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Translating Poetry

Translating Poetry

On March 24, 2016, blog entry marked 11:40 AM, Dave Black talks about translating poetry and links to his essay on the topic from a Festschrift, available via Google Docs.

Reading Dave’s comments about translating poetry reminded me of one of my favorite translations of poetry from any language to any other, Max Knight’s translations of Christian Morgenstern’s German poetry. You can find samples here. I particularly like Der Lattenzaun/The Picket Fence, but Die Trichter/The Funnels, which Knight translates twice, provides another good example.

Translation is a creative activity. When the material is very technical, the room available for creative activity, or better the necessity for it, may be lower, but it’s still there. Communication is not easy, no matter what one is trying to communicate, and when one is trying to communicate many things (and often a good writer is doing just that), the translation becomes more difficult.

In the case of Bible translation, we multiply these problems because we are trying to translate a variety of literary genres across a gap of history and culture, which, in addition, either have or have acquired theological meanings that may relate to times before or after their composition. There’s a great deal of freight in the text and hanging onto it for dear life lest it be lost along the way.

Into this perilous swamp comes the translator, trying to jump from one foothold to another, always hoping the foothold is not the back of a sunbathing alligator. (Try translating that murky metaphor for comprehension by a desert-dwelling tribe. I dare you!)

But I don’t see the difficulty of translation as a major problem for Christianity. The major problem I see is that we are afraid of the creativity of translation. We should, embrace it, enjoy it, learn from it, and live it.

Now that I think about it, we’re afraid of the creativity of communicating, discussing, and embodying the message in our own language.

As I read a passage like the first chapter of Ezekiel I see a prophet’s creativity challenged. Ezekiel struggles for words. (I wrote a bit about this earlier on the Energion Discussion Network.) One commentator “cleaned up” Ezekiel’s prose and made it rational and orderly, discarding a large portion of the chapter in the process.

But Ezekiel the prophet is trying to be a translator for us, translating his experience of, his vision of God into terms that can communicate with us. It isn’t easy for Ezekiel. It isn’t easy for me. I don’t think it’s easy for any translator.

I want the translator to be a good linguist, but I also want him to be able to feel and experience along with Ezekiel and then creatively transfer this vision of God to me as an English reader. Will I get precisely what Ezekiel got? No. Not a chance. But I can get a glimpse of God’s glory as Ezekiel did, as I hope the translator did, and as I hope is conveyed through a good, creative translation.

Poetry especially deserves this sort of creativity. And we shouldn’t fear it. People often act as if any sort of creativity in Bible translation means the message is being lost. But that is our modern desire for a compendium of facts about God.

I came out of my MA program in seminary with a compendium of facts and I promptly left the church. I came back struggling with texts I found hard to comprehend, hard to translate, and even harder to live.

The struggle is greater than the catalog. Every. Single. Time.

But the facts conveyed by a vision like Ezekiel 1 or a powerful, intricately structured poem such as Psalm 104 are actually relatively few. The glory conveyed is beyond comprehension. I’ll go for not one creative translation (even my own), but for many. I want to try to comprehend the “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” and there’s no way I’ll do that with just the facts.

God could have provided us with a systematic theology, carefully tagged with paragraph and subparagraph numbers, footnoted with additional explanations, structured so as to miss nothing. God didn’t do that. I think God did it intentionally.

That’s why I’m less critical than others of Bible translators, less willing to say they got it wrong. It’s not that I think they are without error. It’s just that I have such great respect for their willingness to get in there and try.

I think it would be wonderful if we all encouraged them and gave them the freedom to creatively pass to us the message they experience.

And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18, NRSV)

Or perhaps:

… And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him. (2 Cor. 3:16-18, The Message)

Or perhaps …

It’s not by our efforts to get it all right that we remove the veil and see clearly. It’s by turning to the Lord. The Lord is the one who can make us see clearly in spiritual things, because the Lord is Spirit. So when we look in this way, we can contemplate the Lord’s glory and that is what will transform us from glory to glory. (1 Cor 3:16-18, my paraphrase, applying it now, good until the next time I read it)

The Priestly Trajectory in Scripture

The Priestly Trajectory in Scripture

Many people regard the idea of trajectories in scripture as largely a method of avoiding “what the Bible clearly teaches.” I believe that there are clear trajectories in the teaching of scripture, and that in those cases one must be careful that one applies the correct principle to modern times.

