guest languages
  • no knowledge of some words - since perhaps there is only one usage in the corpus that we have
  • no native speakers so no insight into nuance
  • no knowledge of idiomatic usage
Secondarily - all consequences of the above
  • difficult to agree on the precise sense of the grammar
  • difficult to be concordant where sound or intertextual allusion is needed - We must learn similar uses of a root and the history etc to learn to hear such potentially distant echoes.
  • easy to get a false sounds-alike - e.g. if one uses 'one' as a pronoun, what does one do with the pregnant meaning of 'one' as in shema Israel, adonai elohenu, adonai echad where 'one' is not a pronoun.
  • word play is lost
  • jokes are obscured
Thirdly - our bias is imposed
  • our worship of words
  • our piety
  • our politics
  • our religious persuasion
Enough for the moment - just try it. You will soon encounter the problems and the many decisions made for us by translators.

  1. my translations are personal (not individual but personal - a person formed in this age for this time and purpose). They are me. To rephrase Chagall, "when I translate, I am in a prayer". They are from me to God and through me from God to you. So it is that you are addressed as Beloved.
  2. my translations look for sense, sound, shape, structure, silence. They do not look for modern shibboleths like accuracy or naturalness - but I care for every letter.
  3. I cannot pretend to have authority - I just do it. I know my cultural difference with my ancient guests, poet and redactor. I try to receive the text as one who has learned hospitality. I am aware that I am a late-starter, a child, and I make mistakes.
  4. re word choices: structure is vital - hear and see it, gaps are vital - don't fill them in. Untranslatable? - coin or transliterate. Voice, point of view, idiom, figure of speech - be open to hearing. Politics - don't translate into a defect in the host language. The distortion is simply too great to bear. If you publish - footnote both uncertainty and allusion. Be prepared for revisions, so let yourself change your mind and in love revisit all your prior decisions. Watch with him one hour.
Notice that I did not use a single square letter in these notes. I am learning that communication in English is also OK and puzzles have their end.

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