Wednesday, August 25, 2010

On Good Translation

Three English translations of the first verses of Genesis:

"When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the waters, God said, "Let there be light." - Robert Alter's Genesis

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the Earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters." - New International Version

"First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don't see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God's Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss." - The Message

In poetic quality, Alter's translation is clearly best, its consonance mighty, the interruption of its polysyndeton underlining the power of God's creative word. The
New International Version is not as good, but still highly readable and instructive. The Message's translation of these verses is painful.

My purpose here is not to be critical of The Message, which is a very useful tool for many people who find more traditional translations difficult to read, but to praise Alter's translation, which to me, conveys the truths of the creation myth more strongly than the others because of its poetic sensitivity. It is too common for Christians to treat the Bible merely as a book of propositional truths, or rather, as a book of propositional truths and literary passages to be decoded into propositional truths. The best translation is thus the one that makes the decoding easiest. Such an attitude not only neglects the great pleasure found in reading imaginative literature, but also the unique instructional power of that literature, the way that a story or poem long held in the recesses of memory will one day spring forward to teach and to convict, the way that one can rejoice, suffer and learn with a literary character. To be sure, there are propositional truths to be learned from Biblical narrative and poetry - they complement, but do not supplant the truths that only literature can provide.

Some Christians reflect this attitude in their approach to art as whole. To some minds, good works of art are simply those that affirm things that they already believe in an artistic language that they can easily understand - bad works are those that subvert their values or are difficult. Again, this view neglects the pleasure and instruction of which art is capable. Whether the banality of some current translations of the Bible is a cause or symptom of this attitude I do not know.

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