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more case studies with Julian of Norwich: Robert Alter, Ann Nyland, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

February 18, 2013

Theophrastus, my co-blogger, has very thoughtfully raised the question of whether editors should conflate the variant texts of an author. Please do read his post before reading this one, or just read his post. As usual, he’s made excellent observations that keep us thinking for a long time. You will want to consider each of his points and his wonderful examples, and you might decide even to comment, to engage in conversation afterwards. (Do notice how his post is actually part of a larger conversation the two of us are having; here are the posts so far — J. K. Gayle: translating Julian of Norwich/ Theophrastus: NOT translating Julian of Norwich/ J. K. Gayle: “translating” Julian of Norwich: her various “original” mss/ Theophrastus: Should editors conflate: case studies with Julian of Norwich and William Langland).

In this post of mine, I won’t have time to respond to each of Theophrastus’s points. I do want to touch on a couple of facts in response:

first, authors themselves often serve as editors and what they decide at various stages turns the very first original work around often;

and, second, later editors and translators of these authors and their works do not do better than the author when she seems to view the variant editions as a composite whole.

Unfortunately, I must rush and write all too quickly, which may illustrate my point some. How thankful I am as a blog author to be able to revise a sloppypostorunthoughtthroughthought (that is, a sloppy post or unthought-through thought) afterthefact.

So if we go back to the short and long texts of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations, then we see how she herself was developing a composite whole of evolving constituent parts. Sometimes the evolution was forced — as when she took out her translated passages of the Hebrew Bible so as to avoid being burned alive. Sometimes she’s developing what Alexandra Barratt refers to as a “preoccupation” or “brief references … the seeds from which grows her more developed … thought” or “the spirit of the text” or the points where the “balance is restored” and where “Julian [finally] stresses that ….” I’m quoting now from Barratt’s brilliant essay, “‘No such sitting'” Julian Tropes the Trinity.” In particular, the quotations come respectively from pages 42 (the start of the second paragraph), 43 (the start of the first full paragraph after her partial blockquote of Julian’s text), 45 (the second line after the second block quotation on the page), and 52 (the final paragraph). Barratt is showing how Julian of Norwich was not entirely satisfied with her first text until she wrote some more final versions of it.

Which text(s), then, must a translator choose? Well, in earlier posts of mine, you should be able to see how Julia Holloway is able to different things. In a volume of facsimiles of every extant manuscript she can find, Holloway with her co-editor produces respective translations corresponding to each text. And yet, Holloway does more; for readers who might not be able to afford this larger and comprehensive and detailed volume, she makes a paperback composite translation, showing the variants each on the same page. I’m not sure she’s trying, with the second volume, really to say, “I can do one better than even” Julian herself (as Theophrastus quotes Giuseppe Mazzotta imaginatively quoting Allen Mandelbaum speaking of his translating Dante).

Theophrastus brings in such wonderful, and perplexing, examples. For instance, he mentions the Septuagint, preferring “the New English Translation of the Septuagint [as its translators produce a volume that] presents separate translations of major versions of various biblical books.” Again, without much time to respond entirely well to this, I want to say nonetheless, that the Septuagint has become a translator’s corrective and composite text for some astute translators.

I want to get us looking at, for example, the fact that two fabulous Bible translators (Robert Alter and Ann Nyland) and at least one team of Bible translators (i.e., the ESV team) look to the Greek Septuagint as a window into the Hebrew.

Alter and Nyland, independently translating in very different ways, actually use the Greek Septuagint Texts to correct the Hebrew Masoretic Text (arguably a composite text). They produce a composite text of the Psalms, bringing in both the Greek and the Hebrew into their Englishes.

Granted, Aler’s work of “corrective” English translation is not necessarily the work of translating style features. But the point is that Alter cannot know the intentions of the Hebrew authors. Likewise, he cannot be sure of the Septuagint translators’ intents either. These facts do not deter him from translation. Intention of an author of the Hebrew Bible must be quite beside the point of translation in all of these cases. He is trying to compose the meaning he reads in the text, starting with the Hebrew. And he does this well beyond just the poetry of the Psalms. Here are some statements he, the translator, writes:

“The Septuagint reading has a slight advantage of syntactic completeness” (fn on Genesis 27:6)

“The Masoretic Text is not really intelligible at this point, and this English version [of mine] follows the Septuagint for the first part of the verse” (fn on Genesis 49:26)

“In my own translation [of 1 and 2 Samuel], I have resorted to the Septuagint … because careful consideration in many instances compelled me to conclude that the wording in the Masoretic Text was unintelligible or self-contradictory.”

“The Masoretic Text lacks these words, but the next phrase, ‘all the LORD’s bounties,’ preceded by the accusative particle ‘et, clearly requires a verb, and the appropriate verb is reflected in the Septuagint” (fn on I Samuel 12:7).

“…the Septuagint corrects this” (fn on Psalm 91:2)

“The Masoretic text says ‘in his death,’ bemoto, which is problematic theologically and perhaps grammatically as well. The translation [into English therefore] follows the Septuagint and the Syriac, which read betumo, ‘in his innocence’” (fn on Proverbs 14:32b)

“The translation [of mine] adopts the Septuagint here … instead of the Masoretic [Text]” (fn on Psalm 19:27)

Nyland does not let us her reader know always where she is bringing the Septuagint translation in to bear on her composite English translation of the Greek-Hebrew psalms. And yet she does warn readers at the beginning of her Psalms that she’s done this composing.

Finally, may I just mention all too briefly something I’ve noticed in the writings of one text of Martin Luther King, Jr.? (If we had time, we could discuss the many controversies around MLK’s many writings and speeches and how he has compiled and composed them.) King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” also known as “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” also known as “The Negro Is Your Brother,” has three distinct variants. I discovered this after talking with Lynn Z. Bloom by email, after she included this in her fabulous “Essay Canon.” I noticed that what Bloom included in her textbook for the canon was not the same text I had studied. But then that was to be expected. King himself published various versions for different audiences and different journals and books. And his story of how the document first came to be was not always the same. Sometimes the claim was he mainly only had jail toilet paper and old newspaper margins to write on. Other times he was not so descriptive of the detail, saying (or writing) things with more propriety like, “Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly Negro trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.”

What’s an editor like Bloom to do? Which version must she include, and is it important to show readers all at once, all the versions? And how would one do that? What would it be like not to have to hunt for the originals? What would best represent King’s evolution of thinking, his various audiences, his spirit and the general purpose of this “letter”? Of course it’s not an epistle directed at any one of us, but all of us as readers (especially those of us in the USA during this February, this African American History Month) would read it as somebody else’s (and even somebody elses’ [plural recipients’]) mail. We would read it this way, if we might see what its author saw, a composite set of texts with individual intentions but a central message for the whole.

Sloppy and fast or not, let me just summarize. Sometimes an author produces a number of manuscripts, and publicly in a series, only to view the set as a whole with an intention. And sometimes an editor or translator actually works with that intention of the author to bring forward a single text that shows the various layers and developments that express a theme, a “preoccupation,” some “seeds from which grows … more developed … thought,” and “the spirit of the text” where the “balance is restored” and where the author, through the editor ‘s or translator’s composite “stresses” what she intended all along the way to the end.


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