Monday, May 07, 2007


I wonder whether it is time to put my cards on the table. What is my agenda? What is my motive after 60 years of bodily existence, for this exercise of learning an ancient tongue and putting the words of the Psalms into various pictures and forms of words.

I am over my head, but the Spirit gives me oxygen. There are those whose mother tongue is also English and who have spent a lifetime (some shorter some longer) with Hebrew and its cognate languages. I have spent a year to date after a long slow start of 30+ years perhaps knowing from a distance a word or two. I am very happy to have web-encountered a few of these scholars. I have had a few words with some scholars in the flesh: notably Peter Craigie (long before I was ready to tackle Hebrew) and John Sandys-Wynch and good advice from Bruce Gardner who suggested I ask God for help! So, God, having been engaged to my fleshly engine, and God, knowing well how to teach, God and I continue.

As if Hebrew were a tongue that I was not in a hurry to learn, as if I were a child with the brain of a child, I absorb in visual and aural terms in an almost unconscious manner, using both my own automated transcription (very primitive) and the Hebrew characters themselves. I am taking classes with the local Synagogue, Congregation Emmanu-El in Victoria. I use both online and offline tools generally every day, mostly BlueLetter Bible, Scripture4all, and Mechon-Mamre. The hardest thing to do is to see, hear, and read. Word recognition - I can read my own writing (!) but I cannot instantly recognize Hebrew words. I suspect this is due to the time required to grow brain connections between eye and mouth.

I use a new web-based tool which has been developed over the past 5 years by my own company. I could have used more standard tools but not with such power, flexibility, or beneficial effects to the testing process. But that is not my motivation - I am not in sales.

My 'Why' is highlighted by a post on John Hobbin's site in praise of the translations of David Curzon. I think I want to answer the questions begged by his article on translation.

I did a little search for this unknown person and found more fun and games - perhaps we will meet unknowingly on the streets of NY this summer. DC, where are you? Or should I say, where are you coming from? Physicist, diplomat, poet, theologian - a combination worth meeting. I am glad he is not 'of the cloth'. Better we should learn from everyone.

What questions does he beg:
He writes: Like all other literary classics, the Psalms are always in need of re-translation in order to have them in language, and with an interpretive emphasis, that is both accurate and contemporary. ... My aim is to produce translations usable by contemporary believers and non-believers as structures of meditation.
Bravo for the attempt to have poetry that unbelievers will buy and read! I must find more of these examples. My agenda is to undermine the commonplace piety of the 16th century and sentimental 20th century translations we have been subjected to in the Church. I don't know anywhere else that the Psalms are used (except of course the Synagogue - but they read without translation and there I see the LORD inhabiting the praises of his people.) So I am writing for those who are called or call themselves believers. I had better be careful in my criticism - some of these believers, even those one might mistakenly class as simple, mask a considerable Reality. What joy to discover such.

I have no quarrel with them. It is good, isn't it that I have a quarrel with some? (There must be divisions among you). I have a quarrel with some ancient assumptions of Christendom that no longer hold: hierarchy, trust in human forms, piety without engagement, false perfections including inerrancy in any form, and of course my own impatience and potential belligerence. There is a true perfection and exaltation - constantly in the hope of the Psalmist - is it here that Jesus found some of his aphorisms about being lifted up or the nature of the complete or the reality of loving enemies?

And again Curzon writes: The feelings expressed at the beginning of Psalm 13 are infantile. The demands which follow are adolescent. The pivotal recognition is that of a realistic experienced adult. The conclusion is natural wisdom.
What! infantile! and recovery to 'Natural' wisdom! What happened to me when I translated Psalm 13? Interesting - I never explicitly wrote about it. It fell in with all those that were in the 'relations with my enemies' genre for me. I certainly understand this - waiting. But the cry - how long - is very specific. The Psalmist cannot live without the presence of God and in some bodily sense of that presence. His hope is in the loving-kindness which has been experienced not just as if by some abstraction called 'belief' (but do see the dialogue between hashem and Elohim in Psalms 14 and 53). To an unbeliever, the Psalmist is deceived by subjectivity. To the Psalmist, the poem is covenant dialogue and God is 'on the hook' to the experience of the loveliness of the knowledge of God. The Psalmist is complaining to the right party! It is not infantile - any more than is Moses when he defends Israel from God's anger asking - what would the Egyptians say? (If we have no enemies, how can we learn how to love them?)

And Curzon writes (twice): God does not answer, and the answer does not depend on belief even though the poem could not have been formed without a culture based on belief in a God who does respond. ... God does not answer supplications in any psalm; the answer to all questions and demands is in the form of a revelation within the psalmist.
Subjectively we are trapped. But God answers. The Psalter has a multiplicity of meanings for me. Utimately God answers with the resurrection. You will not leave your holy one to see corruption. In the meanwhile, we have our full humanity to deal with in our response to the covenant. So I agree in part. God's answer cannot be so 'earth-shattering' as to violate the implied laws of Psalm 148:6 (hurrah for Physics - supported by the Psalms!) Also in the meanwhile, we have the book in which the writers of the NT learned how the Son communicated with the Father and how the life of Jesus recapitulated or was informed by the life of the Psalmist(s) in covenant. I am stretching to express something here - help me out.
And finally Curzon writes and may well achieve: I have in my translations used a strong-stress metric, with as much alliteration and assonance and as little Latinate vocabulary as seemed compatible with contemporary diction and accuracy.
I will admire this when I have time. What a great idea. Here I think he will share with me the desire that we should enter with good intent into this fundamental human endeavour - communicating through the ether across time and space with each other and with --- something more than a Grecian Urn, or the distant maker of a Big Bang without atmosphere. Perhaps string theory with all its unknown dimensions supports the ether after all.

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