One such trajectory deals with priesthood and access to the sacred. I was taught that the tabernacle in the wilderness and the temple in Jerusalem were symbols of God’s presence. And in a sense they were. But they were also filled with symbolism of humanity’s separation from God. Notice how you progress from “outside the camp” to “the camp” to the place where the Levites were encamped closer to the tabernacle itself, then to the courtyard, then the outer room (often called just “the holy place”) and finally to the inner room (“the most holy place”) where we find the Ark of the Covenant and there, between the cherubim, we have the symbol of God’s presence. It’s not filled with an idol, as it might have been in other near eastern temples. God cannot be represented. But there is a sense of separation.

I was reminded of this yesterday when my reading took me to Numbers 18 and 19. If you read both, I think you’ll see the sense of separation. Even the Levites were not permitted to approach certain sacred objects. Those were reserved for the priests alone. In Numbers 19, with the ritual of the red heifer, you have references to “outside the camp.”

Now this is not a New Testament vs. Old Testament trajectory. Exodus 19:6 makes the goal clear: a priestly kingdom. 1 Peter 2:9 makes the application to Christians: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,[c] in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (NRSV, from Bible Gateway).

So why all the separation between? The answer lies in Exodus 20, I think. It is there that the people respond to God’s voice.

18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid[d] and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” 21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (NRSV, again via Bible Gateway).

Now our tendency as Christians is to see this as a failing of Israel, corrected in the church. But I think it is a mistake to read it that way. One of my principles of application (not necessarily of exegesis) is to point the text at yourself first. Whether we admit it or not, we behave this way every day. Let the pastor pray, study, listen to God, and proclaim. Let us sit passively on Sunday morning and hear what God has told the pastor. I visited a United Church of Christ recently. They have a motto, “God is still speaking.” It’s a good one, I think. But the real question is this: Are we still listening? All of us?

Our tendency is to say in good southern style, “God is still speaking. Isn’t that special?” The point being that we want to distance ourselves from anything that gets us too close to the edge, too likely to make people question our sanity. We want God to say comfortable things. It’s easier to only hear comfortable things if you let the pastor do all the listening, and get them properly filtered and shaped into a good sermon.

This week’s Lectionary Psalm is Psalm 99:

YHWH reigns
let peoples shudder
he sits on the cherubim
let the earth be displaced. (Translation from Seeing the Psalter, p. 312)

We don’t admit the fear of hearing from God. We like the idea that God might still speak. What we don’t want is for God to displace the earth. We don’t want him to say anything that would make us shudder. We live in Exodus 20, standing at a distance, appointing our pastors and church staff members as “Moses.”

We’re supposed to be living in John 4, worshiping in spirit and truth, or in 2 Corinthians 6:16, as the “temple of the living God.”

I learned about this in studying Leviticus using Jacob Milgrom’s 2200 page, 3 volume commentary in the Anchor Bible series. He maintains (summarizing from a sweep of many passages in his book) that the call to distinguish sacred from profane was part of training, a teaching function of the ritual system, and that the call to be holy (Leviticus 19:2) points to the sacred overcoming the profane. More, not less, comes to belong to the sacred sphere. I really should write a post on this subject in particular at some point and bring some material from that commentary to bear, but that will take more time. Condensing 2200 pages, none of them wasted in my view, is not easy!

But what I saw in Numbers 18 & 19 was that separation them, the one that comes after Exodus 20. It’s not God pulling back from humanity, but rather God accommodating our fear, our unwillingness to get too close to the sacred. To paraphrase another expression, not everyone who says they’re happy to hear from God actually is.

And I do think there is a role for pastors and for priests in the modern church and world, though that role is primarily in terms of outreach. The church should be carrying out a priestly role to the world, mediating the sacred to those around, being Jesus in living, physical, present form. That is the priesthood of all believers, individually and collectively. We do not require a priest to get to God. Prayers by the pastor are not better than prayers by individual members. We should all at various times be receivers and conveyors or God’s Word.

I want to note, in addition, that I’m not speaking solely of those who believe that people in the congregation receive prophetic words. I’m speaking of those who hear God speak through scripture as well as those who hear in their minds, see visions, or catch God’s voice coming through the natural world.

A royal priesthood. Do we really want it? Can we stand it? Will we give up our individual superiority (and inferiority!) so it can happen?

PS: As I was writing this, notice came in of a post by Bob Cornwall, author of Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, dealing with ordination (book extract). Note his conclusion:

Although our churches may use a variety of structural forms, it’s important to recognize that the church isn’t a democracy, ruled by majority vote. It’s also not a clerical autocracy where elite groups of clergy hold sway. In a gift based ecclesiology, there’s the assumption the Spirit rules, and we are tasked with discerning where the Spirit is leading. This is true no matter what structure we happen to be a part of.

