Saturday 11 October 2014

Translating, culling a verse - rendering the meat, limbs, flesh and blood

If music and pulse and sound are steps 1a, b, c as I briefly describe here and elaborate here in a continuing response to Joel Hoffman's invitation to this chapter, (and sequence of application of any of these steps is moot), then what next?

Well, unlike the first Greek translators, we are not without many, many examples of translation. So it would be good to look at other renditions.  Rendition is a useful word here, for translation is like a slaughter house. So much waste, so many limbs, such tender flesh, and a lot of spilling of blood.

Translation is sacrifice in its worst sense, giving up the origin, giving up its history, giving up its sound, meter, feel, nuance, idiom, and so on. Why do we do it!  (Oh, that question hurts). We do it because we need a can-opener. We simply don't get the original even if we learn the original language. We are separated from our ancient kin even though we are joined at the hip.

So how can we butcher the beast in a kosher manner? Just keep wrestling. The One with whom we wrestle is the One who teaches and whom we can address as 'you'. In French, On peut tutoyer. The One is distant and yet familiar, You are a friend who desires to teach and who seeks the good for your own creation.

But what about the audience? To the 6 year old, to the teen, to the adult in its prime, to the aged and infirm, what choices of language will we make?  If one has known little trouble, comfort is a different word from what is perceived by one who has known more than imagined enemies. Yet imagined enemies are a sufficient disabler.

Some translations are formal, phrase by phrase, keeping Hebrew word order wherever possible. Such are literal in the sense that the translator has paid attention to every word and letter. But they are not literal in any rigid sense, as if each word had an absolute meaning. Who can say what constitutes a word? 

Sometimes (even including the above), translations are deliberately provocative or colloquial. I think of the translator as one who mediates between the ancient text and the modern reader. But the modern reader is too wide - would I read to a 6 year old as I read to an aged peer or even a younger friend? In a sense, yes, but in another, I might interpret and explain more, using the text as a springboard.

Here's a little of Psalm 34 which I have read with children and adults:
דָּרַשְׁתִּי אֶת יְהוָה וְעָנָנִי
וּמִכָּל מְגוּרוֹתַי הִצִּילָנִי
determined I sought יהוה and he answered me
and from all my terrors he delivered me
הִבִּיטוּ אֵלָיו וְנָהָרוּ
וּפְנֵיהֶם אַל יֶחְפָּרוּ
him they noticed and were radiant
verily and their faces were not disappointed
זֶה עָנִי קָרָא וַיהוָה שָׁמֵעַ
וּמִכָּל צָרוֹתָיו הוֹשִׁיעוֹ
zis poor one calls and יהוה hears
and from all his troubles he saves him
חֹנֶה מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה סָבִיב
לִירֵאָיו וַיְחַלְּצֵם
hovering, the angel of יהוה surrounds
those who fear him and rescues them
טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ כִּי טוֹב יְהוָה
אַשְׁרֵי הַגֶּבֶר יֶחֱסֶה בּוֹ
taste and see for יהוה is good
happy the valiant that takes refuge in him
יְראוּ אֶת יְהוָה קְדֹשָׁיו
כִּי אֵין מַחְסוֹר לִירֵאָיו
ye his holy ones, fear יהוה
for there is no lack to those who fear him
כְּפִירִים רָשׁוּ וְרָעֵבוּ
וְדֹרְשֵׁי יְהוָה
לֹא יַחְסְרוּ כָל טוֹב
cubs - young lions want and are voracious
but those searching for יהוה
will not lack any good
לְכוּ בָנִים
שִׁמְעוּ לִי
יִרְאַת יְהוָה אֲלַמֶּדְכֶם
Little ones, walk,
hear - listen, to me
the fear of יהוה I will teach you
Here one might explain to a child the universal note in verses 5 to 8. I sought, they noticed, a poor one calls, and there is response. You will notice how playful this translation is because it respects the play of the original poet who wrote it as an alphabetic poem, otherwise called an acrostic. In this poem the letter vav (ו) is missing (within the pulse of two cola at a time). But these verses clearly show the other letters in sequence. How unfortunate it is that almost no one translates these poems alphabetically, and even most translations omit to tell us that they are such games.

Here one might also explain the history of the divine name - yod, heh, vav, heh, which appears in my English in strange letters יהוה. One might say why the Name was not translated. One might talk about the substitute word, Adonai, Lord, and the difficulty it places on the translation, losing the intimacy of a proper name. One might explore the names of God, and various ways in which people have tried to avoid taking the name in vain. To say God is great (see verse 4 below) while intending violence against your neighbour is blasphemy. This is truly taking the Name in vain. It is impossible for one who has known the Most High and has been known by the Same.
גַּדְּלוּ לַיהוָה אִתִּי
וּנְרוֹמְמָה שְׁמוֹ יַחְדָּו
greatly magnify יהוה with me
and let us exalt his name together
Notice too how this poem addresses holy ones (the adult in its prime), young lions (teens), and children (the young).

And then there is context: whose context? Mine, or the language's, or the ancient poet's? I can't escape mine, I can't escape the culture and word that I inhabit, and I do not want to make the foreign familiar.

Translation is trouble.

But it is also fun. Hard work, and rewarding beyond description. So how then to approach Isaiah 54:1 - just for a moment looking at only this verse. This is of course impossible, since 54:1 must say something about the previous chapter with its song about vicarious suffering, but leave this in the memory for the moment. Here are a few translations of Isaiah 54:1 culled from the Bible Gateway and other sources. Take care, הַבַנִים. You cannot read one verse at a time and get much meat from it. (Oh that rendition image! Culling a verse means killing it!)

And here's the first translation. Let's leave the Greek out and look at a modern translation of it:
Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; 
break forth and cry, thou that dost not travail: 
for more are the children of the desolate than of her that has a husband: 
for the Lord has said,

You will note a significant difference in the last words. One looks back, the other looks forward.

Now some will say that verses are a new thing and that maybe the last two words of verse 1 belong with verse 2. It does depend on when the musical markings in the text of the late Hebrew were introduced. By late Hebrew, I mean the text of say the Leningrad codex, c 1000 CE. The musical markings define the verses without ambiguity (and without numbering). Personally I can't believe these are as late as say 800 CE, because they are too well constructed to have appeared from nowhere in the form of hand-signals in that time period. So the Hebrew applies 'saith the Lord' to the first verse and indeed to the whole passage, not to what follows alone.

But where could we go with these words to turn them, and turn them, into words for our time, from a distant time and place. Having seen many other translations of the same verse, chapter, or book, how do we apply those principles from Jade Davis so broadly mentioned in my earlier post here.
  1. Take the biblical text seriously in all its plurality.
  2. 'Attending to the orality of the text means not sacrificing form for function or meaning.'
  3. Concordance.
  4. 'Translate for all ... from each perspective present (or hidden) in the text.'
Seriously, but not without play. Oral, implying the rhetorical form of repeated sounds. 'Concord, concord and time', for we are distant from their concord, their language is foreign to us, and we are not ourselves in cord with ourselves. What indeed are our bindings that we should throw off - let us cast their cords from us? And what are those with which we ought to be shackled - to bind their sovereigns in chains, their nobles with fetters of iron? See Psalms 2 and 149.

Deliberate, perceptive, persistent, like any good wrestler. I will not leave without your blessing. #bgbg2

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