Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Found In Translation

I'm a research junkie and a total word nerd.  In the icebreaker game of a discussion group once, I had to pick an adjective to describe myself that started with the same letter as my name.  Just call me "Searching Susan."  I once took an online I.Q. test that titled me "Word Warrior" based on my score.   

When I was in graduate school, I spent an absurd amount of time researching and writing about one of the earliest Old English poems, "The Dream of the Rood."  Two semesters' worth of research and writing, actually.  I could have turned it into a thesis, as one of my professors kept suggesting.  When I first started the project, I was supposed to do a lexical analysis of the piece for my History of the English Language class.  I was trying to show that there were Celtic as well as Anglo-Saxon influences on the poem.  So I got an Old English dictionary and eventually ended up doing my own translation of the whole 256 lines.  Yes, you read that right - two HUNDRED and fifty-six.

The Ruthwell Cross,
on which part of "The Dream of the Rood" is inscribed in runes.
Dumfriesshire, Scotland. Photo by Peter Mattock

What I discovered was that certain words had multiple senses to them, and that none of the available translations emphasized this.  Granted, it's a difficult thing to do, but I, being the word nerd warrior that I am, took on the task.  It was immensely rewarding to find ways to unfold levels and layers of meaning.  And I was able to support my claims of Celtic influence pretty darn well this way.

More recently, I've read a couple of books by Neil Douglas-Klotz, in which he translates various words of Jesus into the Aramaic that Jesus would have been speaking in when he lived, and from there into English.  The result is quite poetic and illuminated.  For instance, here's his translation of the Lord's Prayer:

O, Birther of the Cosmos, focus your light within us -- make it useful
Create your reign of unity now
Your one desire then acts with ours,
As in all light,
So in all forms,
Grant us what we need each day in bread and insight:
Loose the cords of mistakes binding us,
As we release the strands we hold of other's guilt.
Don't let surface things delude us,
But free us from what holds us back.
From you is born all ruling will,
The power and the life to do,
The song that beautifies all,
From age to age it renews.
I affirm this with my whole being.

When I first started studying the Bible with a Strong's Concordance handy, you can probably imagine how ecstatic I was.  I would spend whole afternoons looking up every word in a single verse, and feel like I was digging up ancient treasure.  Word archaeology.

I wrote two full pages in my notebook about the name "Jesus."  I don't remember the whole rabbit trail now, but the general gist was that it means "open, wide, and free."  At least that was what I took from it.

I began to see an analogy between words and computer icons.  The way you can click on something and it opens up a whole new world that you couldn't have imagined when you were just looking at the icon.

Why is she going off about all this? you might well ask.  Well, the other day, I was doing my evening prayer with the book a friend gave me for Christmas, Celtic Benedictions, by J. Philip Newell.  This radiant little book of morning and evening prayer is decorated throughout with images from the 7th century Lindisfarne Gospels.  Anyway, I looked up the verse featured that evening:  "I commune with my heart in the night, I meditate and search my spirit" (Psalm 77:6). 

In my New Revised Standard Version Bible there was a note about "I commune," an alternate translation of it, which I read as "My music spirit searches." I found this odd, but poetic and inspiring.  It took me a minute to realize that because of how these notes are laid out on the page, I was actually reading it wrong.  The alternate translation for "I commune" was simply "My music," and for "search my spirit," it was "my spirit searches."  So the verse would then read, "My music is with my heart in the night; I meditate and my spirit searches."  The New International Version actually translates this verse as "I remembered my songs in the night.  My heart mused and my spirit inquired."

Maybe all of this doesn't excite you like it does me, but it's this kind of stuff that brings the Bible alive for me.  For some, it's this very thing that confirms their rejection of the Bible as scripture, but for me, it emphasizes poetic truth as what's valuable over hard fact.  There's grace and mystery in it, not fixed formulaic answers. 

Much has been made of what gets lost in translation, but I'm here to say that a lot can be found.  I research and explore this way because it's fun, and makes me feel like I'm peering into a divine kaleidoscope.  My music spirit searches, and finds communion in and with the words.        


  1. P.S. - I'd like to thank Kate of New Life for adding inspiration to this post through our conversation this afternoon.

  2. Very cool! My undergraduate emphasis was linguistics. I love the stuff.
    These words are puny.

  3. P.P.S. - I highly recommend this video of Philip Newell at Ghost Ranch, found on his website: http://www.jphilipnewell.com/JPN_FX_E.mov

  4. Wow - so you're a scientist AND a linguistics buff? AND a Daring Baker AND a pilgrim soapmaker! How cool is that!

  5. I like your insight that much can be found in translation. I have had similar feelings in thinking about English translations of Pali (early Buddhist) texts. At their best, translations can help us understand that words (in any language) cannot quite capture the truest meanings/experiences to which the words themselves simply refer.

    Is as Lao Tzu says in the opening of Chapter One of the Tao Te Ching:

    "The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao."

  6. Ya know...it isn't very poetic or profound, but YOU ROCK! "...peering into a divine kaleidoscope." (sigh) So much juicy goodness in that statement. So much goodness in it all.
    Thank you!

