All year we have been Celebrating the KJV here in Cambridge and I have given a number of sermons and written a number of blog posts and articles on the specifics of the translation. However as the year has continued I have had a gradual sense of unease about the way it is being celebrated, at least here in England. It seems to be touted more and more as a cultural artefact, a piece of marketable heritage, a source book of common phrases, a decorative back ground to literature, but never as sacred, challenging, or life-changing. The whole year seems to have been about manner not matter, about style not substance, as though we could honour and praise a book without ever considering its actual content! Finally I decided that I wanted to say something publicly about this misgiving, and to outline, by way of contrast, what the original translators were working to achieve, and I have done so in the sermon I post below. The core of what I have to say is an exposition of four beautiful images from Miles Smith’s prefaratory letter in which he set out very clearly what the translators of the KJV thought their translation was for. So I give that passage from the Preface here, followed by the audio of my sermon, you can either click on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser, or on the link in the title of the sermon. The audio lasts for 25 minutes.
“Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water, even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, by which means the flocks of Laban were watered [Gen 29:10]. Indeed without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which is deep) [John 4:11] without a bucket or something to draw with; or as that person mentioned by Isaiah, to whom when a sealed book was delivered, with this motion, “Read this, I pray thee,” he was fain to make his answer “I cannot for it is sealed”
Continuing our theme of translation, I gave a talk about Lancelot Andrewes and the translation of the King James Bible to the Chelmsford Cathedral Theological Society which various people have asked to hear. They have sent me a recording which I am posting here. The talk itself doesn’t start until about three minutes into the recording and last for about 50 minutes with a question and answer session afterwards.
Continuing my theme this year of Translation, I would like to share my toughts on a wonderful ‘new’ translation of parts of the Aeneid.
Lewis scholars have known for some time that he had been working on a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, a poem which he loved, lived with, and learned from throughout his life. But only in the last few years has it been recovered and edited, and now it has been published and made available for everyone, and it has certainly been worth the wait! I had expected only fragments, perhaps no more than a dozen lines here and another half dozen there, but what we get is the whole of book 1, most of book 2, substantial parts of the vital book 6 and then tantalising fragments from the other books. AT Reyes has done a splendid job of editing it all, giving a full facing page Latin text, writing fine summaries to fill in the gaps, and providing an excellent introduction which draws together Lewis’s many appreciations of Virgil in his critical prose and also his various discussions of the art of translation. The introduction alone will be a real resource both for Lewis scholars and for those for whom translation, its losses and gains is an endless fascination. But the heart of he book is in Lewis’s own long, loping, rangey verse translation, full of felicities and an unashamedly, beautiful, romantic and adventurous ‘take’ on its original. Lewis has chosen rhyming couplets in English Alexandrines and deployed them to great efect. the Alexandrine is essentialy a line of iambic pentameter with an extra ‘foot’, an extra two syllables with a single stress, tacked on. This is what gives the verse its sense of bounding length, of stride, for an ear attuned to the more usual five stress line.
We know from various letters that Lewis read substantial parts of this translation at meetings of the Inklings, and it is clearly designed to be read aloud, and reads suerbly. To give you a flavour of what I mean I have read three passages for you onto audio boo, the links are below and I have chosen them to suggest the sheer range of effects Lewis is able to achieve with this verse form. They are all from book 1 and I hope they will whet your appetite to go out and read the whole thing for yourself.
As always you can hear the reading either by clicking on the play button if it appears in your browser, or if no play button appears you can click on the title of the extract and be taken to my audioboo page and play it there
The first passage is a description of the storm Juno sends to wreck the trojan fleet, lines 102-123. Reyes points out in his introduction that there are some striking paralells between this description, as Lewis translates it here, and his own description of the great storm in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Its stirring stuff. See what you think.
