Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Our World Without Ambiguity, or humility

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Sunday I visited a friend's church, where we sang the above. Ironically, for being the sort of visionary petition that it seems to aspire to call God Himself to being, it's not a very clear text, is it?

The English is outdated. The metaphors are mixed. The categories are contradictory. The penultimate line above has one person, one male person only, identifying with God, when a larger number of us including males and females is singing. The math, down to the last number, is all wrong. The meanings are many. The phrasing is unnatural. The ESL learners are struggling. And the children surely aren't getting much of anything.

Besides all that, what we read singing is not what's in "the original."

I'm being sarcastic again. But I'm trying to sound a little like Socrates in Plato's Republic [aka Πολιτεία or The Perfect City-State with No Old Poetic Ambiguities Whatsoever].  He wants to establish the ideal Greek world without the mindlessness of the people who follow the old poets of the ancient epic poetry.  One of my friends going to a Christian seminary said that the Republic was one of the required readings for a class, and I wonder why.  I asked her if they'd read Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato, and she said No.  Are they going to read anything by Aristotle who invariably and always writes more logically and less dialogically than Plato his teacher?  She didn't know.

What if I were to try to sound like Aristotle?  I think I'd try to sound like the bible scholars and the linguists who are trying to make the bible sound like Aristotle.  One, for example, says he likes better an English translation that "communicates more clearly the meaning" of a bit of Matthew than the clear translation he is Assistant Project Director for.  Another bible language expert, my friend Wayne Leman the linguist, says that one particular bible translator (whose translation he likes to read) "is such a good English writer and poet that I [Wayne] think he would probably have modified the last line [of some verses of his translation in order] to remove the ambiguity."  To Leman, this particular translator is one of those "English Bible translators [who] introduce ambiguity to a translation which they themselves do not intend."  This is Aristotle's clear and logical and intended rule for his students, of course:  "avoid ambiguities."

Now, Leman is much more forgiving than Aristotle, if they both do want to avoid ambiguities.  Leman lets the particular Bible translator who seems to have introduced ambiguity into his English off the hook, on one and only one condition.  Leman says this "good English writer and poet" shall not introduce to an English language Psalm any unintended ambiguity -- and he shall remove it too -- "UNLESS he believed that the original Hebrew was itself ambiguous."  (Of course, Aristotle believed that all bar-bar-ic languages, such as Hebrew, were ambiguous as was that unclear illogical Greek language of the old poets and of the sophists and of all females and even of his teacher Plato and of Plato's teacher Socrates.)  So it may be okay, in one instance alone, according to Leman, for the poetic English translator of the Hebrew Psalms to introduce English ambiguities:  if he intends to mirror what he believes is the intentional introduction of ambiguity by the original Hebrew writer singer poet into the text of the original Hebrew.

Unfortunately, who can know what the original poet songwriter's intentions were?  And how can we " in our generation ... fully understand the original Hebrew, much less the profound wordplay and connections present in the language"?  Now I'm quoting a former blogger named Iyov, who is quoted by another of my linguist blogger friends, Suzanne McCarthy.  McCarthy a former blogger at Better Bibles Blog here goes on to say that
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.
What Iyov and McCarthy have made us do is to stand outside of an unclear, ambiguous text.  They've made us stand far away.  They've made us assume a lowly position.  We cannot even understand everything in the original text.

I was thinking about whether to give the original Hebrew text that Leman's "good English writer and poet" Bible translator was rendering into English with his perhaps unintentionally introduced ambiguity.  I was getting ready to try to show how ambiguous the Hebrew is.  I was considering bringing in the Greek translation of that Hebrew by certain Jews who would certainly be using the Hellene in ways that Aristotle considers vague and unclear and highly ambiguous.  But it may be better, for now, just to come back to those lines that I started this post with.

There is great humility here in those lines, with the ambiguities.  Perhaps ambiguity calls for humility.  Perhaps change of vision requires ambiguity.  Perhaps that's the point, one of the many many possible points, of the original text.

Now, just to be clear, the original text is old ambiguous Irish:

Rop tú mo baile, a Choimdiu cride:
ní ní nech aile acht Rí secht nime.

Rop tú mo scrútain i l-ló 's i n-aidche;
rop tú ad-chëar im chotlud caidche.

Rop tú mo labra, rop tú mo thuicsiu;
rop tussu dam-sa, rob misse duit-siu.

Rop tussu m'athair, rob mé do mac-su;
rop tussu lem-sa, rob misse lat-su.

If you're a native speaker of modern Irish, then it may make a wee bit more sense like this:

Bí Thusa ’mo shúile a Rí mhór na ndúil
Líon thusa mo bheatha mo chéadfaí ’s mo stuaim
Bí thusa i m'aigne gach oíche ’s gach lá
Im chodladh no im dhúiseacht, líon mé le do ghrá.

Bí thusa ’mo threorú i mbriathar ’s i mbeart
Fan thusa go deo liom is coinnigh mé ceart
Glac cúram mar Athair, is éist le mo ghuí
Is tabhair domsa áit cónaí istigh i do chroí.

But the story goes that one Mary Elizabeth Byrne, an Irish linguist, rendered those old and ancient and ambiguous Irish lines into English something like this in 1905:

Be thou my vision O Lord of my heart
None other is aught but the King of the seven heavens.

Be thou my meditation by day and night.
May it be thou that I behold even in my sleep.

Be thou my speech, be thou my understanding.
Be thou with me, be I with thee

Be thou my father, be I thy son.
Mayst thou be mine, may I be thine. 

And then one Eleanor M. Hull introduced even more English ambiguity to the lines of Byrne by making it more poetic in 1912:

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
be all else but naught to me, save that thou art;
be thou my best thought in the day and the night,
both waking and sleeping, thy presence my light.

Be thou my wisdom, be thou my true word,
be thou ever with me, and I with thee Lord;
be thou my great Father, and I thy true son;
be thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one. 

A bit later someone put it to an Irish tune, and some many years later and across an ocean, one Sunday some of us of many generations later sang it in a church, where the English now was American and mostly Texan, with many of the verbs swapped around or lopped off to fit a version played with guitars and drums. 

I think we may have been doing what McCarthy said we might best be doing:  "simply surrendering the rational mind to an acceptance of ambiguity in the original text."  It's not entirely clear to me, but it seems one of the points of the hymn, of the prayer.


Anonymous said...

When I was a child, I thought as a child... and all that stuff. I loved this hymn, and "Imortal, invisiblem, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes". Precisely because they were mysterious and more than a bit hard to understand! I don't think you (or most other adults) give children enough credit, they are smarter than you or I are, just less knowledgable.

(If this sounds irrate it was not meant to but I am writing in a hurry and no tine to edit.)

J. K. Gayle said...

Tim, We adults are too often in a hurry aren't we? As a child and as a second language learner too, I often don't get much credit and may sometimes be "smarter than" if "just less knowledgeable" than others. There's something to say for fresh insight and newer eyes and ears. (And yet I do remember, as a child, as a preacher's kid sitting in church Sunday after Sunday and Wednesday after Wednesday and during children's events on Saturdays and in summer bible schools - I remember hearing the adult hymns and making of them very different meanings than the intended ones. "Cross-eyed bear" -for the "Cross I'd bear" is a classic.)