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The Face of Water : A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible
The Face of Water : A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible
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Author(s): Ruden, Sarah
ISBN No.: 9780307908568
Pages: 272
Year: 201703
Format: Trade Cloth (Hard Cover)
Price: £24.79
Dispatch delay: Dispatched between 7 to 15 days
Status: Available (Active record)

PART ONE Impossibilities Illustrated The Character of the Languages and Texts 1 Legos, Not Rocks: Grammar David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12:7) The Lord''s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4) Imagine that you''re at a moving and meaningful rock concert--say, Paul Simon with Ladysmith Black Mambazo playing Sun City, South Africa, during apartheid. You happen to send the only surviving record of the event, and only through text messaging (and yes, I know this didn''t exist in the 1980s), and only to a monolingual English speaker in White Plains, New York, who is an obsessive collector of American Girl dolls. Having gamely transmitted the abbreviated first lines of "Nkosi Sikelel'' iAfrica" ("God Bless Africa"), you get back to singing and swaying. We don''t get a much better record of what Psalm 137, for example, was like in its early incarnations. Here is the King James Version: 1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. 2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. 3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. 4 How shall we sing the Lord''s song in a strange land? 5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy. 7 Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. 8 O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. 9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. What is this scene of lamenting and cherishing and threatening? It is so vivid and so specific that I''m convinced it was based on direct experience. It does appear that some of the Jewish elite of the Babylonian Exile lived near Mesopotamian canals. But why exactly would you hang harps on willow trees? And why the change to a vengeful mood in verse 7? And what to make of the horrifying verse 9? Was this originally two or even three poems? Much of this puzzlement naturally comes from the present harrowing shortage of the data that were available to early performers and their audiences. In their oldest written form, the Hebrew words represented by the English "By the rivers of Babylon" would have consisted of ten consonant letters (written and read from right to left) and nothing else.

Original written Greek--in a dialect of which, Koinē ("Common"), the whole of the New Testament was written--is so much more decipherable: it has vowels! Early Hebrew writing didn''t. But in both languages a short, handy phonetic alphabet, adapted from that of the Phoenicians, probably served for centuries as little more (at least in the realm of literature) than performance notes in a stubbornly oral culture. A standard example of the gap between ancient performance and the texts and translations in their evolved forms is fifth-century b.c.e. Classical Athenian tragedy and comedy--for which we have no original stage directions. But at least we know something about that staging from other sources, such as vase painting. How much deeper is the mystery around early Hebrew literature.

Was a Psalm "of Ascents," for instance, one repeated while climbing up to the Temple or other place of worship, or perhaps one sung as the smoke of a sacrifice "ascended" to heaven? And though Psalms were, it''s clear, performed musically, what kind of music was it? And what did New Testament hymns in Greek sound like? Were they chanted or sung? In harmony, or perhaps in rounds? If I declared--according to my strong inclination as a translator--that the first written texts (as far as these can be reconstructed) are it, my logical and proper main interest here, how would I get closer to what that actually was--that is, how it was experienced? Does a translator just fill things in? In the case of ordinary ancient literature, it''s an unashamed yes. When I translated Aristophanes''s Lysistrata, a Classical Greek comedy that imagines all the wives in Greece going on a sexual strike until a war ends, I counted on jokes occurring at fairly regular intervals, even though modern scholarly commentators couldn''t find all of them. Every turn in the action, every windup in dialogue, and everything unexplainable otherwise was probably a hoot to the original audience--and where there was nothing verbally funny, stage business must have filled in, so that even bland words were funny when paired with, say, slapstick, the imitation of some public figure''s voice, or just a strategic pause. A Classics translator is readily forgiven if, to restore an arguably essential quality of the work (humor, in this case), she goes beyond analogy (the analogous modern joke is very common and very much accepted in secular translating, since humor dates--more like dies--so easily) and invents rather than leaves semantic blanks. When the protagonist Lysistrata proposes that the women withhold sex from their husbands, two wives respond with one line each. The lines are similar and contain an identical clause (usually translated as "but let the war go on"), yet I changed the second line into something much different: Calonice: No, I don''t think so. Let the war go on. Myrrhine: Me? Not a chance in hell, so screw the war.

This kind of reconstruction allows an ancient play to keep doing the basic thing it was created to do: hold a theatrical audience''s attention. Reconstruction can also allow an ancient poem to stay poetic, ancient law to maintain its tone of authority, and ancient rhetoric to show how it played on the passions and compunctions of crowds and juries. A translator of the Bible can just try to get away with reconstruction. She had better, in fact, concentrate on the palpable intricacies of the languages and see what insights they yield. Those small marks in a modern, scholarly text (in Hebrew, a word can look like a cartoon character being beaten up) teach most usefully about grammar. Grammar is not just (obviously) for deciphering the text--that is, for setting more or less acceptable words of a modern language beside the original words; but also for observing how those original words act, how they express more than their bare lexical projections into the year Now: how they put on a show. Ancient Hebrew and Greek are inflected, not phrasal languages, a fact that makes a momentous difference in their literatures. If in English I want to express (for instance) the concept that one thing belongs to another, I usually have to string out separate words in a fixed order--say, "a house belonging to a man," "the house of this man," or "a man''s house.

" It''s relatively rare in English for individual words themselves to change much as their meanings change, in such a way that different meanings can branch out of a single word. An example is the principal parts of the verbs "lay" and "lie": I lay the book down (present-tense meaning), I laid the book down (simple past), I have laid the book down (present perfect); I lie down (present), I lay down (simple past), I have lain down (present perfect). The reason it''s so hard to keep these forms straight is that we''re not used to expressing ourselves that way. But intricate phrasing is easy for native English speakers; one of my professors reported that his two-year-old daughter had spontaneously come out with, "What did you bring that book I didn''t want to be read to out of up for?"--with that bizarre series of prepositions and an adverb ("up"), no problem for the likes of us, but liable to drive a foreign student of English around the bend. In either Hebrew or Greek, the words in that sentence would be much fewer, with concepts like "I want" and "what for" and "to be read to" and "bring up" expressed by single words, each containing substantial meaning and often through their structure entailing close relationships with other words. In an English sentence, in contrast, words tend to develop their meanings and their relationships through their order. "What . for" in "What did you bring that book I didn''t want to be read to out of up for?" can''t mean "why" unless the words are where they are (or maybe right beside each other at the start, but that would be awkward and not standard).

In Hebrew and Greek, word order is--on semantic if not stylistic grounds--much more flexible: the subject pronoun "you" is expressed through a finite verb''s form, so wherever you put that verb, the subject of the little girl''s sentence, "you," won''t be mixed up with the direct object of the verb, "book." Both "you" and "book" in English become gibberish if they''re moved at all. In Greek, that noun actually has a special form to show that it''s a direct object, so heck, put it anywhere you want. Hebrew has a nifty device called a construct chain for binding words together without the benefit of an "of" word; the words do have to stand side by side (showing that the first item belongs to the second), but beyond that their forms are usually just altered a little. "The hand of Yahweh" (traditionally translated as "the hand of the Lord") is two words in Hebrew. But, hey, "of a person having been set free" can be one word in Greek; Hebrew does that kind of thing, too, just not as often. I call such handy, highly cohesive units Legos, and I compare them to the rocks of English,.

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