Sunday, February 21, 2010

Oh, Thee and Thou

Old King James
Had a castle on the Thames
And a master of the English was he

But he wasn't very tall
He had a lisp and a drawl
And a very funny sound made he

When King James decided he wanted to translate the Bible into English, he realized that as a reigning monarch, he would need some help. So he called together some people he thought could do the job, but really, they weren't all that good. In fact, one time when they were trying to piece together his notes, they misconjugated a present tense verb. They incorrectly wrote it as "He say", as in "He say unto his followers". King James, being the master of English that he was, looked it over and said, "It needth an eth on the end. Say-eth" And thus was born the King James style of English, with all the "eth"s all over the place.

OK, maybe not. But that style of English does raise a lot of questions.

"Why are the Writings written in an old English style?"

I have been asked this question so many times in the past week. And my answer? Well, my answer is my favorite one when asked a question like this: I don't know.

As usual, I have a few ideas and theories, but the truth of the matter is that I really don't know. I've read various things in the Writings of both the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice that address this issue, but that doesn't mean that I can really explain it to others. So, as usual, dear Reader, what you are getting is my own understanding, for what it is worth.

It seems to me, when looking at the question of translation, there are a number of different issues to address. The first, when discussing translation, is obviously to convey the meaning of the Text itself. The second is to try and convey the beauty of the Writings. The third point is consideration of the audience. While there may be other points to consider, these are the ones I want to look at.

When trying to convey the meaning of the Text, there are different schools of thought about it. One says that you should translate, word for word, the literal meaning of each word or phrase. This obviously has some problems with it, especially with rich, poetic languages like Persian and Arabic. In the original Writings, there are evidently many words or phrases that are obscure in literal meaning, but rich in context or allegory.

My favourite example is from the Hidden Words. In the first of the Persian Hidden Words, we read, "O Messenger of the Solomon of Love". An early translation, before Shoghi Effendi's, uses the name Hoopoe, which is a bird referenced in the Qur'an with the story of Solomon. This bird was missing from the ranks of Solomon's army, so the story goes, and he asked why the Hoopoe bird was absent. The bird showed up and said that he had been to Sheba and seen their queen. So, rather than literally translating "Hoopoe of the Solomon of Love", the Guardian, well-knowing that we in the West would have no clue about the story of the Hoopoe Bird in the Qur'an, used the word "Messenger", better conveying to us the important reference of the story.

There are evidently many similar instances in the Writings where a literal translation would not have sufficed, especially in Texts like the Kitab-i-Aqdas and the Kitab-i-Iqan, but I do not know enough of the languages involved to give more examples.

In relation to the second point, that of conveying the beauty of the Writings, 'Abdu'l-Baha said that the English writers of a translation team should "mould the significance into profound, musical and perfect cast of style in English, and in such wise that the musical sweetness of the original Persian may not be lost".

He placed great importance on the beauty of the sound of the language itself. Compare, for example, an early translation of the seventh Arabic Hidden Word with the Guardian's translation.

The Guardian's translation of the last part of it is: ...that thou mayest die in Me and I may eternally live in thee. The earlier translation finishes: Thus thou wilt be transient in Me, but in thee I will be everlasting.

The Guardian's translation not only conveys the meaning, but it does so in a manner that is both musical and sweet. It is almost lilting as it rolls off the tongue. The second one sounds like something stumbling off a subway system.

I find this to be true with all of the Guardian's translations. He conveys a beauty within them that goes beyond the words and their meaning, and leaps into the realm of poetry, evoking the nature of the spirit by their very sounds. He reminds us that what we are reading is not an ordinary speech: the Words of the Messenger of God are beyond the ordinary. And the translations he made convey this.

In the introduction to the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Universal House of Justice writes, "the style employed is of an exalted and emotive character, immensely compelling, particularly to those familiar with the great literary tradition out of which it arose. In taking up his task of translation, Shoghi Effendi faced the challenge of finding an English style which would not only faithfully convey the exactness of the text's meaning, but would also evoke in the reader the spirit of meditative reverence which is a distinguishing feature of response to the original. The form of expression he selected, reminiscent of the style used by the seventeenth-century translators of the Bible, captures the elevated mode of Bahá'u'lláh's Arabic, while remaining accessible to the contemporary reader."

Finally, in relation to the capacity of the audience, we need to remember that statement of Baha'u'llah's: It is unjust for the speaker to utter that which is beyond the capacity of the listeners to comprehend. (This quote is found in Mr Furutan's book "Baha'i Education of Children and Junior Youth", published in India)

You see, many people complain that they have to work at it to understand this style of English, to which I reply, "Good". It never hurt us to stretch ourselves a little. In fact, I think that is the basis of exercise: stretching just a bit beyond what is currently comfortable. I know that it took me years to learn to read the Writings with any degree of fluency, but now it is almost second-nature. I mean, I still have a long way to go to comprehending the spiritual import of them, but at least I can now read the English itself and get a basic understanding. And then I look at my own writings over the last number of years and I can see a manifold increase in my own command of the language (like this sentence, for example).

There is a great story about this need of raising our standard, rather than lowering it, as told by Ruhiyyih Khanum:
...Once when a pilgrim, sincerely and modestly remonstrated with the Guardian about the difficulty ordinary people in America had in understanding his writings and suggested he make them a little bit easier. The Guardian pointed out, firmly, that this was not the answer; the answer was for people to raise their standard of English, adding, in his beautiful voice with its beautiful pronunciation -- and a slight twinkle in his eye -- that he himself wrote in English. The implication that a great deal of the writing on the other side of the Atlantic did not always fall in this category was quite clear! He urged Bahá'í magazines to use an "elevated and impressive style" and certainly set the example himself at all times.
So you see, dear Reader, although I enjoy writing in a conversational style, I see the need for the elevated language of the Writings. And I appreciate it. It is, as I said, a reminder that what I am reading is not ordinary, while what I am writing is.

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