Monday, September 27, 2010

Lost in Translation...or at least partly obscured.

Picking through the religion section at the local library, not with any real agenda, I stumbled onto a copy of St. Augustine's, Confessions. Not far from it was Sam Harris', Letter to a Christian Nation. Having read neither of them, I decided to chance taking them home and seeing if they sparked anything.

It didn't bode well when I fell asleep just a few pages into Confessions. I had a long run earlier that morning, so I chalked it up to physical exhaustion and set myself to restart my attempt the next which point I fell asleep again.

St. Augustine, you're not holding my attention very well. Maybe because he drones on and on in the first several pages:
And how shall I call upon my God--my God and my Lord? For when I call on him I ask him to come into me. And what place is there in me into which my God can come? How could God, the God who made both heaven and earth, come into me? Is there anything in me, O Lord my God, that can contain thee? Do even the heaven and the earth, which thou hast made, and in which thou didst make me, contain thee? Is it possible that, since without thee nothing would be which does exist, thou didst make it so that whatever exists has some capacity to receive thee? Why, then, do I ask thee to come into me, since I also am and could not be if thou wert not in me? For I am not, after all, in hell--and yet thou art there too, for “if I go down into hell, thou art there.”1111 Ps. 139:8. Therefore I would not exist--I would simply not be at all--unless I exist in thee, from whom and by whom and in whom all things are. Even so, Lord; even so. Where do I call thee to, when I am already in thee? Or from whence wouldst thou come into me? Where, beyond heaven and earth, could I go that there my God might come to me--he who hath said, “I fill heaven and earth”
Um....ok.... Augustine...I think that you're over-thinking this. Actually, I think what made the text less accessible for me wasn't Augustine's droning on, but the antiquated, stilted English translation I had picked up:

"which thou hast made"

"which thou didst make me"

"whence wouldst thy come to me"

Curious as to the date of the English translation, I flipped to the copyright page and found a date of 1905, not incredibly recent, but seemingly too close to the 21st century that all those Thees, Thous, and Arts come across as artificial. I'm wondering if a love for the KJV inspired this particular translation.

Normally if I am reading something from a period, like Shakespeare, or Chaucer, any number of English greats, I can wade through the strangeness of the language they use to get at what they are saying. For whatever reason, I just can't do it with this translation of Augustine, maybe because I know that there is no reason for it to be translated into this type of flowery, formal English. In the case of Shakespeare we preserve the hard-to-understand language because we are not only trying to absorb his ideas, but are trying to hear the poetry and cadence of his writing. With a translation from a foreign language, we are mostly trying to have access to the ideas in the text.

So, until I find a modern english version of the text...I'm putting reading St. Augustine off for another day.

One funny thing. I rolled my eyes when Augustine wrote this:
I remember this, and I afterwards observed how I first learned to speak, for my elders did not teach me words in any set method, as they did letters afterwards; but myself, when I was unable to say all I wished and to whomsoever I desired, by means of the whimperings and broken utterances and various motions of my limbs, which I used to enforce my wishes, repeated the sounds in my memory by the mind, O my God, which Thou gavest me. When they called anything by name, and moved the body towards it while they spoke, I saw and gathered that the thing they wished to point out was called by the name they then uttered; and that they did mean this was made plain by the motion of the body, even by the natural language
Most children learn to speak at about two years old and are usually quite fluent by the age of three. Most children also don't have accessible memories until they are about three or four, long past the time that they would be whimpering and motioning in order to learn words to communicate.

Verily I say unto thee, "Methinks thou dost exaggerate Augustine!"

As far as Sam Harris' book, a few pages in I had to yawn and put it aside. Nothing new or earth-shattering within it. I had picked out so many fallacies about what "must be" and had to ignore so many potshots at anything that isn't either militant atheism or rock-hard Christian fundamentalism, that I decided it wasn't worth my time.


David said...

Augustine is a friend I made in college many years ago. He was one I had to read/scan. I scan through the overly wordy parts until I find something that resonates with me and then I read it slowly, sometimes over and over.

Recently I have have taken Confessions into the break room at the office and read parts of him aloud. Even the coworker who leaves old copies of People magazine on the break room table seems to enjoy the sound and expression of this saint. If nothing else, he starts more interesting conversations than "what did you bring for lunch?"