“Discerning where the Spirit is leading” is not easy!

Bible Study for Monday, July 28

Bible Study for Monday, July 28

Well, we didn’t do so well this past Monday, but a new week is coming! On Monday, July 28, we will meet again via Google Hangouts, with the announcement via e-mail (if you’ve requested one), or on my Google+ page.

Jody has already posted the question for this coming Monday and the scriptures:

The Scriptures for this week are:
Isaiah 55:1-5
Psalm 145:8-21
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

Opening question is: What legacy will you leave your family and friends? Or What legacy did your parents leave you?

I’d simply focus in on the word “legacy.” Start with Romans 9:1-5 and work outward. I suggest reading all of Psalm 145 and Isaiah 55. If you haven’t read all of Romans 9-11 recently, try that as well. It puts the question of Romans 9:1-5 into some context. I’ve found that those on the Arminian side of the divide people tend not to like Romans 9-11 very much. When I took Exegesis of Romans as an undergraduate, we didn’t make it out of chapter 8. The semester ended and there we were!

I recall one discussion group I was leading as we studied the book of Hebrews and its connections with other scriptures. Suddenly in the middle of one session one of the members stopped us all by exclaiming, “Wow! You’d almost think there was a plan!”

Yeah, you just might at that. Look for the plan. Look for the legacy.

To a Generation yet to Be Born

To a Generation yet to Be Born

image

This is my mother, who will be 96 at the end of May. She’s looking over a book titled Seeing the Psalter. She spent a good hour with it, commenting on methodology and various translations.

How can she do this? Well, after years as a missionary nurse, she decided to take Hebrew and completed two years. She then taught herself Greek, with a little (remarkably little) help from me.

She and my dad both passed on their love of Scripture to me. That’s Psalm 78:1-7 in action.

When she was done looking over the book she took out some sheet music, went to the electronic keyboard and said, “Let’s have worship!” She led our small group of family and we shared God’s wonderful deeds (see Psalm 78 again).

That’s how you share faith from one generation to the next.

Psalm 122: On Praying for Both Israelis and Palestinians

Psalm 122: On Praying for Both Israelis and Palestinians

Bruce Epperly, in his comments on the scriptures for the first Sunday in Advent at Process & Faith, has a note about praying for Jerusalem. The call for this is made in the Psalm for this first Sunday in Advent, 122.

Bruce notes:

“I was glad when they said unto me let us go unto the house of the Lord,” rejoices the Psalmist. The Jerusalem temple becomes a focal point for the nations through its vision of peace. Without peace in Jerusalem, there is no peace on Earth, the Psalmist asserts. The Psalmist commands, “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” This is a strong admonition for progressives who often side with the Palestinians over the State of Israel. We must pray for Israel as well as Palestine; we must insure a just peace that protects Israel as well as liberates Palestine. We must go beyond polarization in the Middle East, recognizing the universality of threat, violence, and self-interest, along with the possibility of personal, national, and regional transformation. God loves the whole world, without exceptions; and God’s love embraces the diversity of nations and ethnicities, inviting them toward peace, goodness, and beauty.

As Christians, it is our duty to love and care for all people, not just particular people. It’s very easy in promoting a particular political agenda to ignore the needs of those who are out of our focus. But the agenda of the Christian should be to build the kingdom of God.

There are many responses to Psalm 122 amongst Christians. There are those for whom the command is a simple command to us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Some would respond that this command was given to the people of Israel, and not in general to the people of the world. And it is truly “decreed for Israel.” At the same time, the language of this Psalm is such that it’s hard not to get an eschatological sense from it, or perhaps to read one into it if it’s not already there. Others might see its application in praying for our own nations and their leaders. My point is not to deal with all possible issues of interpretation, nor to answer policy questions regarding the middle east. Rather it’s to look at our prayers, starting at home, but extending to all people.

Bob MacDonald, in Seeing the Psalter,  notes that the reference to the house of David (verse 5) falls between opening and closing references to the house of the LORD (verses 1 & 9). This explains to some extent why the passage is an advent passage. That eschatological sense comes through. God’s presence is, according to the Psalmist, manifested in Jerusalem in the house of the LORD. God’s presence will be manifested. Eschatology always has a sense of the future in the present.

