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Unflattering translations

February 19, 2013

My co-blogger J. K. Gayle and I have been having a conversation about how Julian of Norwich has been treated by different contemporary translations.  Kurk has well-thought out and interesting praise for Julia Holloway’s translation of Julian’s Showings.  I urge you to read his most recent post, which has great food for thought.

In that post, Kurk makes several points, but I want to just deal with one here.  He compares the translation of Genesis 49:26 with Holloway’s translation.  He cogently argues for similarities in translation-philosophy approach; but I want to point out the differences.

The Masoretic Text in Genesis 49:26 has problems.  Speiser points out the issues and solution in his Anchor Bible commentary:

MT reads “the blessings of your father have been mightier than the blessings of my progenitors, unto the desire of the everlasting hills.” This reading is hopeless on more counts than one: (1) the poetic meter is suddenly abandoned; (2) the prosaic content is even more disturbing; (3) emphasis shifts abruptly from boons to beneficiaries; (4) the term for “progenitors” (literally “conceivers”) is without parallel in biblical Heb., the only form otherwise known being in the feminine singular (Hos 2:7; Song of Sol 3:4), and having the natural sense of “mother”; (5) the attested term for “parents” is ʾābōt; (6) the connection with the next clause is disrupted; (7) above all, the parallel text in Deut 33:15 gives hrry qdm “the ancient hills,” which is paralleled in turn by hrry ʿd (same meaning) Hab 3:6, the obvious prototype of the present h(w)ry ʿd.  The only difference is the graphically slight change of r/w (in the “square” script); but the misreading was sufficient to throw the rest of the verse completely out of balance.

Now I’d like to show you how easy it is to mix up reish and vav in the Aramaic square script:

reish                            vav

Let’s continue with Speiser’s analysis:

It remains only to restore the beginning of the verse (26). With the “parents” (hwry) of the second hemistich gone in favor of “hills,” the text’s “your father” is now all the more out of place. The received cons. text is as follows:

brkt ʾabyk gbrw ʿl—for which read (with SB)

brkt ʾabyb wgb ʿl

“blessings of grain-stalk and blossom.” The whole sequence becomes at once natural and cohesive—and an analogue to Deut 33:13 ff. There can be little doubt that this, or something very close to it, was the original wording of the passage.

Note that Speiser’s analysis was entirely based on Hebrew – and did not rely on the Septuagint (which generally supports Speiser’s analysis.)  As N. Sarna points out in his commentary, this type of analysis was already well recognized by medieval Jewish commentators:

Hebrew horai is so rendered based on postbiblical usage. However, the stem h-r-h in the Bible can only mean “to become pregnant” and is, of course, solely used in the feminine. Seeing that “mountain(s)”—“hill(s)” is a fixed pair of parallel terms in Hebrew poetry, occurring more than thirty times in that order, Rashbam [the medieval exegete Samuel ben Meir, c. 1085 – c. 1158] is undoubtedly correct in connecting horai here with har, “mountain.”

Rashbam’s analysis was presumably done without reference to the Greek.  As it happens, though, the Greek supports this analysis, as Sarna explains:

The Septuagint indeed reads here “ancient mountains,” joining the word to the following ʿad. The phrase harere ʿad, “ancient mountains,” appears in Habakkuk 3:6 in parallel with giveʿot ʿolam, “eternal hills.” The Blessing of Moses to Joseph in Deuteronomy 33:15 employs the same imagery, though in variant form: “With the best from the ancient mountains, / And the bounty of hills immemorial.…” Therefore, it is best to render here, “the blessings of the ancient mountains.”

The Septuagint here supports medieval Jewish criticism of the text, as well as modern Jewish scholarly commentaries (both Nahum Matthias Sarna and Ephraim Avigdor Speiser were prominent Jewish scholars.)

I do not know enough about the history of textual decisions of the RSV translators, but I am well acquainted with Alter, and I know that he is familiar with both Speiser’s and Sarna’s commentaries (indeed, Alter quotes from Speiser in his introduction); and also that he consulted a Rabbinic Bible, which would contain Rashbam’s medieval commentary (indeed, Alter praises the value of medieval commentaries over modern commentaries). 

I do not know whether the RSV and Alter first proposed their variants based on consulting the LXX or (as Rashbam and Speiser did) based on pure analysis of the Hebrew, but there can be little doubt that the Masoretic Text is wrong and both a careful analysis of the Hebrew leads one to the corrected text (which happens to coincide with the Greek).

