What came to be in the end: Moses, Sappho, and Julian of Norwich’s ‘Amen’
Dear blog readers, At some point, our conversation around Julian of Norwich’s Showings may come to an end. And at some point again, we might just turn it into a series of posts. For now, I do hope you will read the latest from my co-blogger Theophrastus: “What might have been: Edwin Drood, Bruckner’s Ninth, Nabokov’s Laura, Wallace’s Pale King” Ellison’s Three Days, and the ‘uncensored’ Julian of Norwich.” As you’ll see, he there very clearly shows the problems of the very and perhaps too-late “efforts to complete works left incomplete by an author or composer’s death.” David Foster Wallace could not, and perhaps should not, have been awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his posthumously completed novel The Pale King.
Theophrastus, as his post’s title suggests, deals with many more cases than just Wallace’s. He explains and shows how “various surviving manuscripts can be considered as partial notes on [a late editor’s] hypothetical super-text.” And Theophrastus persuades me that “works edited from incomplete authorial notes,” really, in general, must be “considered inferior to the author’s completed works.” I think his post will convince you as well.
What Theophrastus does very well is to test whether there is a real difference between what Bible translators and editors do with the Hebrew (and Septuagint, and if you like with the New Testament even, I’ll add) and what Julia Holloway has done with her composite translation of the manuscripts of Julian of Norwich. I’m still considering the points he’s made.
And yet I do want to show two cases that we might compare with Holloway’s. First, notice what Robert Alter does with Genesis 49:26-27. And notice what the KJV team of translators, the ESV team of translators, and the RSV team of translators respectively do with the same. If you have Alter’s Five Books of Moses, then also look at the entire footnote he makes there (which begins this way: “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”).
Here are the others:
Notice how both Alter and the RSV team choose to follow the Septuagint. The ESV team follows the KJV here (although they do offer a variant translation in a footnote, one that acknowledges the reading of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible presumably before or somehow an explanation of the MT).
Second, look at what Anne Carson does with Sappho fragment 58. I’m going to ask that you look at this by taking some time to read through what has been presented in full already at another post. Pay attention to how Carson has to re-read Sappho, has to see the poet’s intentions in a new light, in light of the discovery of an additional fragment. And yet this new fragment gives readers, as Carson would translate it anew and in a fresh way, some of the same spirit of Sappho that Carson has presented before. This is what came to be in the end. Carson was able to imagine Sappho’s intention and to convey her verse before and after the discovery of the additional manuscript. “It is a quieter composition. But poetically indisputable in the way that Sappho’s poems are.” – Carson explains. “Sappho is not trying to startle her audience with inventions semantic or figural. Her material is facts (Tithonos is a mythic fact), not metaphor, not décor, not afterthought.” And so, “The beat goes on.”
Carson does not, in the end, startle her audience with inventions either. She’s not conjecturing “What might have been.” She is doing what Alter and the RSV team do, as they show what “Moses” writing must have said (considering the late manuscripts clearly not all his own, even if these Hellene texts were crafted back in Egypt where Moses learned his languages, his abilities to translate, and so forth). And Carson, like Alter and the RSV team, bring the late written texts into a composite with the earlier, in the English translations.
In the end, when we look at how Holloway brings in various manuscripts of Julian of Norwich’s Showings of Love, we must appreciate how she brings to the fore hidden layers of meanings. It’s a composite translation, yes. And it’s also, furthermore, a look at and a listen to the Hebrew lost at certain points and stages of Julian’s writing and revising. So let me close this post just by showing once again Holloway’s and then Julian’s “amen.”