I must mine another one of my Energion authors, Edward W. H. Vick, quoting from Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide:

Christian theology is essentially eschatology. ‘From the beginning, eschatology is not primarily an apocalyptic conception, but an understanding of being in faith.’ The question then is, Which eschatology? Is it a theology of the future? Or, may it be better understood as a theology of the present? Are there other alternatives, relating present and future? (p. 51)

If the tension between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ in the New Testament and in the Christian message is maintained, there is no antagonism between ‘salvation-history’ and Christian existentialism. Indeed the two positions are complementary. To raise the essential question of continuity between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith is to press beyond the position of Bultmann. The question is whether a sequence of events can be an object of faith as well as of assent. Cullmann answers with an emphatic affirmative. In faith the believer is overwhelmed by that in which he did not participate (p. 115). The events of salvation are pro nobis, but first they are extra nos. (p. 63)

Now there’s quite a bit of theological terminology in that quotation, especially without the 12 pages that come between the two paragraphs I quoted. But I want to bring out two points. First, Christian theology is essentially eschatology, that is, it has to do with the age to come, last day events, or something similar. What we often miss, however, is that God coming near is also now, not just something to await in the future. Second, when we participate in Advent we are celebrating events “in which [we] did not participate” and in that celebration we certainly hope they “overwhelm” us, i.e. bring us into themselves.

It’s in that “overwhelming” that “to the Jew first, but also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16) becomes also “there is no longer Jew nor Greek” without contradiction. At the same time, it is only in that way that we can both pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and for justice for Palestinians without contradiction.

 

 

Psalm 1 and Two Ways

Psalm 1 and Two Ways

We often read the Psalms legalistically, i.e. all the discussion of the law leads us to believe we’re talking about some sort of righteousness by works, or better earning God’s favor through accomplishing certain works.

If we read Psalm 1 as a sort of flat discourse rather than as structured poetry, we can easily read it in support of such a mission. After all, righteous people who do certain things are blessed, and wicked people who do certain other things are not.

But Psalm 1 is, in fact, structured poetry, and it does not intend to make a catalog of good actions that one should do in order to be regarded as righteous. Rather, it contrasts two ways of life. The first is the way of life of the righteous person, and the other the way of life of the wicked, characterized by a lack of what the righteous person has. That particular element is torah or instruction?God’s instruction. The work of God’s Torah in the life of the righteous is not complete. He meditates in that instruction day and night. The Torah forms these righteous people into a community united in following that particular way.

This contrast is emphasized by the use of ki’ ‘im in Hebrew, which occurs only here in the Psalter (Bob MacDonald, Seeing the Psalter, forthcoming from my company Energion Publications, 2013).

In contrast, without that Torah, the wicked are like chaff and are blown away by the wind. They lack that community and therefore they lack its blessings.

This is not about admission requirements. This is about the choice of the way. It evokes Deuteronomy 30:15ff. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity …” This comes not from a sermon preached to the already righteous, but rather from an invitation to people who had need of that Torah. It was an act of God’s grace.

In the same way this invitation to contrasting ways of life comes to each one of us.

Psalm 51 in The Voice

Psalm 51 in The Voice

I’ve been including The Voice Bible in my lectionary reading for the last couple of weeks. My early impression was that it was fairly good as a paraphrase, though the italics, while fairly consistent, were a bit distracting. I thought they were unnecessary.

I was wrong. I have yet to do any sort of objective comparison of the use of italics in one of the various formal equivalence translations, such as the KJV, but at this point my impression is that these italics are not fully consistent. At the same time, the added material does not all fall into what I would understand as a paraphrase. Since what belongs in a paraphrase is not well defined in any case, however, this may not be a valid criticism.

Readers of The Living Bible and The Message have gotten used to some extensive rephrasing, and also a good deal of cultural translation. In the voice, we have a text that translates the text using principles of dynamic equivalence and then adds notes. Rather than using foot- or marginal notes, these notes are in the text in italics. The feel of reading this version is rather different.

The Psalm for this week is Psalm 51, and some of the notes really grate on me. I probably need to spend more time reading and thinking about this, but let me give some examples again. (These are not intended as a representative sample. I’m listing passages that grated on me. Numbers refer to verses, not list numbers.)

1.  … wipe out every consequence of my shameful crimes. — Huh?

2. Thoroughly wash me, inside and out, — What does this add?

7. If You wash me, I will be whiter than snow. — If you want to make this a conditional, then it’s part of the translation. If it’s not justified, putting it in italics doesn’t help.

9.  and erase my guilt from the record. — Again, what does this add?

16. I would surrender my dearest possessions or destroy all that I prize to prove my regret, but … — This note just seems wrong to me. The verse is not talking about giving up possessions or destroying things you prize. It’s talking about presenting sacrifices to God. There’s a good theological point here, also often made by the prophets, and this note makes it less clear, in my opinion.

Thus far these are just thoughts as I read. I haven’t formed an overall opinion on this translation. But I am concerned about some of this content.