The third passage tells how Venus sends her son Cupid in disguise to the feast dido has given Aeneas and causes her to fall in lve with him. this passage particularly shows Lewis power to summon sensuous and romantic language and imagery even in the sound of his words. as before I have given a little context and commentary as part of the audioboo recording. these are lines 683-720
For Lewis Virgil was a poet who could both celebrate the beauty and majesty of life in this world and at the same time keep the soul attuned to longing, kindle its desire, for the ‘ever-receding shore’, for the land we long for. Virgil’s epic of the founding of the City of Rome becomes in his imagination, as it did in the imagination of Dante before him, the epic of our wondering, always longing journey towards the City of God.
We often speak of something having been ‘Lost in Translation’ (a phrase which is also the title of an interesting film) and it is true, of course that something must be lost in the re-making and rewording of a text from one language to another. One might say that was especially true of poetry, so much of whose meaning is embodied in the sound and feel of particular words, or in allusions that are embedded in one culture and language and not another. Indeed poetry has been defined as ‘that which cannot be translated’. Whilst not denying any of that, I would like, for a moment, to turn it on its head and ask, might there be valuable treasures ‘found’ in translation, to make up for those that are lost, and might that be especially true of poetry in translation? Try reading in sequence six or seven different trnslations of a poem you like and know well. you will often discover new aspects of the poem, new depths and beauties glancing across from one translation to the other as each translator finds and expreses a particular aspect of the poem that had connected with them. That experience is itself an expression, in one moment or on one page, of the experience we all have of reading a poem over time, over many years. Every new reading is itself a kind of translation, as the unchanged horizon of the poem meets the changing horizon of our own lives. When I read Marvells’ poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’ as a young man, the lines about ‘time’s winged chariot’ seemed a glorious exaggeration, a mere metaphor for the urgency of a young and pressing lover. In the second half of my life, those same lines
For at my back I always hear
times winged chariot hurrying near,
take on a different timbre, a different place in the balance of the poem. I have found a poignant and elegaic tone that was lost to me as a younger man.
Marvell’s lines were haunting some recess of my mind, when, some years ago I wrote my poem “The Cutting Edge“, though the main focus of that poem, when I wrote it was not the universal ‘deletions’ of time or mortality, but the selective deletions, the falsifying of memory, to which our own age is prone. It was interesting to me, therefore when a French translation of that poem was published (now on the web in La Besace des Unitariens) and on reading it I discovered, not only of what was ‘lost in translation’ but also of a series of ‘finds’, almost like archeological ‘finds’; ideas or tones buried deep in layers of the text which a new translation brought to the surface.
You can read my original text, which I included in my last post, here, and I give the French translation below. The most striking thing is the change in the title. She has taken my “Cutting Edge” which was intended largely to carry a first sense of being ‘up to date, ultra modern’ and then secondarily, the sense of ‘dangerous, destructive, deadly’ and translated it “La Faucheuse” the name of the allegorical figure of Death or The Grim Reaper, (who is interestingly, in french, a female figure, in contrast to our Grim Reaper). At first I thought this ‘translation’ was an imposition on the text and a loss, but I came to see on reading it that my allusions to Marvell in the opening lines and to Milton’s ‘blind fury with the abhorred shears’ do at least subliminally introduce a figure like “La faucheuse’ into the imagination of the reader. Marie-Claire could not of course indicate in French my quotation of other English poets, but by changing the title she has introduced the same effect, though perhaps rather more strongly than I had intended. She has also produced some marvelous soundscapes available to her in French and not to me in English. so my word play in ‘sneering and sniping and snipping’ becomes
Et ricanant, et critiquant, et tailladant
Which has a wonderfully dry sinister clicking sound, a new and apropriate effect has been ‘found in translation’. I showed this translation to my friend and fellow poet Margot Krebbs Neale, who has kindly agreed to read it on audioboo and also to add to this post some comments of her own from the perspective a of a French writer. Meanwhile I would be delighted to hear from any of my readers what they feel has been lost or found in translation here and to hear their own examples of the perils and plesures of translation.
