18 March, 2007

An innocent stratagem

But were all the particular miracles, actions, and discourses of Jesus to be minutely and circumstantially recorded, for there were a great many more than those that have been published, the consequence would be, I am persuaded, that the world would never receive and embrace a religion, whose history was contained in such a vast number of large volumes as the life of Christ would then necessarily compose.

— John 21:25, in Edward Harwood's translation.
The last verse of the Gospels is essentially a statement of human finitude in the face of the divine infinite. The text cannot be a mystical microcosm of God, as the Tanakh would become for the Jews—it can only be an epitome or a crude likeness composed for the sake of persuasive evangelism. This passage is in the tradition of Greek practical rationalism. It is also, more broadly, an expression of the limits of translation, for it makes clear that the Biblical text is merely a 'translation' into words of the divinity of Christ, or if you prefer, of the Word:
Before the origin of this world existed the LOGOS—who was then with the Supreme God—and was himself a divine person.
The New Testament is a translation in more ways than one. On a literal level, it is likely to be a translation of Aramaic documents, and Semitic idioms can be detected in the Greek. It is a translation of Jewish messianism into the urbane philosophical culture of the Hellenic Mediterranean. And as John 21:25 shows, it is a translation of the infinite into a finite medium.


A translation, like the conversion of energy, can never be ideal: something is always lost in the process. Most translations choose to gloss over this energy differential, by pretending that they are not translations. Thus an English renderer of Tolstoy, say, will traditionally attempt to make Tolstoy sound as if he wrote in English. But for a contrary fellow like myself—as I have indicated here and there with my own efforts on this site—a translation is more interesting and appealing if it exploits that differential as an opportunity for a new language. This sort of rendering will draw attention to its translated status: it will retain elements of the original, as difficulties not swept aside. It will be, in other words, consciously problematic. This aesthetic stems from the belief that translation is not a necessary evil, but rather a primary basis of language and literature. It is a Romantic outlook—compare Schlegel's notion of the Mischung, which I discussed here, and more specifically Schleiermacher on translation:
Consider, for example, a translator facing the challenge of translating Homer's word aretê into English. The translator will recognize that nothing in existing English exactly expresses this concept. He will therefore judge that the best way to convey it in English is to modify existing English usage in a systematic way for the course of the translation in order thereby to mimic Greek usage and hence meaning. He will begin by taking the word from existing English which comes closest to aretê in meaning, say the word virtue. . . for the duration of his translation he will modify the rule which governs the word virtue in order to make this rule conform (or at least more closely conform) to that which governs Homer's word aretê. . . He will thereby succeed in expressing—or at least come close to expressing—in English the meaning of Homer's word aretê.
Here, the word virtue will not be used as the English virtue, but as the Greek aretê—it could be applied to a habitual liar, but not to a weak saint. It will stand out for its discrepancy, as a mark of the alterity of the original concept. The reader of this translation will suspend his normal understanding of the English language, and instead come to inhabit the semantics of Homeric Greek. A similar reasoning lay behind Burgess' futile stipulation that A Clockwork Orange should lack a glossary.

The earliest instance of this logic, as far as I know, is found in the Celestial Hierarchy of the Pseudo-Dionysius, early 6th century:
Thus all those who are wise in divine matters, and are interpreters of the mystical revelations, set apart in purity the Holy of Holies from the uninitiated and unpurified, and prefer incongruous symbols for holy things, so that divine things may not be easily accessible to the unworthy, nor may those who earnestly contemplate the divine symbols dwell upon the forms themselves as the final truth.
It is better to represent the 'Deific Principles' by such lowly images as the worm or the corner-stone, than by lofty images like 'Light shining forth unclouded and intelligibly' (John 1:5)—because the latter are more likely to be mistaken for the truth than the former. It is essential for the religious man to understand that the textual and pictorial symbols of the divine are merely symbolic, just as it is important for any reader to remember that a translation is a translation. The sign must not dissimulate its nature. Furthermore, for the Pseudo-Dionysius, it is the ugliness of angelic symbols that prompts us to make the Platonic ascent towards God, just as for Schleiermacher it is the incongruity of semantic usage that prompts us to appreciate the alterity of the original language.