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I am having a similar experience reading the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. While some sections - usually those taken directly from the KJV - have some vividness, I find I have to murmur along to keep focus on other parts. The updates over the years, however minor, are not actually the way anyone actually wrote or spoke in any era.

Here's a theory: when writers or translators are trying to imitate older language, it loses liveliness. You or I might write a short passage that looks convincingly enough like Shakespeare to a modern reader. But an actual Elizabethan might find it not quite right, not the way real people would express themselves. It has no life, and though we may be unable to identify why, we can sense its lifelessness. Language is constantly changing and adapting itself, inventing small changes for clarity. Compare spam from other countries where the meaning is clear, but obviously not a native speaker.

Even Tolkien, who intentionally used older constructions and was far more steeped in the cadences of many eras than I will ever be, is extremely judicious in his use of older forms. The narration is in the formal English of his boyhood, perhaps, or just before. Characters occasionally speak ancient words or in times of great formality, in sentences reminiscent of 1800. Very occasionally, a character will use very old vocabulary and word order for a sentence or two. "I name thee lathspell."

If he can't do more than that, not many others are going to have the skill.

JS Allen said...

Interesting observation. I noticed the same in reading Teresa of Avila and never considered that it might be affectation on the part of the translator.

Of course, a native Spanish speaker reading Teresa in original Spanish would get the same sense, and would probably *prefer* the old Spanish for authenticity. But when we map that into KJV English, I don't think we're preserving anything.

terri said...

David...I'll have to get a modern translation or I will definitely scan through all the overly formalized parts.

AVI...interesting comparison to Tolkien. I read The Silmarillion about a year or two ago and enjoyed and didn't find it overly ancient in its approach to language.

JS Allen....true...I guess the Teresa of Avila comparison might be close to what the translator was aiming for.

Translating the "feel" of a foreign language text is very hard to do, because different cultures have different associations for their older forms and they don't always invoke the same atmosphere.

The KJV language was probably used because that is the type of language that English translators associate with reverential God-talk.

Of course this is a reminder to me that we rely heavily on translators to make choices for us to convey important ideas...and there's no telling, sometimes, how much the preference of the translator affects what we read.

Sabio Lantz said...

Agree, translations matter. But perhaps personality matters too. When we read philsophers, theologians and such, we hear their grand schemes which are inevitably build upon the limitations of their temperaments. Their "truths" are often mere dialogues with the the reality they feel which is their temperament in large part.

So if you aren't their temperament -- and you (Terri) apparently don't have the temperament of either of these men -- the encounter is poor, especially if the writer is being prescriptive instead of descriptive.

terri said...

Sabio...that may be the case with Sam Harris....but the translation is really what's keeping me from Augustine.

I tend to give more latitude to ancient authors...because I recognize that they are coming from a completely different culture and that if I want to get at what they have to say, I am going to have to ignore the things that annoy me.

I expect more from people who are coming from the same time and space that I am, and am much less tolerant of their slants and over-reaching.

Sabio Lantz said...

@ Terri
I agree, but in the end Augustine, after giving him all that leeway, he shouldn't be immune from being hung-up on his own idiosyncrasies like all the rest of us. Many believers turn off their critical switch for their ancients -- "presbidoloty" (treating the ancients as sacred). Smile

BTW, I have not read Harris, can't say what I think of the gentleman.

JS Allen said...

I've only recently become aware that I was giving Augustine a free pass all this time. I follow this guy on "Classical Arminianism" who is usually irenic, and he had this post last week that made me think twice. And on September 10, an Eastern Orthodox guy posting on my blog linked me to an essay which makes some interesting points about Augustine. Definitely am reconsidering some things.

I think the reasons I always gave him a free pass was because he was a man after my own heart "grant me chastity, but not yet" and also because his stance on determinism was compatible with my materialist bias.

Speaking of, did you see the recent controversy where Roger Olson has talked about a "Protestant Purgatory"? He basically started with the premise that some of the greats like Luther and Calvin committed terrible sins *after* they were Christian leaders, so what are we to do about it. It's remarkable, because Christians are usually loathe to admit to serious sins on the parts of the historical leaders. It opens up a huge can of worms, IMO.