  7. Dan - Yes. Words can only ever dance around the truth, and yet, a single word can open into an experience of truth when it's treated like an icon.

    Thank you, Jenny! It may not be "poetic" but it affects me profoundly for you to say that. Just try to wipe this big smile off my face!

  8. How exciting that you can find layer upon layer upon layer or truth and beauty in the scriptures or in poetry of whatever language. I'm going to try to do that without getting out the Strong's. : )

    I grew up very fundamentalist and a concordance was used to prove EXACTLY what the words of scripture LITERALLY meant. Amazingly, that didn't discourage my deep love of the scriptures now at this point in my life when I find such freedom in them. Granted, I am guilty of taking what I like (or feels helpful) and leaving behind what is not helpful. (Like God telling the Israelites to destroy every living thing in the city of Jericho.) But, if I read with heart and spirit even those difficult texts contain truth and meaning for my life.

    Thanks for sharing some of what you are seeing through that kaleidoscope of yours! : )


  9. I do the same thing, Susan. With words. Sigh. I took Hebrew for several years and was so excited to be translating the Bible ALL BY MYSELF, until I realized that the man that was teaching me Hebrew was teaching me what HE thought the word phrases meant. Then I quit. Because I'm a quitter like that.

    Although, one of the more profound things a pastor I worked for mentioned in translation was the in the 23rd Psalm the accepted version says, "Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." Well, he said that the word phrase for "follow" actually meant something more like "pursue." Totally changed the way I looked at the entire Psalm.

  10. That's so interesting - that the very same tool of a concordance can be used toward such opposing ends.

    I'm learning more and more to move away from the need for literal meaning - not that I'm deciding one way or another if it IS meant literally, but just leaving that question alone. It's the Negative Capability thing again.

    Wasn't it Henri Nouwen who said it's not about "applying" the Word to some future situation but about being transformed by it right now as you read it.

    Thank you. The kaleidoscope image was almost an afterthought, but it really does fit.

    I'm so so glad you're back.

  11. I remember hearing that about the 23rd Psalm. It's amazing and so important how the sense of one word can alter meaning so profoundly.

    I would LOVE to learn Hebrew. I think it's my favorite language to hear spoken and to look at in print. I've studied the alphabet a bit, the spiritual meaning assigned to the letters in Kabbalistic spirituality. I've even practiced drawing the letters.

    Unfortunately, we don't have any Hebrew classes here at UNM-Taos, but maybe one day.

  12. love your love of words! i had to share that today i started a class on celtic spirituality. the prof began and ended with who else, but philip newell's "celtic benedictions". all of this serendipity stuff has my brain and heart on wondrous overload!!!

  13. I know - it's almost too much sometimes, when you want to follow and nurture every thread and just share every little bit of it with everyone. "Wondrous overload" is an excellent way to put it!

  14. Ah Polly I too have read Neil Douglas klotz's books and loved the alternative translations. They are so poetic and richly metaphoric.
    It makes a huge difference to the way that we have read scripture.
    I believe the precision of the Greek language robbed the original texts of their multiple layers.

    What do you think

    In the begining was the word and the word was God... Mean?

    I am reading the tale of genji and it is a slow read for many reasons but one of them being the multiple translations and allusions made inthe choice of language and poems. I too love words ... Especially their figurative magic.

    Happy days

  15. I've noticed his books on your Shelfari. I don't even remember how I first came across them, but I'm glad I did. Yeah, I don't find Greek all that inspiring. It's amazing how different languages can be in their flavor.

    I had to look up The Tale of Genji, as I'd never heard of it. Now I'm surprised that I hadn't. How interesting! The first novel - that's quite a claim.

    I've thought a lot about "in the beginning was the word..." "Before the beginning was the silence" is what I always want to add to that.

    Our pastor actually preached about this verse last week, and what I mused as I listened was that part of the sense of "word" as the book of John uses it is "idea." Which led me into a contemplation of word as the primary expression of idea, God being the source and original Idea.

    The phrase "figurative magic" has a magic all its own - I love it!

  16. I LOVE WORDS AND MEANING OF WORDS. When I have time I like to create diagrams with words...oh my I love my diagrams.

    This was a beautiful post. I love delving into different forms of translation and some of my happiest moments as a ministerial intern were in the Strong's Concordance. I stupidly donated mine to the church library in my 20's while making a hasty decision about how I would seek life from a spiritual stand point. I regret that choice now, but I plan to buy a new copy because I LOVE TO dissect and get down to the ROOT, and I'm frankly jealous now that you have one and I don't. I know the excitement it propels! : )

    I also enjoy the layers of meaning and realize that part of the layer is my own perceptions. Just as when I read your work or another and I take away something totally unrelated to what your own thoughts may have been in the process.

    Writing and language and words are WONDERFUL like that.

    You are an inspiration to me and you help my own personal desires to resonate and become more fervent as I seek the path in my journey.

    THIS IS A WONDERFUL POST as I read it I could sense how exhilarated you are and the excitement you feel doing what you do!!!!! I got really excited and wanted to start looking up words just for the heck of it...WOHOO!