I’ve gone some length into this example to show the sort of work done here – it is a careful examination on specific words trying to be as conservative as possible in changing the original source text.  This is an exemplary instance of text criticism.

Now, I want to contrast this with Holloway’s translation of Julian.  Here is the example that Kurk gave in his most recent post:


Kurk praises in particular the inclusion of “Amen” in the text, which clearly was in Julian’s “Short Text” (c. 1373) but omitted from some manuscripts of the “Long Text (c. 1393).  What changed?  Well, as Kurk ably relates, during this time, the persecution of the proto-Reformation Lollardy movement caused many authors to avoid being seen as translating the Bible into English.

What has Holloway done with her translation?  As you can see, she has mixed several different texts together.  If Holloway had simply added the "Amen," it might be considered similar to the Alter-RSV example of Genesis 29:26, which I analyze at length above.  Here, however, Holloway has done something more extensive to the text.  Note that in the fragment Kurk gives, Holloway has interspersed the Short Text (which is denoted by the script A) with two variants of the Long Text (the 17th century Sloan manuscript, denoted by the script S, and the earlier [but scribally more sophisticated] Paris manuscript, denoted by the script P.)

So Holloway ends up with passages like this (emphasis added):

And right so of the same condition as he is to us, so will he be to our self.  And to our Even-Christian.  Amen.  Explicit Juliane de Norwych, Here ends Julian of Norwich.  For the natural profit of dread which we have in this life by the gracious working of the Holy Ghost, the same [….]

Now, what is the image that comes to mind when you hear or read a writer who first says she has ended, gives an Amen, and then keeps on talking?  It fits into that cruel and completely incorrect stereotype of a motor-mouth woman who cannot stop her windbag excretions — "and one more thing …."  This type of glib figure is closer to the shrew Katherina in Shakespeare’s play about men dominating women: Taming of the Shrew.  Shakespeare’s stereotype may work in his comic piece, but it hardly reflects reality, and certainly does not reflect the brilliant, insightful, and elegant writing of Julian.  That is a false and libelous portrayal of the mystic Julian.  Her writing is not garrulous.  Instead, she ends both her Short Text and Long Text with formulae.  Those closing formulae appear at the end, not in the middle of the text.

Neither is Holloway being daring or innovative in including “Amen” in a translation that includes portions of  Julian’s Long Text .  For example, Elizabeth Spearing, in her 1998 translation of Julian (which includes translations of both the Short and Long Texts, but done separately), has Julian end both texts with a simple, elegant "Amen." 

What Spearing (adding a single word) seems akin to what the RSV and Alter did with Genesis 49:26.  In contrast, what Holloway has done is akin to those authors who produce a single harmonized gospel from the very different voices of the four canonical gospels (This is an example.)   Such harmonizations can be interesting and have artistic merit (thus, for example, no less a literary figure than Leo Tolstoy produced a harmonized gospel) but they necessarily lose the unique voices of the original authors – who were not only distinct personalities but separated in time. 

Holloway’s integrated text (in the example that Kurk gives) also risks losing the unique voices of the existing manuscripts (the British Library Short Text is written in the Northern dialect, the Paris Long Text is in the Southern dialect) and the separation of them by time (widely believed to be about two decades).  The difference in dialects is artificial (the Paris manuscript scribe appears to have already “translated” Julian’s words into the London dialect) but the difference in time seems a more formidable challenge.  Speaking for myself:  both my writing style and opinions have matured over the last two decades.  It seems we should allow Julian the same courtesy.

This seems especially apropos because Julian was a mystic.  For the sake of argument, let us suppose (as Julian did) that her visions were divinely inspired.  Only she had access to those visions, and only her account can be considered as being inspired.  Unless a later editor was also inspired, this argues for a healthy conservatism in editing and translating.  Many “new age” translations of various religious and mystical works can be properly criticized for “dumbing down” the nuances and stylistic features of the original text.  Both Kurk and I have roundly criticized any number of Bible translations on this basis.  Here, I criticize Holloway in her edition of Julian for re-arranging Julian’s words, and presenting Julian as a garrulous termagant rather than a poetic mystic.

Kurk has more important things to say as well, and references a post on Sappho fragment 58 from a few months ago.  I join Kurk in encouraging you to read his fascinating observations he makes in that excellent post.


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