Saturday, February 2, 2019

Psalm 137:1, a literary translation

It is impossible to ignore the solo translation of Robert Alter. If I were rich enough, I might buy a copy, but I think I will wait till the second or third edition or maybe wait till the library gets a copy.

Does anyone really read the whole story?

Reviewers are talking about the literary quality and intent of his reading and commentary. And he is a literary expert.

One of his aims is syllabic equivalence for poetry (per Aviva Kushner in the Jewish Review of Books) My readings on this blog always include a syllable count. (It may not always be correct - but it's automated and therefore consistent, and likely within +/-1).

As for my literary background, it is limited to what I have sung and read. I do not teach literature. I too have tried to imitate the Hebrew syllabic count, but for the sake of the music. Nonetheless, there are significant conflicts with such an attempt, a myriad of small decisions, and the major decision I made to enforce a concordant translation (obeying rules of mapping of Hebrew stems to English lemma forms, with exceptions justified).

I also associate Alter with recognition of recurring words as a technique and foreignness as a translation strategy. These are vague memories. I know I have read a bit of his output in the past. Probably his Art of Biblical Narrative. (Heavens! I even have a copy on my shelf - a gift from my old school friend, Pierre Cliche. And there is an example of recurrence from Genesis 37 right away with the stem נכר, foreign, or recognize.)

I enjoy the scholars and I am sure it is very hard work to be one. (Alter even admits to not knowing if scholars have addressed some things. See ABN page 4.) Scholarship has demands that also interfere with actually reading the whole story itself. Mind you, some interference is required when we read badly.

So how do we compare his reading, hyped by the New York Times, with Bob's Bible, hyped by no one yet - fortunately (I am in intensive correction and review mode at the moment). Interestingly enough, both our Bibles are soulless. We never use the word soul in translation. This is neither Alter's doing nor mine. It is an emergence from the conversation in the late 20th century in the English Western world - and only a part of that world. I don't know if he is the first to suggest not using soul as a gloss but I highly doubt it. I also consider this a loss to the language, but one cannot use a word, even a beautiful one, if its sense is a misreading.

No one knows what the English soul is supposed to signify. No one can define eternal either. Yes you can run to Aquinas - 'no term either end'. But this is a circular definition for an unknown aspect of time. (And Aquinas is dead wrong about the instantaneous nature of light.) Time in a five dimensional universe, like a circle in two dimensions, may have neither beginning nor end.

Curiously enough, if we put those two words together we get eternal soul, one unknown times another. This is simply confusion. But it may say to you if you think time is important, Soul, whatever you are, you are important. And that should bring us right back to earth and the need to care for each other. So - soulless we both are, but not without care. (נפשׁ is of course not confined to humans in the Biblical text, but you need to read the whole story to know that.)

So can we do a little analysis of 1 verse? (Continuing Ronald Hendel's example in the same set of reviews).

KJV:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
Coverdale (prayer book):
By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, // when we remembered thee, O Sion.
Alter:
By Babylon's streams / there we sat, oh we wept, / when we recalled Zion
Bob's Bible (me):
Psalms 137 Fn Min Max Syll
עַ֥ל נַהֲר֨וֹת ׀ בָּבֶ֗ל שָׁ֣ם יָ֭שַׁבְנוּ גַּם־בָּכִ֑ינוּ
בְּ֝זָכְרֵ֗נוּ אֶת־צִיּֽוֹן
1 f By the rivers of Babel - there we sat, yea we wept,
when we remembered Zion.
3e 4B 14
7
Word for word:
1על byעל נהרות the rivers ofנהר בבל Babelבבל שׁם thereשׁם ישׁבנו we satישׁב גם yeaגם בכינו we weptבכה בזכרנו when we rememberedזכר את --את ציון Zionציון

rivers (נהר)? waters (מים)? or streams (פלג)?
You can see there is a choice - I have the stems to glosses associated as noted. It is a fixed rule of mine not to overlap such clearly defined separations in this case.

sat or sat down?
irrelevant in my opinion - though down is not in the Hebrew, there would be no conflict for my rules if I wanted to say sat down.

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.

bi-colon or tri-colon?
In my opinion the accents do not support a tri-colon. The revia is weaker than the ole-veyored. In the Psalms, (and their doubles in the prose books) it is possible to observe a pause at revia or zaqef-qatan, but I generally limit it to a comma. There is no cadence on Babel.

Note the defects in the authorized prayer book translation. No שׁם no גם.

Note also that the first of the music is f not the tonic e. This indicates that Psalm 137 is connected to what has come before in some fashion. This Psalm comes out of the blue after the songs of ascent and the two almost competitive psalms 135 and 136 - no hint of the exile. Psalm 137 is continuing the story of books 2 and 3. It is a call not to forget.

I might do some more verses. But my initial impression is that a literary motive is not sufficient as a priority when translating. 


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