    Also, I have to say that as I have grown more comfortable in God the idea of layers and meaning sit so well with my spirit and the mystery creates excitement for me...in my younger years it would have frightened me. Now, I know better, and I have grown to appreciate the Spirit within all mankind and that we can learn and grow spiritually via many different teachers, such as Buddha, or Yogis, etc. In my neck of the woods this opinion of mine is frightening to others. I know why, but in truth I have found it all points to ONE TRUTH and putting it altogether actually gives the BIBLE more validity for my life.

    Truth is amazing like that.

  17. Oh and as you have seen in some of my posts I like shaking up the ideas of scripture and putting it into context as it relates to my ideas as I am writing. IT IS SO FUN to see how much REAL LIFE exists in scripture!!!

  18. Jennifer, you and I are definitely on the same page! The resonance is definitely mutual.

    I'm very curious about your diagrams - I'd love to see some.

    I too went through a period of getting rid of books and materials that I grew to see as threatening somehow, and then came to regret it. But for me, it was in reverse. I used to study Tarot, astrology, the occult and I got rid of all that when I turned to Christianity. I now wish I had some of those things back. I was actually thinking about this last night - one of the books I had was an excellent one about the Chakras. (In fact, I have a tattoo on my back that was taken from one of the drawings in that book.)

    I'm blessed to live where I do, in a place where many belief systems are accepted and embraced, and to be part of a liberal and accepting church. So I don't have the experience so much of my beliefs being frightening to people, but if I still lived in the Bible Belt, I'm sure I would!

  19. Oh, this reminds me. I must tell you about my Dark moment on Halloween, it reminds me of what happened to you the night before last. Speaking of, How was your rest last night? I hope it was better.

    And...your blog, is so much FUN!!! In my daily journaling about my 365 days of fun, I can include..."Blogging on The Whole Blooming World". : )

  20. Also, I would see astrology on some level as pertinent in Christianity especially since the culture of the time of the writing of Bible was very "astrological". You would know more about this, I know very little about astrology.

  21. Oh, one more thing...this is getting ridiculous that I cannot write it all at once, THE WHOLE BLOOMING WORLD, IT IS in fact ALL CONNECTED.

  22. You are now, most definitely, my new favorite person. Word archaeology, indeed! Entire afternoons spent in translation (for FUN)! Poetic Bible verses! The divine kaleidoscope! Admirable, delightful, and most of all, just like you. I enjoyed this post immensely. No, I loved it.
    I also get a kick out of word definitions and translations (and value poetic truth above mere scripture), so rest assured I can appreciate the excited tone your writing transmits and your overall love of words in general. (Why do you think I like playing the synonym game so much, and pick a ten-dollar word over a two-dollar substitute?)
    Your endless thirst for knowledge and the obvious pleasure you take in discovery is infectious. Well done. Don't ever lose them. Like Jennifer said, I'm starting to see now why this blog's motto is "It's all connected." Amazing, enlightening, thrilling stuff. Keep it coming.

  23. Jennifer - The three wise men are believed to have been astrologers.

    Yes, it most definitely is all connected. Did you watch the Philip Newell video? He expresses that beautifully.

    Postman - What - I wasn't your favorite person before this post??? Just kidding.

    Thanks for that very high praise! Now you see why I was drawn to your blog in the first place - it was what you do with language. You're quite the word warrior yourself.

  24. Polly,

    I had a migraine and thus missed your post AGAIN. I've got to get over being irritated about this.

    We have a lot in common! I love that you do this, that you translate.

    I do the very same thing! I'll take a scripture and translate it, similair to how we'd speak today, then flip it back to the King James.

    I am more than excited this year about learning the Latin version because I am in utter amazement how the English word has its roots in a very familar Latin word.

    For instance: "to convey" was the Latin equal of "ambulance"!

    For "understanding", the Latin is "prudentiæ"! Prudent!

    To "keep", the Latin is "custodiat", custodian!

    To "not foget" is the Latin "obliviscaris", oblivious!

    And now to go for the gold! Look at this:

    " Beatus homo qui invenit sapientiam,
    et qui affluit prudentia."

    KJV translation:

    Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding. (Prov. 3:13)

    "Homo": man.

    "Sapientiam": sapiens. Or, "homo sapiens".

    "Affluit": affluent.

    "Prudentia": wisdom.

    Now for a rough translation, modern day:

    "The man or woman of the human race, who would like to be fluent in happiness, must therefore find and understand the source of all wisdom- which is only in God."

    I could spend many a happy hour doing this.

    And yes, that's exactly why I'm drawn to Postman too, what he does with language. Yup.

  25. EC - I hope you're feeling better. With all the recent talk about blogger's dying, I get worried when my friends disappear for a few days.

    I love your Latin adventures. Have you ever studied Old English? One of the most interesting things I learned in the History of the English language class was about how English is a mixture of those old Germanic and Latinate languages which is why we have things like "good" (coming from Old English) and "excellent" (coming from Latin).

    Oh, and Kate - guess what I just found out? The Jewish Center here is just starting six weeks of Hebrew classes, at only $10 a pop. They're at night though, so I don't know if I'll be able to do it, with the kiddies and all.



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