Wednesday 13 February 2019

Has translation of the Bible into English reached its apogee?

Discussion of Alter's translations are not new in the blogosphere. Here is an early mention in the archives of the NY Times from 1996
Two independent translations -- from authors widely known in circles of literary and biblical scholars -- now appear among the spate of books about Genesis. Stephen Mitchell is a poet of religious sensibility who has previously adapted the Psalms and translated Job. Robert Alter is a professor of comparative literature whose studies of biblical narrative and poetry have become classics.
I have in the first half of February, reviewed in detail the symposium on Alter from the Jewish Review of Books.

I know from my own writing history how I have agreed with Alter about his complaints. About soul, about recurrence, about the distractions from story that Biblical scholars have with specialization. It sounds as if he learned to walk before he ran. I did not. I am sure that many teachers of Hebrew that I have met would suggest that I be mute. It is a wise suggestion that I have ignored.

I have been wondering how a translation should be judged. In my intense analysis this month (links below) what criteria do I use to judge a translation? And is it a sufficient list?

Music: My first and consistent measure has been the music represented in the accentuation of the Hebrew text. (Don't be discouraged if you don't 'get' the accents. Just listen to the music.) Does this tie me too much to a Rabbinic interpretation? I can only say - which one? But Bob, there is no consensus on the key to the music that you are learning. Where are these signs in manuscripts prior to the 8th century? These are both true considerations, but the music convinces me by the transparency it gives to the text, whether I understand where the signs came from or not. I have not set my English underlay to the music for the entire Bible. If I had the time to do this, I know I would change some of my text to fit it better.

So my work has not reached the apogee.

Concord: My second measure, of equal importance, and always in competition with the music, is the requirement for concordance. I know exactly where my compromises are. I do not have enough information to judge Alter's but my initial investigations are not encouraging. A literary translation will take liberties that I would not consider justified. I made this provocative comment about Psalm 137 and Alter's use of recall.
remember or recall? As it happens, I don't ever use the gloss recall, but the resonance of remember will be lost if recall is a variation for זכר, The Name itself is at stake here.
Why is the Name at stake? Because memory is directly associated with it. See Exodus 3:15. My rendering is: This is my name forever and this is my memorial to the generation of the generation. I did not use call here as NIV does, nor invoked as JB does. I don't know what Alter used. The word is זכר. It is used 378 times in TNK. 88 of those are for the gloss male as in male and female. Of the remaining 290, 1 is a name, 11 I have associated with archive, and all the rest are about memory.

Suppose I admitted, with KJV, that I am invoking the idea of the Eucharist, this do in remembrance of me. Is that the intent of Torah? I am not saying I did that, but without respecting the word used, I could not draw that parallel. And it is not implausible. Consider Deuteronomy 5:3 for instance. Remembering is of the essence of both Christianity and Judaism. In any case, the act of invocation, or calling is not in the same semantic domain, and the forcing of that sense on the text is not justified unless there is a clear homonym implied by usage.

Again - where is the apogee? Have we achieved it? I don't think any single translator or any group process has. So go easy on the hype. We need the comparative language studies that Alter downplayed to tell if our concordance is sensible, if possible. (We need the music more, but how many scholars and preachers also study music?)

Given concordance, I think the English reader should have a greater advantage in seeing the patterns of recurrence evident in the Hebrew text. It is still not easy of course. Much of my criticism of what I have seen in Alter's translation has to do with concordance. I had 8 significant disagreements in 4 verses of Psalm 91.

Do I have a third criterion? If I look at the rest of my posts in this two-week period, In discussing the Song, I concur with his recognition that foreignness is suitable for an old text. Familiarity makes us read without thinking. Also that a translation should not explain but report. And like him, I have avoided a lot of loaded words, not just soul as he has done, but punish, loving-kindness, atonement. There's a bunch of others. This uncovers a third criterion: a translation should not reinforce one religious framework over others.

