I suppose I should admit something from the start: I’m not particularly religious, and I certainly do not have anything but the most superficial knowledge of Biblical writing. Still, I have come to appreciate the glory of metaphor and how it is able to transmute otherwise ineffable concepts into words. Feelings. Poetry, of course, aspires to that, but so do many of the texts in the Bible -especially the in ‘Old Testament’, apparently.
And yet, except for a very few of the more memorable lines I was taught in Sunday school as a child -parts of Psalm 23 spring to mind- I can’t say I was ever able to differentiate the poetry from the -what?- commands: the instructive reverence with which I was intended to regard the message. But, it seems to me that by its very nature, poetry, through metaphor, simile, and even word play would be particularly helpful for some of the ideas the Bible is trying to describe -things like lamentations, or hymns of praise where it would make sense to draw on the emotive powers of poetry to make a point.
In my adult years, on those rare occasions when the subject of biblical poetry has arisen, I have usually attributed my wonted tone-deafness to translational problems. Cross cultural, not to mention cross-temporal issues mean that some figures of speech, or clever puns in the original language do not have much chance of making the same impact on us as they would have on the recipients when and where they were originally composed.
Even nowadays, the European poems of Schiller (German), or Baudelaire (French), for example, are difficult to translate into English and preserve their same emotional intensity -and they were written as recently as the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively. Imagine the difficulty of attempting to render the writings of people living more than 2000 years ago into meaningful word-pictures that would resonate in today’s modern world. And, given the sacred nature of the Bible, any attempt to change the wording, or render the sentences into something like their original poetry, risks immediate condemnation.
The very idea that someone was willing to take the risk intrigued me. It would require impeccable credentials in ancient Hebrew with an equivalent temporal knowledge of the customs and literary devices used so long ago -and an ability to maintain the intended meaning without trivializing the message.
Of course, I have no way of knowing how well any translational skills succeeded in walking that obviously difficult path, but some of the word-play involved in the effort was explained in an article in Aeon by Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley: https://aeon.co/ideas/how-translation-obscured-the-music-and-wordplay-of-the-bible
‘An essential fact about the Hebrew Bible is that most of its narrative prose as well as its poetry manifests a high order of sophisticated literary fashioning. This means that any translation that does not attempt to convey at least something of the stylistic brilliance of the original is a betrayal of it, and such has been the case of all the English versions done by committee in the modern period.’ True, the Hebrew Bible is basically a religious text, and yet, ‘If a translation fails to get much of its music across, it also blurs or even misrepresents the depth and complexity of the monotheistic vision of God, history, the realm of morality, and humankind.’
So how, after millennia, can one ever hope to express this language from the depths of time into relevant, let alone evocative English phrases? The accuracy of the message is one thing, of course, but conveying it in anything like the clever style of the original so the reader can still appreciate the poetry is another. ‘One small but telltale manifestation of the artistry practised by the biblical writers is their fondness for meaningful word play and sound play.’ However, ‘translation… entails a long series of compromises because full equivalence is rarely an option.’
For example, ‘The prophet Isaiah, like any great poet, commands a variety of formal tools – powerful rhythms, striking imagery, pointed literary allusions (in his case, to earlier biblical texts). Isaiah is particularly fond of sound play that verges on punning. In order to convey with force the perversion of values in the kingdom of Judah, he often juxtaposes two words that sound rather alike but are opposite in meaning… The Hebrew writers repeatedly revelled in the expressive possibilities of their medium, working inventively and sometimes surprisingly in their stories and poems with rhythm, significant repetition, narrative point of view, imagery, shifts in diction, the bending of language in dialogue to represent actual speech or the nature and location of the speaker.’
The article offers a few examples of Alter’s clever compromises to restore the music of the text, but I suspect it is intended more as a kind of a proof-of-concept than as a detailed slog through each Biblical book and chapter; it was both tantalizing and yet mercifully short. Still, it was enough to alert me to the things I never appreciated in my Protestant Sunday school. In fact, I don’t recall them ever mentioning anything about Biblical writing styles -it was the message they were trying desperately to inculcate in our young minds, I suppose.
But lest readers of my humble feuilleton suspect that in these penultimate years I am finally succumbing to Pascal’s wager and conceding that even though the existence of God may be unlikely -and at any rate unprovable- and that the potential benefits of belief far outweigh shuffling off unshriven, let me assure them that any quest for hidden beauty need not involve ulterior motives. In the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran, Beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.
Sometimes it’s enough to know what one’s education may have missed without having to read the whole of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. No, Alter stirred my interest enough to allow me to finish his essay, but, sadly, not enough to make me want to retrain as a biblical scholar. I’m happy the Bible is poetic, but not, well, overjoyed, or anything…