John 21:25 tells us that our understanding of Christ must necessarily be imperfect. This verse turns out to be a culmination of the themes running through the final chapter, usually referred to as the 'appendix', and considered to be later than the rest of the book. In 21:11 the gathered disciples, under Christ's governance, catch 153 fish—the number is incongruous, and has been subjected to the most fantastical reaches of exegesis. It seems to betoken the ineffable mystery of the Word. 21:22-23 succinctly shows us a failure of communication:
Jesus said to him [Peter]—Suppose it is my desire he [the 'beloved disciple'] should continue in life 'till the time of my coming, how doth it concern you?—Do you follow me. The words which Jesus now spoke relative to this disciple, gave rise to an opinion, which the other apostles maintained—That this disciple would never die—Tho' Jesus never asserted any such thing—He only said, "If it was his desire that this apostle should continue in being 'till the time of his coming, what concern was it to Peter."
Even Christ's apostles do not understand his words, and the transmission of his original statement through the group brings inevitable confusion. We are witnessing a translation of the infinite into the finite medium of man. And immediately before this passage come three famous verses (21:15-17), an exchange between Peter and Christ:
After they had finished their repast, Jesus turned to Peter and said to him—Simon! do you love me with a more strong and intense affection than any of this company?—Peter replied—You are conscious, Sir! of the sincerity of my love to you—Jesus said to him, Feed my lambs.

Jesus said to him a second time—Simon! do you love me with an affection superiour to any of these?—You know, Sir! he answered, the fervency of my love for you—Jesus said to him, Feed my sheep.

Jesus said to him a third time—Simon! is your love for me more fervent than theirs?—Peter by his repeating the same question three times, thinking he questioned the sincerity of his regards for him, was greatly affected and said—I can appeal, Sir! to your consciousness of the human heart for the ardour of my love—Jesus said to him, Feed my sheep.
Here, the English translation—I quote Harwood, but the same is true of the KJV—loses an important semantic difference in the Greek. Christ's first and second questions to Peter are, agapas me? Each time, Peter replies, philo se. Finally, Christ asks, phileis me?, and Peter again replies, philo se. Christ's initial verb, agapein, does not have the same connotations as philein, although both are translated as 'to love'. Agapein is the verb Christ uses (Matt. 22:37, 39) for the two Christian commandments, 'Love the Lord thy God', and 'Love thy neighbour'. The implication is that Christ wants Peter to show agape, but instead Peter shows only philia. The problem of translation is not merely Greek to English, but within the Greek itself—Peter cannot even comprehend the simple language of his divine interlocutor. Again and again in Chapter 21, John demonstrates the difficulties of communication: the error inherent in translation becomes a model for all linguistic interaction.


So who is this Harwood fellow I've been quoting, and why have I been quoting him? David Norton, in his classic History of the English Bible As Literature, refers to him as a 'much-mocked dissenting minister, classicist and biblical critic'. He was born in 1729, and died in 1794. His Liberal Translation of the New Testament was published by subscription in 1768 (having been advertised since 1765), and in the same year the poet William Julius Mickle published his critique, A letter to Mr. Harwood, wherein some of his evasive glosses, false translations, and blundering criticism, in support of the Arian heresy, contained in his Liberal Translation of the New Testament, are pointed out and confuted. Ever since, Harwood's translation has been a laughing-stock, not for its theological heterodoxy but for its ludicrous prose style.

By 1768 the KJV was almost sacrosanct, and the Geneva Bible, which had remained popular throughout the preceding century, was forgotten. In 1769 the KJV would be re-edited by Benjamin Blayney at Oxford, putting the text into the form we read today. Its strength was the poetic economy of its prose, an accurate reflection of the original, but not of standard 1611 English. Stephen Prickett, in the early chapters of Origins of Narrative, defends the KJV's heavy use of calqued idioms against the criticisms of Eugene Nida, whose line on Biblical translation has become standard in the missionary community. By using words and phrases according to the Hebrew and Greek, the KJV created a new English—see for example its uses of 'host' and 'word'—thus putting into practice the Romantic theory of translation avant la lettre.

Harwood found this style unacceptable: 'the bald and barbarous language of the old vulgar version hath acquired a venerable sacredness from the length of time and custom'. It is barbarous because 'the idioms and structure of the antient are so essentially different from the modern languages, that a literal and servile version of any Greek and Latin author must necessarily be barbarous and unintelligible'. What Harwood wanted, rather, was the old ideal of translation: 'to cloathe the genuine ideas and doctrines of the Apostles with that propriety and perspecuity, in which they themselves, I apprehend, would have exhibited them had they now lived and written in our language'. Propriety and perspecuity, incidentally, are two of the three classical principles of translation according to Frederick Rener, the third being purity.