Have we reached the apogee? I doubt it.

I do not neglect parallelism, but the music never conflicts with it, so it is rarely needed except for word choices as to whether one is looking at a synonymous or an antithetical parallel. This comes up here: Qohelet 12:5-8.

I do not neglect story line. Job is a book the heart of which can be suppressed if a reader chooses a pro-piety framework and the friends are praised for their one-liners. [This was not uncommon in views of Job from 100 years ago.] If Alter does as Hart suggests, and sees raw rage in chapters 29-31, I would be very disappointed indeed. Here I hope that the reviewer is speaking from his own ignorance.

Then there is the problem of mistakes. I know I have mistakes I have not yet seen. And I have pointed out several of Alter's in the post on a snippet of Torah, missing words, missing other jots and tittles.

Consistency: [Stir carefully at a rolling boil.] In the area of consistency, I have some control and still some trouble, because translation is a hard job, and a one-person translation both easier and harder. Anyway, Alter is not alone. John Hobbins and Samuel L. Bray have recently begun a new old translation, and at the same link is a review of The First Testament, a new translation by John Goldingay, and I have completed a translation which will appear in e-book form soon with hundreds of musical examples as illustrations, and a full 2500 page glossary as well as an English Hebrew alphabet book, A is for Abandon. So you all can see a copy and be able to critique it. The whole canon that we have received is really rather remarkable. I sure wouldn't have bothered if I didn't think so.

Audience: Adele Berlin is not effusive in her praise, but allows that dark might be a better choice than black in Song 1:5, 'for an American audience'. Clearly a translator must be clear on audience? Really. I am not so sure. And I certainly would not want to have influence only in one market for fear of reinforcing assumptions. I think my audience is sometimes for those who can no longer read in this life, my teachers from the '50s, and for those who can read, the biases I see in my culture. The Bible is a book that undermines and questions assumptions. A translation should retain the criticism that it was to its first hearers.

In summary: music and concordance arm-wrestle. Religious framework bias has to be avoided, parallelism has to be considered, mistakes have to be corrected, consistency needs feedback from others, audience is of limited consideration. [This is an unsatisfying list after the first two. I know there are other considerations that I take into account, but it's hard to articulate them.]

One last comparison, Psalm 23, for application of the criteria.

Alter: In grass meadows He makes me lie down, / by quiet waters guides me. / My life He brings back. ... And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord / for many long days”

I have to agree with some of Alter's decisions here. I hope grass is a misprint in the review. It doesn't scan. I used grass for חצב. My rendering has a few differences.

2 In verdant loveliness he makes me recline.
Psalm 23:2
By waters at rest he refreshes me.
3 My being he repairs. ...
6 Surely goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will sit in the house of Yahweh for length of days.
Psalm 23:6, note how the final verse begins on a high recitation note (as does verse 4).
This technique explicitly connects a verse to what precedes it.
recline רבץ to distinguish it from שׁכב, lie down.
repair, I missed this as an available gloss later, but I have let it stand for a long time.
sit ישׁב, or settle, or inhabit. This was an early Psalm, from 10 years ago. (It is here - Nov 22, 2008. Funny, I used settle there, I wonder what made me change it.) ארך I rendered as length about 2/3 of the 157 times this stem occurs. I don't use long any more for that stem. I did 10 years ago. I would allow prolonged as an adjective. I.e. I doubt it is about long life. (Certainly not for ever which would involve עד or עלם.)

Another potential post. I just noticed that Alter may not distinguish clearly the divine names, Lord, Yahweh, etc in Scripture. Issues with names abound. But addressing God is an important distinction from addressing a lord or master in another context. I wonder what his strategy is?

Links referenced: More on the Song of SongsA snippet of IsaiahA snippet or two of TorahSnippets of JobQohelet 12:5-8The Song 8:13-14Ruth 2:3-7, Psalm 91Psalm 137:1.

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