A s usual you can hear a reading of the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or on the hyperlink in the title.
Derrière mon dos, comme vous,
Je l’entends toujours, la Faucheuse,
Qui se rapproche.
Ce n’est pas l’aveugle Furie
Qui élague tout sur son passage.
Mais voici ce que je crains :
Les ciseaux d’une époque aveugle,
Coupant à la dérobée
Dans toute l’ampleur du passé
Monotones, quotidiennement supprimant,
Tout ce qui n’est pas à venir
Et ricanant, et critiquant, et tailladant,
extirpant toute communication mystérieuse du texte,
Epluchant toutes les parties qui nous dirigent ailleurs
Que dans notre propre moi encerclé.
Je sais que les anges furent les premiers à tomber,
Chérubin et Séraphin, en spirale,
En un ballet en boucles de textes sacrés,
Brûlant, encre et papier, jusqu’au sol,
La plus petite preuve de ce qui nous concerne,
De notre longue affaire avec Dieu.
Et Dieu lui-même suivra bien assez vite ;
Un petit mot si facile à retrancher,
Un autre petit bout pour le montage du film
Le coup de balai au sommet de l’histoire.
Mais quand même de nuit, sur la pointe des pieds,
Je me dirige vers la porte, pour faire bruire
ces banderoles d’amour grave,
Et je jonche mon cœur de bribes poétiques,
D’espoirs interdits et d’éclats d’argile mystérieux.
Ils m’habitent et passent, froufroutant
En mes rêves éveillés
Et ainsi j’aurai un coeur -une tête-
J’en aurai plein les mains,
Quand les ciseaux viendront me chercher.
Car derrière mon dos, comme vous,
Je l’entends toujours, la Faucheuse,
Qui se rapproche.
Touching again on our theme of translation, I thought I’d share with you a (New!!) Latin poem by my friend Sheila Swartz, and two diferent ways in which it might be translated. Now before anyone throws up their hands in horror and says, ‘Latin! but thats a dead language! or ‘blogging in Latin, how elitist is that!’ let me say that everyone knows more Latin than they know they know (as it were). All the words in english that end in ‘ation’ for example, are really Latin, and you know hundreds of those, indeed in almost every sentence you speak you will be using or drawing from a word with a Latin root, which is why even when you come across some Latin in its pure form you can have a pretty good idea of what its saying. Take these two lines from a greatLatin hymn:
Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine
You didnt need the translators of Oh Come All Ye Faithful to tell you those words mean God of god, Light of light, you spotted the deum in our word deity and you had already been illuminated by the glimpse of lumen, glimmering in words like luminous.
Indeed Latin is an illuminating language in everyway, it sheds light on sources and origins, and concentrates our mind on the hidden sources and stems of grace from which our language springs. Dense little Latin words are like the seeds from which our later languages grow and so reading and translating from Latin somes times feels like drawing out and unfolding something, rather than just finding an English equivalent.
So now to our new Latin poem and two English versions that might ‘iluminate’ the ways we can use language. I know that for most people the days of Christmas end at Epiphany (January 6th), but some people keep the feast until candlemas (on February 2nd) when they brought the baby Jesus into the temple. So I reckon theres time for one last Christmas fling, and here it is. First I’ll give you Sheila’s Latin Hymn in praise of Jesus: ‘Num Frustra’ (‘not in vain’ – but you knew that , you know what it is when a purpose is ‘frustrated’) See how many Latin roots of well known words you recognise as you also enjoy the lovely compact stacatto rythms she gets out of her Latin phrases. Next I will give you her own literal translation, a kind of ‘crib’ which shows you what each word means but doesnt ‘work’ or carry its own current as an independent English script. Finally I will give you an effort of mine which is not so much a translation as a ‘version’. I tried to write something which ‘works’ in English in the same way that Sheila’s version ‘works’ in Latin, with its own sense of rythm, momentum and pattern I have managed to include almost all her lovely latin nuggets, tho I was frustrated not to have managed ‘ mysteriorem’ or ‘celebrare’. However, I have, I hope, caught the sprit of her piece. I’ve laso included a link to a recording so you can hear both pieces read aloud. Indeed I think either or both could be sung, if there is someone inventive out there who’d like to have a go! Anyway let me know what you think of these efforts. By the way if anyone would like an amusing way of learning a little Latin, aimed at children, but great fun for adults too, check out Minimus, the mouse who made Latin cool!