The result clashed badly with prevailing conceptions of what the Bible should sound like, which by 1768 was equivalent to the KJV. Harwood's prose was elegant in a manner befitting his models—including Hume and Johnson—but hardly suited to the abbreviated beauty of the New Testament. One could hardly attribute poetic economy to the Liberal Translation. Take, for instance, John 21:15-17, quoted above—in the original it is 88 words long, in the KJV it is 124 words, and in Harwood it is 156. Christ's second question in the Greek is simply, Do you love [agapas] me? Harwood renders it as 'Do you love me with an affection superiour to any of these?' The added words serve as a gloss on agapein, and serve also to 'diffuse over the sacred page the elegance of modern English'. Harwood's ultimate reason for his new translation should now be familiar—
[The author] flattered himself that such a Translation of the New Testament might induce persons of a liberal education and polite taste to peruse the sacred volume, and that such a version might prove of signal service to the cause of truth, liberty, and Christianity, if men of cultivated and improved minds, especially YOUTH, could be allured by the innocent stratagem of a modern style, to read a book, which is now, alas! too generally neglected and disregarded by the young and gay, as a volume containing little to amuse and delight, and furnishing a study congenial only to the gloom of old age, or to the melancholy mind of a desponding visionary.
Which innocent stratagem reads a little like John 21:25, circa 1768.


Languagehat said...

It's also interesting that in John 21:15ff, two different verbs are used in Greek where the translations have only "feed": Christ first says "Boske ta arnia mou," then "Poimane ta probata mou," and finally "Boske ta probata mou." Me, I'd translate poimane as "tend" or "keep"; odd that the KJV doesn't preserve the distinction.

*checks other translations*

Ah, I see the NEB renders it "Then tend my sheep." Chalk one up for literalism!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, although I'm not sure what to make of the verbal difference (both arnia/probata and boske/poimane) in this instance; I would be tempted to suggest merely elegant variation, if the Greek weren't so given to verbatim repetition.

Languagehat said...

Exactly. I don't know what to make of it either, but by gad I don't want to sweep it under the rug.

Erik said...

Sometimes I translate from German into Dutch. Because these two language are so closely related, translation is full of traps and many words have different meanings in both tongues, although stemming from the same roots. I always try to keep as close as possible to the original meaning in German, and I think this is the modern translation strategy you also propagate. But you say that the translator has to more or less use the words used in the original (so "word" translated as "word", and not as "logic" or "reason"), thus giving it a specific meaning for that particular written work. But this is not a perfection, either, because the audience reading the work think of "word" as a spoken or written language particle. You may ascribe other meanings to "word" for specific Bible-use, but alas, when you look around you the evil has been done because everybody thinks that words will contain the Truth, and not the Spirit, Logic, or Reason, or whatever meaning "logos" contains next to the straightforward "word". Or am I mistaken?

Conrad H. Roth said...

What is the Spirit, the Logos, if not the words of a language? It is no coincidence that 'logos' has such a range of meanings. For most English people reading the Bible, "The Word was with God / The Word was God" doesn't make any literal sense. The apparent oddness or incongruity provokes the searcher to think more about what the word 'Word' means. This sort of translation therefore divides the Searcher from those who do not probe deeply: it creates a Mystery of the Bible. Although this excludes some, it also makes it possible for others to understand the Greek in a way that a translation using 'Message' does not. More on mystery and the NT soon.

There is no such thing as perfection in translation: that is clear. There are only strategies. As a secular sort of theologian myself, I find this to be particularly good one.

Anonymous said...

" . . . a translation is more interesting and appealing if it exploits that differential as an opportunity for a new language."

When I read the Italians (in English), I often wonder how much of what I'm enjoying is Eco, Calvino, or Calasso, and how much is William Weaver.

Weaver wrote about his process of translating Calvino: "It is not a process of turning this Italian noun into that English one, but rather of pursuing a cadence, a rhythm---sometimes regular, sometimes willfully jagged—--and trying to catch it, while, like a Wagner villain, it may squirm and change shape in your hands."

To me, the translated texts (at the level of word and sentence) retain a strong odor of non-Englishness, a pleasing sense of unfamiliarity and otherness. But I am suspicious; how much of what I think of as "Italian literature" reduces to the choices made by the translator?

Conrad H. Roth said...

I'm interested to read this by Weaver; I've generally found his renderings a bit flat, though his Calasso is probably better than his Eco. Translations from German, on the other hand, often succumb to the temptation to follow Germanic compounding, for rich and unusual effect.

Anonymous said...

"I've generally found his renderings a bit flat, though his Calasso is probably better than his Eco."

I find the Eco a bit flat as well, but I've always felt that it was supposed to be flat, that the style captured something about the original. I've been quite disappointed by the renderings of Eco's essays by other translators. There's a general sense of infelicity, a sense that a linguistic spark is missing.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Why is it, do you think, that flatness suits Eco's books? Or is it merely that they happen to be flat, whether appropriate or not?

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm not sure if we mean the same thing by flatness, of course.

My impression of Il Nome della Rosa and Il pendolo di Foucault is that they are dense, difficult books, and that a dancing, flashy translation would do them a disservice; cf. Weaver's translation of, say, Invisible Cities.

Of course, I don't read Italian, much to my continually growing dissatisfaction. I only know the translations, and all my assessments (and hence my affection for the texts) are through a Weaver-colored lens.