Found in Translation
Susan Carpenter Sims, guest contributor
I’m a research junkie and a word nerd. When I was in graduate school, I spent a year researching one of the earliest Old English poems, "The Dream of the Rood." The project began as a lexical analysis for a linguistics class, and what I discovered was that many words had multiple senses — and the available translations didn’t emphasize this. I ended up doing my own translation of all 256 lines. It was immensely rewarding to unfold levels and layers of meaning this way.
I then began studying the Bible with a concordance and would spend whole afternoons looking up every word in one verse. I felt like I was digging up ancient treasure. Word archaeology. I began to see an analogy between words and computer icons. The way you can click on something and it opens up a whole world you couldn’t have imagined before you clicked.
I’ve also read a couple of books by Neil Douglas-Klotz in which he translates various words of Jesus into the Aramaic that Jesus actually spoke, and from there into English. The result is quite poetic and illuminated. For instance, here’s an excerpt from his translation of the Lord’s Prayer:
Grant us what we need each day in bread and insight:
Loose the cords of mistakes binding us,
As we release the strands we hold of others’ guilt.
The other day I was doing evening prayer with the radiant little book, Celtic Benedictions, by J. Philip Newell. One of the verses was: ”I commune with my heart in the night, I meditate and search my spirit” (Psalm 77:6). In my New Revised Standard Version Bible, there was an alternate translation for “I commune,” which I read as “My music spirit searches.” I found this odd but inspiring. It took me a minute to realize that because of how the notes were laid out, I was reading it wrong. The alternate translation for “I commune” was simply “My music,” and for “search my spirit,” it was “my spirit searches.” So the verse would then read, “My music is with my heart in the night; I meditate and my spirit searches.” The New International Version translates this verse as “I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit inquired.”
Maybe all of this doesn’t excite you like it does me. I realize it’s this very sort of thing that confirms some folks’ rejection of the Bible, but, for me, it emphasizes poetic truth as what’s valuable over hard fact. There’s grace and mystery in it, not fixed formulaic answers.
Much has been made of what gets lost in translation, but I’m here to say that a lot can be found. When I research and explore this way I feel like I’m peering into a divine kaleidoscope. My music spirit searches, and finds communion in and with the words.
The image above of “The Dream of the Rood” is scanned from the only surviving manuscript, known as the Vercelli Book, from the medieval period.
(credit: image and text courtesy of the University of Oxford)
Susan Carpenter Sims is a writer and collage-maker living in Taos, New Mexico. She writes a weekly column for The Taos News and blogs about her love of a historic local church at The Whole Blooming World.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Editor’s note: Update (2010.07.14) A resourceful reader, Allison Boyd, helped us find her!
The following entry was submitted by a guest contributor without a name or an email address. Rather than letting this lovely post go unread, we published it with the hopes that the author will recognize her or his fine work and contact us so we can give proper credit and adulation!
"Heaven on Earth"
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC has just opened a new exhibition Heaven on Earth: Manuscript Illuminations from the National Gallery of Art. It includes documents from France, Germany, Austria, Bohemia, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy — many of which are rare and haven’t been exhibited since 1975.
If you find this interesting, you might want to visit the site for our program “Preserving Words and Worlds,” which includes a slew of video and images from our production trip to the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Collegeville, Minnesota.
(image: Detail of Belbello da Pavia’s The Annunciation to the Virgin, from the National Gallery’s online archives)
The Process of Creating the St. John’s Bible
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Our show for this week — called "Preserving Words and Worlds" — focuses on the pioneering and valiant efforts of manuscript preservation being spearheaded by the Benedictine monks of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at St. John’s Abbey & University. The importance of the words and language of these precious handwritten texts is vital to understanding other civilizations and cultures, as Fr. Columba Stewart and Getatchew Haile point out.
But, these two scholars speak as much about the importance of the container itself. The vessel gives context to the manuscript, and to the people producing and using these texts. Elements like the type of paper used, the binding, the style of calligraphy, the marginalia, the general wear-and-tear all indicate how it was used, who used it, and, in essence, its innate value to those people using it and their ancestors.
When I think about it this way, I better understand why the same institution also commissioned a multi-million dollar project to create the first handwritten Bible since the printing press was invented. It’s what they did in medieval times and that monastic legacy is being carried on today, albeit with the expedience of modern technology and communication.
Artistic efforts like these I find true and sincere, not a fancy facade masking an ordinary box. Hearkening to ancient traditions and materials, this illuminated Bible incorporates hand-ground inks and eggs and feathers and vellum with platinum, gold, and silver foils. And, being a project of the modern era, it uses computers and sophisticated software programs and broadband connection to lay out the book and communicate with a host of overseers in making everything’s correct.
This short video about the St. John’s Bible project is instructive, to be sure, but it also gives me insight into the magic of creating a manuscript — and the monumental task of coordinating it.