I met Tim Lenton at a discussion I ran on translation and I thought he had some interesting ideas, so I invited him to write a guest post for the blog. Luckily, he agreed. Here it is:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that to attempt a proper translation, you need to be fluent in both the language of the original writer and the language you are translating into. Or is it?
Translation has fascinated me for a long time. I have been particularly intrigued by the difficulty of translating from Hebrew or Aramaic (sometimes via Greek) into English, which is a very different kind of language.
If you are looking at biblical translation, you have the additional problem of a few thousand years of cultural change added into the equation. Given the near-impossibility of translating contemporary poetry satisfactorily from one language to another – trying to convey the precise sense, the rhythm, the context and all the nuances – there doesn't seem much chance of getting those old biblical writings safely and securely into modern English.
Which is presumably why we have so many different translations of the Bible, though it doesn't explain why so many people appear to attribute infallibility not just to the Bible, but to the translations, especially if they are a few hundred years old and have the word James in the title.
I do not speak Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek, but reading about the Aramaic language in particular led me to what I think is an understanding of the way some of the New Testament was written. To many this will be an arrogant and laughable claim, and they may be right. But a feeling for language is as important as technical ability in it. My degree in German gave me something of that feeling for the way ideas were adopted into different languages.
I had long been aware that some idiosyncrasies of Greek (for instance, the continuous present tense) had not been conveyed into English in most translations. English people (like most modern Europeans) tend to look at things in a cause-and-effect way, so the New Testament injunction to "Ask and you shall receive" leaves us looking around for what has not been delivered, whereas the meaning of the original is, I believe, "Be an asking sort of person and you will receive things", or to turn it around, "If you don't ask, you don't get".
But a book called Prayers of the Cosmos, by Neil Douglas-Klotz, which I discovered by chance in a friend's library on Holy Island, opened my eyes to the huge differences between the Aramaic and English way of looking at things – in particular how Aramaic words (like Hebrew) include a deep reservoir of roots and history in a way that just doesn't seem to happen in English unless you delve deeply and academically into the derivations of words.
I was intrigued to discover, for instance, that the Aramaic word for prayer (slotha)also means setting a trap, and the word for bread (lahma) also means understanding. This is highly figurative language which allows your mind to expand on what is on the page – roam around it, so to speak, to pick up all the hidden meanings. English, though wonderful in its way, is not like that.
One of the things that Douglas-Klotz did was expand on the Lord's Prayer, bringing out of the original Aramaic all the subtleties and allusions. But he did this at great length. I felt I would like to have a go at producing a usable Lord's prayer based on the Aramaic words. And so I did.
Ah, you may say, this is not a translation: this is a paraphrase. And of course you're right in the strict sense. But translation is bringing something across, and as Douglas-Klotz had brought something across to me, I wanted to bring it further across and add my own feeling for the language to it.
Is it possible to have a genuine feeling for a language you don't speak? I think it is, but then I would, wouldn't I? Here is the "translation" I ended up with:
Our Father, who is throughout the universe.
let your name be set apart and holy.
Through your kingdom and counsel,
let your desire and delight be,
as in the universe, also upon earth.
Give us this day bread for our necessities
and food for our understanding,
and free us from our offences, as also
we have freed our offenders.
And do not let us enter our temptation,
or make do with worldliness,
but set us free from error and immaturity.
For the kingdom, the power and the song
belong to you
from ages to ages.
Sealed in faithfulness.
What makes this worth doing? Is it just new words for the sake of it? Not at all. This version gets rid of at least one wrong translation (the absurd "Lead me not into temptation") and breathes in some wider and deeper meanings.
For me, the word "delight" is important, because it presents God as benevolent, rather than as a despot. I wanted to include the idea "food for our understanding" in "our daily bread" and the Aramaic idea of immaturity and worldliness into the familiar but one-dimensional "temptation". (The Aramaic also contains the idea of unripeness, but I decided regretfully that this could not be comfortably accommodated.)
I also liked the word "song" as an expression of "glory", and "from ages to ages" better expresses the original than "for ever and ever".
Professional translators may regard this as amateurism of the worst kind. For me it was an exciting adventure, and one which has received a good response from those I have offered it to. Admittedly, they don't speak Aramaic either. But I'm not sure that matters.
Obviously I could not have done it without help from a genuine linguist in Douglas-Klotz, and he deserves most of the credit. He opened the door, and I went through it. Which is what doors are for.
Tim Lenton is a poet and former local newspaper columnist with experience of lecturing at the UEA. He has a BA (Hons) in German from Birkbeck College, London, is now retired and lives in Norwich with his wife, who is an education consultant. He has a website at www.back2sq1.co.uk.