The mutual self-isolation
of linguistic and philosophical studies on translation
and the theory and practice of literary translators
Were linguistics to be serious about literary translation . . .
it would be welcome.
A deeper infidelity in Bible translation goes undetected, however.
For although it is assumed that the felony of contemporary Bible translators
is literary insensitivity, mediocrity, or overliteralism,
few people realize that from earliest Bible translation to the present
there has only been the appearance of literalism. . .
The translations of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Scriptures,
consciously or not, are similar to
the controlled news information in authoritarian states.
In other words, license (register c) and extreme freedom
has been applied to Bible translations, yet passed off as literalism (register a).
There is nothing uncommon about a misalliance of theory and practice,
of intention and realization.
The gap between proclaimed intention and realization
in regard to Bible translation is extreme, however.
The epigraphs above are all from Willis Barnstone in his book, The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice. Just reading the “absolute” and “extreme” rhetoric in his sentences (yanked by me out of his context for mine), one might be tempted to blame Barnstone for (a) the isolation he notes between linguistic and literary translators and for (b) the lack of recognition of his work among Bible translators.
I want, then, to start this post on “Barnstone on better Bible translations” just by acknowledging the divide between translators of various sorts. And to note that (so far) Bible translators (at least the blogging ones, drinking Coke and discussing literary translation and debating Better Bibles) ignore Barnstone and his work.
The challenge that Barnstone provides invites less of a wedge between translators and more of a bridge. I would encourage anyone interested in translation, to read, to study, to critically review Barnstone’s work, especially his Poetics of Translation. As a fledgling rhetorician (and as a linguist much more mature), I find what he says incredibly important. We rhetoricians (in Communications, in Classics, in Composition, with Literature or opposing Philosophy) and we linguists (whether theoretical or field working) do isolate ourselves in our own work by our own approaches in our own small societies for our own goals. My blog here has been to show, in part, how dangerous that exclusivism can be. We from the West in various academic and missionic pursuits far too long have followed Aristotle in his dominant Aristotelianism (fostering intellectualism, ethnocentricism, classicism, kingdom-building imperialism, a self-referential politics, and misogynistic sexism.) And yet, translation and feminisms, in the directions Barnstone might lead us, are radically helpful alternatives. (I’ll just risk losing a few more readers by quoting Barnstone here by saying, “Eve is the mother of translation.” And that’s hardly all of what he says on this woman and translation.)
So, it’s been a breath of fresh air to be welcomed into conversation by Bible translators in the blogosphere. Check the blogroll here for sites and conversations of an incredibly intelligent and friendly lot. But, from time to time, we all retreat to the safe group of our own kind. Then we lob labels across and at: “feminist,” “postmodernist,” “egalitarian,” “complementarian,” “literary,” “literalist,” “Ph.D.,” “amateur,” “infamous,” “fabulous,” and so forth (often simply trying to understand the others’ perspectives). In a bad week, a (first order) comment may hurt another (unwittingly and, unfortunately sometimes, through acerbic wit.)
I think Barnstone has experienced some of that. And he’s not even blogging. His beef is with translation that purports to do one thing but that does another. Translation that pretends to build bridges, but sharply divides. Contemporary Bible translation has done that, he says. So what is a better Bible according to Barnstone?
Barnstone is quite conservative in naming English Bible translators he valorizes. But he doesn’t shy away from criticism of those whose translations would divide the linguistic and the literary:
As we have seen in the instance of the Bay Psalm Book, the claims of fidelity have, in older glorious translations, interfered neither with the magnificence of style nor with accuracy. Translators and exegetes alike have invented meanings and words with the full powers of their determined imaginations.
In our century, however, the Bible has suffered ignominiously “accurate” translations. Accurate has replaced literal as the word to justify bad translation.
(The Poetics of Translation, 63)
So one may count exemplary this translation by American Puritans, the Bay Psalm Book (aka The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre [
And Barnstone notes two others “who dedicated themselves to turning one great book of the Bible into a masterpiece, [namely] Sir Philip Sidney and Lady Herbert [Countess of Pembroke] from Elizabethan London” who gave “us a new rendition of the Psalms” (The New Covenant Commonly Called the New Testament, 16).
But, unfortunately, the Bible today has been
Abandoned by our best-known writer-translators and generations of readers. . . We have had no contemporary English or American equal to Poland’s Nobel laureate in literature, Czeslaw Milosz (who learned Hebrew specifically to translate the Songs of Songs into Polish), who might render distinguished books of the Bible in English. Perhaps it is an unfair burden to ask our leading contemporary religious scholars to become the Luthers and Dantes for our time an refresh the English language. In days of territorial specialization, literature and art are not their terrain. The consequences are clear. (The New Covenant Commonly Called the New Testament, 16).
Barnstone does find three or four exceptional exceptions. He notes [with my boldings here]:
In 1996 Reynolds Price published The Three Gospels . . . which includes Mark, Matthew, and John, a revision from an earlier version of the four canonical gospels. It is of the same literary quality throughout as the [
A major change from the pedestrian Hebrew Bible translations that our century has sponsored has been the 1996 publication of Genesis in versions by Robert Alter and by Stephen Mitchell and the 1999 translation of Alter’s David. Alter and Mitchell are both literary, the Alter rhythmically rhetorical and austerely beautiful, with significant annotation; the Mitchell more contemporary, clean, and, like the Alter at once close to both the King James and to modern speech. Like the Everett Fox lineated translation of The Five Books of Moses, the first lines of Genesis in the Alter version have orchestral power and balance, although Alter does so in prose rather than in verse. (The New Covenant Commonly Called the New Testament, 17).
A masterly instance of close translation is Richmond Lattimore’s books from the New Testament. (The Poetics of Translation, 39)
And although his 1962 publication went largely unnoticed, it remains the finest version we have of the words of the Covenant scriptures in English. (The New Covenant Commonly Called the New Testament, 16).
But in his version of Scripture we hear the evangelists speak—as if we were hearing koine Greek. In his preface to The Four Gospels and the Revelation, Lattimore affirms the notion of letting Greek word order and rhetoric come through in English, as opposed to converting them to contemporary English idiom. He adopted this same method in brilliantly in his versions of Pindar and Aeschylus. . . The Bible in our time, sorely abused by unliterary handlers, finds in
Now, I’m excited to see that John F. Hobbins in “Faithful Bible Translation” (at Ancient Hebrew Poetry) seems to praise Lattimore in some of the ways Barnstone does. Even more thrilling is to hear Suzanne McCarthy (at Better Bibles Blog) follow Anne Carson and Robert Alter in her own literary translation of I Corinthians 13. As I look at the translations of Aristotle’s Rhetoric by classicists and rhetoricians, I find the kind of isolation Barnstone writes about and translates against. By working in collaboration, as does Barnstone, Carson, Lattimore, McCarthy, and others, I hope the result will be a translation of Aristotle that leads us more in the ways of his Sappho (and our Eve), a redeemed rhetoric not Aristotelian, not self-isolated (to men only, of any particular tribe).
UPDATE: LINK to Jobes on Better Bibles