Posts filed under 'Theology'

Translation Tuesday: Two Poems by Haim Nachman Bialik 

There is Love in the world, they say. / Love—what is it?

This week features the Hebrew language poetry of Haim Nachman Bialik, a poet and cultural leader who influenced twentieth century Hebrew and Yiddish poetry like few others. Bialik’s commitment to innovation in stylistic Hebrew comes across in these skillful translations, which carry emotion upon a poignant succession of nouns that cover a stirring breadth of emotion in relatively few words. Verdant religious language is foiled by a personal lack. Yearning, the language evokes a sense of constantly thwarted arrival met with evacuation. Yet, the poems brim with hope for the future, foregrounding the hope which gives meaning to the barren condition of the present. Bialik remains the national poet of Israel.

Drops a Sprig in Silence

Drops a sprig in silence
To the fence.
Like him,
I’m mute. Shorn of fruit,
Estranged from branch and tree.
Shorn of fruit, the flower
Memory forgotten,
The leaves do sway,
Sure victims for the gale to slay.
Then the nights do come.
The nightmare—
The gall—
I thrash about in the dark,
I knock my head against the wall.
And spring will come.
Is splendour
A foil
To me, a barren twig,
Which bringeth forth
No fruit, nor flower, nor nill.

Take Me Under Your Wings

Take me under your wings,
Be to me sister and mother.
Let your bosom shelter my head,
Nestle my banished prayers.

Then in twilight, the hour of mercy,
Bend down to me, my anguish I’ll tell thee:
There is Youth in the world, they say.
My youth—where is it?

And another secret I’ll tell:
My soul, it is all burnt out.
There is Love in the world, they say.
Love—what is it?

The stars have all deceived me.
There was a dream, it too has passed.
I have not a thing in the world now.
I have nothing, at last.

Take me under your wings,
Be to me sister and mother.
Let your bosom shelter my head,
Nestle my banished prayers.

Translated from the Hebrew by Dahlia Ephrat 

Haim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), recognized today as the national poet of Israel, wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish. Born in the former Russian Empire, Bialik, who wrote passionately about the persecution of the Jewish people in Russia, moved to Germany and then to Tel Aviv. He had a relationship with Ira Jan, a painter and writer who followed him to Tel Aviv. After his untimely death in surgery, a massive funeral procession mourned down the street which now bears his name, showing his importance as an icon of an emergent Jewish literary movement and a significant cultural leader. During his productive career, Bialik wrote extensively, and his poems are well known to the Israeli public. On top of his poetry and essays, which have now been translated into more than thirty languages and set to music, Bialik translated a book of Talmudic legends called Sefer Ha’agada (The Book of Legends). 

Dahlia Ephrat lives in Tel Aviv, where she was born. She began writing poetry at a young age, and began work as a translator at eighteen. She has translated scores of English language poetry into Hebrew. She remains interested in Hebrew, and embarks on linguistic studies of Hebrew etymology and thought. 

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Classic Texts in Translation: David Buchta on the Bhagavad Gītā

It’s the fact that it’s been this vibrant text for millennia that makes it such an important text for us to read today.

Today’s post is the first installment in our new blog series, “Classic Texts in Translation,” in which we speak with scholars and experts about the challenges of translating canonical texts from around the world. In today’s interview, Assistant Blog Editor Nina Perrotta talks with Professor David Buchta of Brown University about the Bhagavad Gītā, an ancient Sanskrit text that forms part of the larger epic poem known as the Mahābhārata. Their conversation touches on the specific difficulties of translating complex philosophical and theological terms from Sanskrit into English, the questions around authorship that make interpreting classical Sanskrit texts particularly challenging, and the reasons that the Bhagavad Gītā has been such an influential text, both within India and around the world, for millennia.

Nina Perrotta (NP): I want to start off by asking you, in a general way, about some of the biggest challenges of translating Sanskrit into English.

David Buchta (DB): Sure. In some ways, it’s a hard question to answer in a general way, just because you’re talking about this language that has such an enormously long history, such a huge library of literature, and such a wide range. This would be the same for Latin or Greek—the kinds of challenges you face in one genre versus another are going to be radically different.

On the one hand, you’ve got these poems that have two meanings simultaneously, and that obviously is going to introduce one whole set of translation challenges. I often say this about Sanskrit: it’s such a highly cultivated language. In other words, the people who used the language cared about it, thought about it, put their time and energy into developing its toolbox. As a result, if you’re a skilled writer, you can, if you want to, be extremely precise and unambiguous, or you can be extremely ambiguous. There are these poems where you can tell seven stories all at once. It just depends on how the words are interpreted, whether the same sequence of syllables is broken into two words or three words, for example. You have these different ways that you can go if you’re skilled enough at using the language.

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Classic Philosophy Meets Arabic Language: A Dialogue with Professor Peter Adamson

A tenth-century resident of Baghdad could read Arabic versions of just about everything by Aristotle that we can read today.

