I have been reading The Work of Poetry by John Hollander recently. The essay on the psalms ties in nicely with a couple of recent posts on translation. Lingamish alludes to the ambiguities and mysteries of certain passages in Please be so kind as to laugh, then Iyov, Least common denominator wrote,
- Yet, some advocate producing Bible translations as if they were just another piece of writing — written in everyday speech. This is a great disservice to Scripture. First, it causes us to forget that the Bible is kadosh/holy/separate from other literature. Second, it obscures the highly specialized style in which the Hebrew Scripture is written. …. Third, it causes us to lose humility, because we can master the language of some simple translations — but in our generation, we have no sage who can fully understand the original Hebrew, much less the profound wordplay and connections present in the language.
Forgive me for taking such a short excerpt from a fascinating post. The psalms are uniquely suited for the study of commentary through the centuries, for seeing how diversely and personally the Hebrew has been translated by one generation after another, for simply surrendering the rational mind to an acceptance of ambiguity in the original text.
Along similar lines Leland Ryken writes the following in The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation (now available through Google Books) which devotes a considerable amount of space to a discussion of ambiguity.
- I can imagine that some of my readers have been uneasy with the emphasis on ambiguity that has surfaced at several places in this book. As a literary scholar, I deal regularly with that quality of literary discourse. But I also found while doing the research for this book that the word ambiguity has been entrenched in discussions of translation for a long time. That the original text possesses the quality of multiple meanings, multiple interpretive options, and an open-ended or mysterious quality is widely recognized by Bible translators. The question is whether an English translation should preserve these qualities of the original.
On this matter, as on many other translation issue, the crucial question is whether priority should be assigned to what the original text says or the assumed needs of modern readers. When translation committees assign priority to their audience, they have in that very act decided that certain qualities of the original text are expendable. … I believe that a good English translation passes on the qualities of multiple meanings and mystery that the original text possesses. Another way of saying this is that a good translation resists the impulse to spell everything out. page 289
I would like to share part of the chapter by John Hollander (see image) on his experience growing up with the psalms. He compares his first response to the psalms, in his Jewish childhood, to learning Hebrew and studying the commentary of the psalms throughout his later life. Near the beginning of the essay he uses this story to illustrate his point.
- The child in the American joke who innocently deforms Psalm 23’s penultimate verse, assuring her adult listeners that “Surely good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life,” will only learn with “a later reason” as Wallace Stevens called it, that she was getting something more profoundly right about the line, the psalm, and poetry in general than any of her correctly parroting schoolmates. For the “mistake” personifies the “goodness and mercy”- the tov vachesed of the Hebrew – as a beneficent pursuer (the Hebrew lines imply that they are the poet’s only pursuers, dogging one’s footsteps, perhaps, but never hounding). Good Mrs. Murphy following the child about like a beneficent nurse is a more viable, powerful homiletic reconstruction of what had otherwise faded into abstraction than any primer’s glossing. The child rightly attended to the trope set up by the intense verb “follow me” and supplied fan appropriate subject for it, thereby turning mechanical allegory into poetic truth. Losing, in mature literacy, the ability to make such mistakes can mean being deaf and blind to the power of even the KJV text, let alone that of the Hebrew.
In short, losing the mysterious poetry of engendered by mistranslation, or even by distance from the English usage of a much earlier text, is compensated for many times over by reentry into the original. Confronting the psalms in yet another identity, decked out and bejeweled by linguistic and homiletic commentary, had been an activity of my later life. More and more mysteries open up in these versions as well.
For example, back in Psalm 23:4, the famous crux of “the valley of the shadow of death” comes from a tendentious repointing of the word tzalmavet, which could mean either “deep shade” or “death shade”,” and probably the former. … But knowing all this in no way makes the poem shed its outer garments for the sake of a naked linguistic truth, and the various translations and versions and misprisions all coexist, and inhere in every phrase.
The layers of misreading and rereadings are part of the poetry of the text itself in the poetic portions of the Bible. And the problems and puzzles of the psalms will remain eternal occasions for the reader’s negative capability as well as for the interpretive with that turns every reader into a poet, if only momentarily. (chap. 7 Hearing and Overhearing the Psalms, page 113-128 in The Work of Poetry by John Hollander)
He expresses for me the initial frustration and eventual fascination which I have enjoyed in reading the various commentaries with which Ps. 68 is ‘bejeweled.” I soon realized that I would not be able to reduce even one of the ambiguities of the text, but could rather open up more each time I looked at the Hebrew text.
I regret that there is no recent Bible version which reflects this pattern of multiple meaning in the way the KJV does. Leland Ryken makes a good point with respect to ambiguity and literary quality. However, I am slowly coming to the realization that the Christian scriptures are not represented in any modern translation in a manner which does justice to the literary style, the ambiguities and multiple meanings of the original. Have we ‘lost our humility’ vis-á-vis the text?