Thursday, April 21, 2011

Translation philosophy - a one verse example, Psalm 68:1

Joel writes here about two translation philosophies and a number of related issues. Everyone writes at some time about form, function, grammar, word order, level of comprehension, audience, context, and so on.  Each of these expands into a host of questions around literature, social roles, history, word games, word painting, sound, figures of speech and so on. And so on. Joel's descriptive adjective is deceptive. Yes it is deceptive and let me find a few more adjectives: bizarre, misleading, over-simplified, reductive, and hobbling to the imagination to narrow down the decisions of translation to two approaches.

All of the above important without exception. That means that no one equivalence approach will be adequate to the task of translation. (And I didn't even mention theology or faith or communication with an ancient mind or an invisible obedience.)

I also didn't mention concordance. Roughly speaking concordance is used to allow a reader in the host language to hear inter-textual allusions that were in the guest language. Without this wider net, growth in the hidden obedience is shackled and you are walking hobbled.

I didn't mention aural impact or rhythm or prosody, or even my own reductive bias: recurrence structure. So many things to consider. So what do you do? You juggle and you guess as best you can. You throw out your grappling hooks and hope they find a wall for you to climb. If they fall to the ground, 1. take cover, 2. pick them up and throw again.

Easy examples: concordance. If there are two words in Hebrew for offering, then pick two words in English and stick to them. This is very difficult but becomes easier. E.g. offering, gift, present, etc. Similarly fear, dread, terror, etc. I had already explored this in the epic poem Job over the space of four months. The whole psalter, 2 and a half times larger than Job, is a much harder problem. And in some cases, the concordant approach at even this simple level may be inaccurate - for words shift in their allusions. Too bad - have to start somewhere.

Impossible examples: concordance. Life, soul, being, self, me, throat, throttle, etc. Lump it. Concordance with nephesh is simply not possible. And there are other examples - like chesed. At the psalms conference, it was suggested that this word not be translated. No. I cannot agree with this strategy. A many-faceted word needs a multiplicity of related words, in this case protection, reproof, mercy, loving-kindness, etc. Only in one case have I opted for not translating a word and that is with the tetragrammeton.  This is a word that if rendered Lord does damage to the rhythm of both host and guest languages.

Difficult examples: prepositions, tenses, sense of time, story. They are legion. And may be the subject of another post... later... much later in my process.

Easy example: when to leave in 'and' and when to leave it out. I think - but early stages - that the rhythm of the guest language must influence the expression of the text in the host language. So here is the beginning of psalm 68.

Who wins? Are the principles I derive reasonable?

The host language

1. Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered, let them also that hate him flee before him
2. May God arise, may his enemies be scattered; may his foes flee before him
3. Rise up, O God, and scatter your enemies. Let those who hate God run for their lives.
4. God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered; and those who hate him shall flee before him!
5. God will arise. His enemies will be scattered. Those who hate him will flee from him.
6. Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered: and let them that hate him flee from before his face
7. Rise doth God -- scattered are His enemies! And those hating Him flee from His face.

The guest language: יקום אלהים // יפוצו אויביו // וינוסו משנאיו מפניו
roughly: yaqum elohim // yaftsu oivav // venusu misanav mipanav
tenses: qal imperfect 3rd person singular - verb noun // qal imperfect 3rd person plural - verb qal-active-participle (enemy is action) // qal imperfect 3rd person plural - connector+verb piel-participle (hating is attitude) preposition+noun+object pronoun

1. can't fault it for rhythm and all its imitators do well. The jussive works.
2. misses the ו. The Hebrew is clearly 2, 2, 3 and the third phrase has a connector (vav) that in this case should, for the sake of the structure, not be omitted.  The connector vav hooks the curtains to the tabernacle. וָוֵיהֶם זָהָב their hooks gold - why would you leave out a golden hook?
3. This is clearly a mixed bag. There is no excuse (apart from the vav) for switching the tense. All three verbs of action are Qal imperfect. Is this narrative? Is that even relevant? Beginning a poem with a jussive (=third person imperative) already stations it as part of a larger narrative. I don't know a correct answer to this. Besides the tense mish-mash, the run for their lives is cute. But does this need a paraphrase? And if it does - what are they running from? They are running from his face with its angry nose. You better say that too.
4. Accurate, I don't like 'shall' and punctuation is a lost argument. Impact must be aural not visual.
5. Left out the gold, marginally similar to 4.
6. I like the face.
7. Not even a good literal rendering. The tense does not suggest continuous present to me. And fails on punctuation. Literal - forget it - strive instead for literacy.

Here's what I ended up with

God will arise
his enemies will be scattered
and those hating him will flee from his presence

I lose the impact of the jussive. 'presence' is a critical keyword in the first section of the poem, 8 times in the first 8 (9) verses, that must not be missed here. Whether I stick with this will depend on what I encounter in the rest of the poem. Is this a quiet confidence, or a call to arms - or does the poem include both?  I don't use punctuation. Read it with pauses - out loud. Whole psalm emerging here.