Saturday, May 18, 2013

Picking up Hidden Meanings: Guest Post

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


Anonymous said...

A selection of comments:
1. let your desire and delight be, as in the universe, also upon earth.

It would (might) be useful if you explained what led you to depart from the standard instruction / hope about God's 'will' being done to God's 'desire' – the two can be distinguished in a number of contexts; and on the other hand whether you had any reason other than personal whim for including delight.

For the second part, 'as in the universe' surely includes the earth, unless you consider that the earth has a special dispensation of some kind ?

3. 'bread for our necessities' seems plain odd. Where 'our daily bread' is a perfectly understandable requirement, bread covering sustenance in general, this formulation conjures up images of trying to write with a bread stick, plastering a piece of finest supermarket sliced on a wound or sawing through one's chains with a bread roll; or idly speculating on unconsidered uses for a croissant

4. What do you see as the difference between 'forgive' us our offences and 'free us from our offences', particularly since it leads to a rather strained ( tho' not impossible ) use of 'free' when it comes to those who have trespassed against us ?

5. Where 'amen' means either 'the end' or 'be it so!' (OED), your novel & pietistic formula says rather more about you.

Unknown said...

Many thanks for your comments, old-gobbo. The answer to all your points really is that I was trying to include the depths of meaning present in the original Aramaic and that I felt had been reduced in the version we currently use. The idea of will, delight and desire are all present in the Aramaic: selecting only the word will; gives what I feel (and there is a lot of "feel" in translation) to be a too one-dimensional view of God, though "will" is certainly not wrong. There is reference else where to God's delight and desire being involved in his will. Yes, I do think the earth has a special dispensation of some kind, in that it is the part of the universe that has rebelled against God and is in need of restoration.
I can see what you mean about "bread for our necessities": maybe that's not the best phrase. "Physical needs" may be better, though no-one else has had problems with it, as far as I know. Which doesn't make it right, of course.
Forgiveness is very much bound up with freedom, because it stems from the word for releasing horses at a starting gate. Forgiveness is a key issue, and I wanted to stress the fact that it frees us. The Aramaic also contains ideas of being tied up in what we've done in the past, and being feed by forgiveness from what Leonard Cohen called being "torn by what we've done and can't undo".
Amen is a very complex word, which is why we have used the original (or a transliteration) instead of translating it. One way it was used was to indicate trust when signing a contract, and that's why I used "Sealed in faithfulness". But my version may not be the best. IN fact I'm sure it isn't. There isa brief discussion on Amen at
I'm sure my translations says a lot about me. Most translations do!
All the best

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a reply probably more courteous than I deserved. As even less of a student of Aramaic, Greek or Hebrew than yourself, I nevertheless have trouble with your starting point, that Aramaic, unlike English, has a depth of resonance thanks to its etymology. On the English front, you will no doubt recall that a good many poets have felt a need for an understanding of etymology: while admittedly I cannot adduce Shakespeare, Robert Graves may serve as an example (lacking half my library, I cannot give references: though I am pretty sure that some of the Oxford Lectures on Poetry was only among the later expressions of his view on this point).

Turning to the particular sources for your work, I was under the impression that the words of Jesus come to us in koiné Greek, implying that any Aramaic original must be a back translation, like the Syriac gospels (a few Aramaic transliterations apparently survive into the Gospels, 'talitha kum', for example, but not in this instance; and of course there is no single Greek 'original' text). A further point here is the value to be place on the etymology. While Aramaic verbs have, for instance a G-form and a more intensive D-form ('killed' giving rise to 'slew' for instance), so that the importance of etymology here is obvious, can it necessarily be argued that all prior forms have equal status with the word under consideration (for, if so, why not use those) ? The point is that we may wish to expand our understanding of the resonance of words: but that is not the same thing as saying that one word is as good as another, still less that another word is better than the word we (or in this case, someone else) first thought of.

Then of course there is the possibility (even without following e.g. Hamp, Knowles or Blizzard) that Jesus was speaking in Hebrew, not Aramaic, which could lead to a somewhat different etymology, even though they are closely cognate languages.

Anonymous said...

Turning to the universe, as we so often must nowadays, the suggestion that the earth is the only bit that has rebelled against god is not only a bit solipsistic, lacking evidence of what might be happening or have happened in alien civilizations; but also raises the questions in what sense you think it has rebelled and against which god. There are a good many examples of people trying to follow one or another deity, with varying results, not all of them inimical to a cheerful and co-operative society. Specifically, for instance, how could the ignorant heathen, of whom there have been a fair number, rebel against your god ? It seems to me that your absolute condemnation is the kind of argument which could easily lead to 'kill them all, God will know his own'.

Your response about freeing ourselves from the consciousness of sin overlooks the possible need for some to be forgiven, and does not address the difficulty of 'freeing' others. As for the starting gate, do you mean that we should race away from our sins, each faster than the other (and who is the jockey ?), or what ? That 'explanation' hinders rather than helps, and rather makes my point about looking at the word actually chosen in the original – so with 'amen', one might perhaps more usefully look at how Jesus was recorded as using it (cf. the link you quote) – although in Matthew, the literal translation of the Greek is 'debts', not Tyndale's 'trespasses'; but of course, if the original Aramaic was an idiom, Tyndale may be more 'correct'. Specifically I must note that 'we have freed our offenders' means to me that we have freed those people whom we forced to go around offending others, that they may do other things: 'offending' becomes trivial, and grammatically the phrase does not do what you want it to do.

David Bellos, in 'Is that a fish in your ear?', makes the excellent point: "Give a hundred competent translators a page to translate and the chances of any two versions being identical is close to zero." For some Catullus I prefer Adam Raphaël, for others James Michie; sometimes I feel like reading Chapman's Homer, sometimes Graves's; and my dim recollections of Greek and Latin would not begin to allow me to do either job myself . I do not decry your goodwill in offering this exegesis: but I do question the procedure and the outcome ….
In the end it always come back to Beckett: Try again. Fail again. But fail better. Good luck.

Unknown said...

Two comments only: I absolutely don't make any absolute condemnation of anyone! I was simply repeating the biblical view of our alienation from God, since that is what I was "translating". I happen to accept it, but I don't want to condemn or kill anyone. Quite the contrary. The idea of forgiveness representing being freed is incidentally heandshaa solution to the alienation! When the horses are released from the starting gate, they are freed to be themselves. The idea works for me, but obviously not for you. Translation is like that, I guess