Vox servis dedit
Vexi vulnis eorum
Donus Opportune: Mors
Non mansuetus – bonus
Huc saepe est domus
Now here is the literal translation:
Jesus is here/Jesus is here/Whoever you are, rejoice/Jesus is here
Boys and girls/Were praising easily/God and Jew/Jesus is here
He dismissed the night/He gave a voice to the slaves/He carried their wounds/Jesus is here
He is Lord/He is friend/A gift at the right time/Death is gone at once
Not tame – good/ He is often at home here/ (Mystery)/ Jesus is here
It is not for you to cry/But to celebrate/ Is it not proper?/ Jesus is here
Jesus is here/ Jesus is here/Whoever you are, rejoice/ Jesus is here
And finally my English Version, or reworking .
He is here, O here is Jesus
He will ease us into praise
Born a Jew despised and wounded
Slaves rejoice, for night has ended
Every child is now befriended
Boys and girls your voices raise
Dry your tears for here is Jesus
Bringing every gift in time
Untamed goodness, always present
Home and heaven never distant
Death itself has died this instant
Come and join our joyful rhyme!
you can listen to the Latin and English by clicking on the ‘play’ button below:
This year brings us to a great anniversary, which will have special significance for St Edwards, the church I serve in Cambridge. 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible, and two members of the team who made this great translation were members of St Edwards. But our connection goes deeper, for it was at St Edwards, three generations earlier, that people like Bilney, Barnes and Latimer, our three Martyrs, had grasped that the gospel needed translating in the deepest sense, not simply translating out of one language into another, but translating out of paper, and out of ritual, out of the past, translating into people’s lives in the here and now.
Indeed I believe that the very process of Translation goes to the heart of the Chrsitian Faith, because for Christians the Word of God has already made the greatest translation of all, the translation we have just celebrated at Christmas! The eternal Word, whom we could never have known or even apprehended, has translated Himself into our flesh and blood, translated eternity into time, and translated Love into action. For Christ’s followers the sayings of Jesus, the stories of His life enshrined in the scripture, only have their meaning when they are translated into the realities of everyday life, into ordinary conversation and action.
This perpetual and self-renewing translation has always been part of the life and work of St Edwards, and it has always been controversial! F D Maurice, for example, was pilloried for translating the gospel into social action, inclusion of women, education for the poor, and for moving away from the punitive and judgemental mindset that infected the church of his day, but in St Edwards he found a place where he could flourish and a community that would support his work. So, even as we celebrate a great treasure from the past and think of all the good that has come from 400 years of the KJV, we will be looking ahead to the future and seeing how to continue St Edwards historic mission to be a place where an ancient faith gives rise to new understandings and fresh expressions.
So during the course of this year I shall be posting to these pages some reflections on passages in the KJV whose language and phrasing I have found especially helpful but I will also be posting some more general reflections on translation itself, the translation and re-translation of secular as well as sacred texts. I will post some of my own translations of other people’s poetry and also some comments on the translations that have been made of my poems and other writings into different languages. To read what you have written when it is translated into a new language can sometimes be a very enlightening experience. Indeed the poet John Donne believed our own transition from earth to Heaven will be, thanks to Jesus Christ, a kind of translation. I’ll leave the last words of this post with him:
‘All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.’ (John Donne Meditation 17)