Putting narrative into dialogue through translation (part 2)
In part 1, I discussed how one opportunity open to translators is to convert narrative to dialogue.
Below, I would like to discuss three books I recently read which do this – with varying degrees of success.
The first book I just received this week – it is a “translation” of the Bible called The Voice. It attempts to put all the “spoken” words (even “spoken” words that are only thought, or which are meant to be said in a mystical fashion – like the words of God) in dialogue form. The translators tout this feature:
The Voice identifies the speakers within the stories. This format helps readers understand quickly who the characters are and what the relationships are between them. These identifications also provide natural divisions for group readings of Scripture.
To put it briefly, this may be one of the worst Bible versions of recent time. To see why it is so bad, look at this page from Genesis 1) – and I apologize in advance for the poor photographic quality:
Now, in case that image is not clear enough, let’s zoom in at the first few verses:
Or, if you aren’t horrified yet, look at Job 1:5. First, let’s remember how the King James renders this verse:
And it was so, when the days of their feasting were gone about, that Job sent and sanctified them, and rose up early in the morning, and offered burnt offerings according to the number of them all: for Job said, It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts. Thus did Job continually.
Now, let’s see how The Voice renders this:
I am sorry to say this, but only someone who is completely tone-deaf to Hebrew and English could possibly believe that the English should be scripted out in this way. The corruption is so total that it gives the reader a completely misleading idea of the Hebrew. In converting to dialogue form, the translators have distorted the original to the point of corruption.
One of the peculiarities of The Voice is that while it is supposed to be an easy-reading version, it adopts the approach of many settings of the King James translations of using italics to identify “additions” to the text. This is odd because italics normally represent stressed text in contemporary layouts of English – and this feature is one of the most commonly criticized layout decisions of King James editions.
I wish to make a note about the physical quality of this Bible. My copy, at least, was of poor physical quality. Like many other Bibles bound by Thomas Nelson, this edition has bad binding. Worse, my copy had pre-creased pages. The book claims to be “guaranteed for life,” but as I previously mentioned (see the last paragraph of this post) about another Nelson Bible, this appears to be merely a crude attempt to get people to sign up for mailing list; and there is contradictory information on the so-called guarantee.
This is a translation that seems to be entirely without merit (except, perhaps, for novelty value.)
(I do want to note that I did not read The Voice translation in its entirety – my opinion is based on sampling of passages.)
Now, let me consider a second example where the translator has converted text to dialogue – much more successfully. In C. D. C. Reeve’s second translation of the Republic (his first translation was a revision of Grube’s translation) he unapologetically put Plato in dialogue form. He justifies it as follows:
Every translation, even the most self-consciously and flat-footedly slavish, is somewhat interpretive. But I have tried to make this one as uninterpretive and close to the original as possible. One conscious deviation from strict accuracy, however, will be obvious at a glance. The Republic is largely in reported speech. Socrates is relating a conversation he had in the past. But I have cast his report as an explicit dialogue in direct speech, with identified speakers. In the Theaetetus, Plato has Eucleides adopt a similar strategem. “This is the book,” he says to Terpsion; “You see, I have written it out like this: I have not made Socrates relate the conversation as he related it to me, but I represent him as speaking directly to the persons with whom he said he had this conversation.” Decades of teaching the Republic have persuaded me that the minimal loss in literalness involved in adopting Eucleides’ stratagem is more than made up for in readability and intelligibility.
Here is what Reeve’s translation looks like on the printed page:
I have to say, this is a brilliant presentation. Why does Reeve succeed while The Voice translator’s fail? I think it is perhaps because The Republic is not a text of action, but one of ideas. It is almost totally a description of dialogue, and so converting it to dialogue form does minimal damage to the text. And, as Reeve correctly states, it does make it easier for students (and everyone else) to read.
The final example I wish to give is the Cleveland-based Ofeq Institute’s The Complete Mesillas Yesharim (Path of the Upright). Ramchal’s book is considered to be the primary modern text of mussar (Jewish ethical teachings) literature. The Ofeq Institute’s version must be considered authoritative, because the editors use a recently discovered manuscript from the Moscow State Library in Ramchal’s own hand. This is believed to be an earlier draft of Mesillas Yesharim. However this version is put in the form of a dialogue between a hakham (wise man) and a hasid (pietist). This convention really makes the book sparkle. Perhaps because of its wide use in yeshivos, Mesillas Yesharim has a reputation of being a tedious book in some circles. But the earlier draft is somewhat livelier, and certainly makes the book easier to read.
The Ofeq Institute version includes the Hebrew and a heavily annotated English version of both the manuscript Mesillas Yesharim and the first printed version (with printer’s errors corrected using hints from the manuscript version.) Here is a sample:
Now, this may seem like a ringer – since the author himself put the text in dialogue form. But nonetheless, the Institute’s courageous decision to print the unpublished draft together with the final version makes for a much more enjoyable reading experience.
As with the Republic, Ramchal’s text is not a text of action, but rather a text of ideas, and thus particularly well suited to being cast in dialogue form.