Sunday, 27 February 2011

A Literary Bible

"A breathtaking translation of the Hebrew Bible..." That's part of the blurb on the back cover of David Rosenberg's A Literary Bible. But the reality is that, if you're looking for a copy of the Tanakh, this isn't what you'll want. It's not a Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) and it's barely a translation in any consistent or meaningful sense. Another blurb on the inside flap informs us that this "artful translation restores... the essence of imaginative creation of the Bible." That description might be more to the point - imaginative it surely is - if anyone knew what the sentence actually meant.

Rosenberg is a former chief editor at JPS (the Jewish Publication Society) and co-author of a provocative book, along with Harold Bloom, that suggests that the J source which underlies the Torah is the work of a woman (Bloom now wants to identify her as Bathsheba!) I'm not qualified to pass judgment on his poetic abilities, though we will come back to that issue, but potential readers should note that, despite claims and appearances, this is not a translation of the Hebrew Bible. Whole books are missing - perhaps they weren't literary enough. Deuteronomy and all the historical books (except 2 Samuel) have been omitted, along with much more, and of those that do appear, most have been gutted. Rosenberg's Genesis has no chapter 1, his Psalms is a short selection, and so it goes. To muddy the waters even more, Rosenberg has included his version of the apocryphal book of Judith.

So why has Rosenberg published his Literary Bible. "I never found [the Bible's] literary depth adequately conveyed to the secular reader." (xi) This is a volume aimed not at the "average" reader, as so many dull contemporary translations are, but the "secular" reader, whoever she or he might be.

"[I]t's critical to grasp the failures in modern Bible translation." (xii) "I did not seek to embellish or alter the originals." (xiii)

Say what?! The prose sections have all the flow and beauty of the NASB (i.e. none you'd notice), while the poetic sections embellish and alter the originals with gusto.

While delivering his elite literary opus, Rosenberg is not above taking an uncharitable sideswipe at his peers. James Kugel is described as a "conventional" scholar with a "tin ear", while Robert Alter stands "consumed by his own writing style."

You might hack your way through the attempts at prose translation with some success, but when it comes to the rest, you may need a further translation. Euphemistic descriptions from the dust jacket include "re-speaking," "a deeply mediated translation," an "audacious work of art," and "genre-bending."  A sampler from Psalms:

Psalm 1: "he steps from his place at the glib café"
Psalm 6: "let all my enemies shiver / on the stage of their self consciousness"
Psalm 58: "Lord, cramp their fingers / till the arms hang limp like sausage"
Psalm 73: "material cars of pride / and suits of status", "cynical megaphones"
Psalm 137: "to an orchestra of trees / we lent our harps / silently leaning"

Over in Job you'll find "plastic children," "a tie in a railroad track," "Western Union boys," "cold as a camera," "the supermarket," "Leningrad," "yesterday's newspaper," "Stalin's house," "Martin Bormann," "Mercedes-Benz," "repossessed cars".

Art? Very probably. A radical paraphrase for The Hamptons set? Quite possibly. A case study of living Reception History? Who knows...

I'm reminded of Leslie Brandt's Psalms Now. Brandt didn't pretend to translate, but to restate. That seems to be a completely legitimate thing to do, as long as everyone is clear on what is happening.I don't recollect Brandt hawking his book as a 'translation' though.

If you plan to acquire A Literary Bible, you may want to find a place for it next to the poetry and post-modern literature, and far, far away from your NRSV.

A literary Bible probably deserves a literary critic, and that I ain't, so there's a review by Frank Kermode online at the New York Times for those interested.

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like really bad poetry but, maybe, that's what the Psalms have been all along.

    While a serious theological student should always try to understand the orginal source material, it is commendable in its own way that they would try to make the biblical references more pedestrian for the GP.

    Of course one more step away from source means one more "translation" which may be filled with bias, however unknowlingly done.

    Wonder what the new translation of "pisseth on the wall" will be?