The great Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries changed the Near East and beyond politically, culturally, and, in a particularly profound and lasting way, linguistically, resulting in the near hegemony of the Arabic language. This new Islamic world took shape around an original and powerful new religion, but the consolidation of an Islamic civilisation was also a period of immense cultural exchange and mutual influence, not only from fellow Abrahamic traditions such as Judaism and Christianity, but also from the world of classical Mediterranean antiquity. Indeed, while knowledge of classical Greek science and philosophy fell into virtual oblivion in the Christian West, Islamic scholars kept the tradition alive by means of large scale translation projects and sophisticated philosophical works, from the Persian Avicenna to Baghdad’s legendary house of learning and the Andalusian polymath Averroes. In this interview, Professor Peter Adamson of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München talks us through this fascinating and often overlooked period in philosophical history by exploring the works of translation that made it possible.

Jonathan Egid (JE): By the time the grand translation projects of the early Islamic world began, the wonders of classical Greek philosophy had attained the status of ancient wisdom, almost one thousand years old and already much discussed and much translated. How did the works of Greek thinkers come to be translated into Arabic, and what was the interest in these ancient and foreign ideas?

Peter Adamson (PA): This was a process that unfolded over the course of centuries. The translation movement begins already in the eighth century CE and continues well into the tenth century. It was basically an initiative of the elites under the Abbasid caliphate, including even caliphs themselves and the caliphal family, who also had philosophers as court scholars. For instance, al-Kindī, the first philosopher to make explicit use of Hellenic materials in his own writing, was tutor to a caliph’s son and dedicated his most important work to the caliph himself. The translators were well paid experts, so this was a very deliberate and expensive undertaking managed from the top down. It should, however, be said that it was not something that was undertaken in a vacuum. For quite a long time there had already been translations made from Greek into Syriac and other Semitic languages, and these were a model for the Arabic translations (sometimes literally: it was known for works to be translated first into Syriac for the purpose of making an Arabic version on that basis). Also I would say the translation movement had a kind of momentum of its own: whereas at first the texts to be translated were really selected by the elite and for a variety of practical or political motives, eventually they get to the stage where they are translating the entire output of certain thinkers, or at least everything they can get their hands on, in a kind of completist project. So for instance, one of the greatest translators, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, was clearly trying to translate whatever he could by Galen, the most important Greek medical authority, while his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn worked his way through Aristotle.

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Marianne Katoppo: The Frog who Left the Coconut Shell Far Behind

"Katoppo’s novels tell the story of independent women restrained by conservative men."

Writer and world-renowned feminist theologian Marianne Katoppo maintained that theology was rooted in language. Asymptote Indonesia Editor-at-Large and poet Norman Erikson Pasaribu makes the case that with her writing, Katoppo also challenged and defied the systemic injustices of Indonesian society that were inherent in language, too. Enjoy Norman’s beautiful essay in English and scroll down to read it in the original Indonesian. 

From approximately the 500 classic Malay proverbs that I had to memorize as a child, one of the proverbs I loved most was: ‘Like a frog under a coconut shell.’

The illustration is clear: a frog that never surpasses the boundaries of a coconut shell will only view the world as a dark, quiet, and limited place. If anyone were to tell it that there’s another world: a colorful and bright place, with music and an open natural landscape, this frog will say it’s a lie.

—Marianne Katoppo

“After all, language is where theology begins,” Marianne Katoppo writes in her revolutionary book, Compassionate and Free: An Asian Woman’s Theology (1979).

She then presents an argument about how sexism and patriarchy in the church are rooted in language. She says that in Hebrew, the Holy Spirit Ruakh is feminine, which evolved into Pneuma, a gender-neutral form in Greek by the Septuaginta translator, and then changed into the masculine in Latin. “Therefore, the Trinity we have now is entirely male,” Katoppo concludes.

Indonesia is a nation where people’s lives are strongly driven by religion. This is clear even in the first principle of Pancasila, the Indonesian state’s foundational philosophy: “Believe in the one Supreme God.” Thus, although the Indonesian language does not have the concept of gender in its grammar, it is unsurprising that the country’s religious institutions—which have been long dominated by men—have also contributed to an unfair system of privileges. Religious institutions often become the first barrier that “the other” has to face in order to be a whole individual.

Marianne Katoppo’s life was a constant battle against such oppressive structures. Born in 1943, Katoppo was raised in a family with feminist values. Her father was the minister of education of the short-lived State of East Indonesia (1946—1950), and he upheld gender equality among all of his ten children. Katoppo pursued her theological education at the Jakarta Theological Seminary before leaving Indonesia and continuing her theological studies in Switzerland, Japan, England, Korea, and Germany while also studying languages. Later, she continued to explore the edges of the world to teach feminist theology.

Katoppo’s interest in theology was entwined with her passion for languages. She published her first short story at the age of eight. Besides her seminal work, Compassionate and Free: An Asian Woman’s Theology, Katoppo also published five novels: Dunia Tak Bermusim (A World with No Season, 1974), Raumanen (1977), Anggrek Tak Pernah Berdusta (The Orchid Never Lies, 1977), Terbangnya Punai (The Green Pigeon Flies Away, 1978), Rumah di Atas Jembatan (The House on the Bridge, 1981). She won the prestigious Jakarta Arts Council Novel Competition in 1975 for Raumanen and became the first woman to win the SEA Write Award in 1982. Fluent in twelve languages, she translated Knut Hamsun, Nawal El Saadawi, and Elie Wiesel into Indonesian—all of which were published by Obor, a Catholic publishing house in Jakarta. Given the enormity of her achievements, I—born and raised in Indonesia—seriously believe that no Indonesian man has matched Katoppo’s accomplishments. READ MORE…