Human shade, Death shadow, Dark

ἐὰν γὰρ καὶ πορευθῶ
ἐν μέσῳ σκιᾶς θανάτου
οὐ φοβηθήσομαι κακά
ὅτι σὺ μετ᾽ ἐμοῦ

Dad undergoes his radiation therapy this morning to arrest the growth of inoperable, nonresectable, uncurable cancer tumors. I’ve been working on memorizing John Radcliffe’s rendering of the 23rd Psalm. His words bring my family and me a measure of comfort; but I often wonder how translators conceive of words. When John came to the Hebrew word צַלְמָוֶת (tsalmaveth), he rendered it “dark”. I could ask him what he, the author and the translator, meant by that English word; he would tell me all he thought and remembered he intended. But, pardon my pun, the word “dark” has various shades, non-colorful shades of meaning for me. Does that change when I hear the context?

“And even if that way is dark
… – as dark as death can be,
I need not fear I’ll come to grief,
… because he comes with me.”

And I so enjoy the Greek translation presumably by Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, a city established in the name of the conqueror Alexander the Great. Alexander accomplished his teacher Aristotle’s wish for worldwide Greek politics based on his teacher Plato’s ideal Republic, to spite the poets who used ambiguities to misguide the peoples, allegedly.

The poetic Greek work that the LXX translators use for the Hebrew word John makes “dark” is σκιᾶς (skias). Don’t know what you make of that, but at least one of us has wondered whether it meant what the poet Pindar intended it to be.

In the title and a line of one of his poems, he wrote:

σκιᾶς ὄναρ ἄνθρωπος

What does that mean, and what to you? “a shade of a dream of a human” perhaps? The ambiguities make for shades of darkness, for us humans.

Scholar Anne Lebeck says,

The philologist should not restrict himself to a single interpretation of such passages but should give free rein to all possibilities and associations, ultimately selecting as many as form part of a larger pattern and contribute to the meaning of the total work. The linguistic devices by which ambiguity is effected should be analyzed and the significance of the passage then interpreted in the light of its obscurity.

I really like what Lebeck says and sees because she allows for us humans to hear and view language in multiple dimensionality. We may find profound comfort in some of it. What might you think?



11 responses to “Human shade, Death shadow, Dark

  1. John Radcliffe

    I’m flattered once again by further reference to my attempt at a “poetic” rendering, but also embarrassed, as I only spotted at the weekend that my pronouns went astray (3rd rather 2nd) in the lines you quote.

    There are other issues as well (such as the odd syllable too many), and at least a couple of places where I’m not entirely happy with the rendering. (OK, I’ll be honest; I’ll never be entirely happy, so let’s say “not comfortable”.) I’ve no intention of tweaking it ad nauseam, and I realise that if I provide a second version I may be doing you a disservice by messing up your memorisation. But if you do want to see the “not-entirely-happy-but-can-live-with-it-and-move-on” version, then I’ll be happy to post it sometime soon. Even then, feel free to cherry pick what you think best in either version.

    Now I might be able to tell you what I possibly meant by “dark”, but perhaps not. Here I suspect I “saw” or pictured the meaning rather than heard it, so in this case I’ll leave it up to readers to “see” what they see. As I’ve probably said before, my renderings are never intended to be “neutral” or “objective”; they are always intended to “embody” my understanding of the text (or some aspect of that), and to record it for future reference. To be honest, for my purposes a “neutral”, non-interpretative rendering would be of little value.

    I realise that by bringing something into view I’m probably obscuring other things at the same time (both other things I can see as well as some I can’t). I think it’s a bit like photography. A photograph can never “tell the whole truth”; it has to be selective. Looking at a number of different photographs of the same subject may tell you more about the subject, but even that will never be the same as “being there”. But what an individual photograph can do is draw attention to something someone might not have noticed even if they had “been there”. So too, a rendering of a text may highlights things that even someone reading the original might not have spotted, perhaps because something more obvious took their attention.

    Or at least that’s my take on things.

    Of course any rendering of Psalm 23 enters a very crowded market. But the very familiarity of a favoured rendering can also be a great obstacle to hearing anything fresh from what the Psalmist said, or anything “new” that God might want to say through those “old” words. I’m pleased to say that I found much “new” (or at least that I had long forgotten). So regardless of whether anyone else “gets anything” from my rendering, what I gained is payment enough for the effort involved. That someone else might have benefited in some way is simply to put icing on my cake.

    • And even if that way is dark
      … – as dark as death can be,
      I need not fear I’ll come to grief,
      … because he comes with me.

      John, I just love your authorial musings! Never hoped to suggest that you had crafted or will someday create a perfect translation as pretty poetry. (but what good critic could even at this stage fairly accuse you of anything approaching doggerel? None!)

      It’s not just your word choice but it’s also that you chose to share those words that is so very meaningful to me, John. You had no idea how your 23rd Psalm would be received, what I might make of it. Let me say again how deeply touched I am by the psalm, by your rendering of it into English verse, revisioning it and revising that, your sharing that with a once-stranger now-Internet-friend in desperate need. And, in my view, you stand in a long stream, make the long river, of those who have heard Hebrew poetry and have made it different but kept it beautifully the same. That some of us hear the Greek Pindar in the Jewish Psalmist is just wonderful despite all that the LXX translators could say they intended. (My friend Richard, our University swim team coach asks his record setting swimmers What did you do? And their initial answers always only approximate, and sometimes even contradict what he saw them doing or/and what the video cameras in the pool proved that they did). When you wrote “dark” how could you have known what that would mean to my Dad? And yet you won’t take that away from him, all those shades of now-experienced meanings. Rather, you give that to him. And I’m very grateful, John. (please do feel free to share any revisions you make and know how we’ve already received what you first wrote)

  2. John Radcliffe

    Kurk, thank you for what you say here, and for all that you’ve said in various other posts before (the ones I’ve at least partly understood, that is).

    I thought you might be interested in a bit of background:

    A couple of weeks ago I was trying to come up with a rendering Psalm 23 in a style similar to that of my version of Psalm 42/3. Then last Wednesday in our Bible Study Group we were “exploring prayer” (at least that was the title of the study in the book we were following). The study included a couple of poems on prayer, so we ended up discussing poetry as well, partly because most of us (including me) just didn’t get what one of them was saying and had to have it explained to us. After the explanation I could see what the poet was saying, but it still didn’t “speak to me”. When I got home I looked at my draft for Psalm 23 again before going to bed (sometimes it takes me a while to get my brain to shut down after a study session), and the version you’ve seen just “started to come”. Then the next morning I just polished it up a bit and let it see daylight.

    As you might also be interested in seeing how that first version sort of “morphed” into the current one, here it is. (“Version 2 (revised)” will follow shortly.)

    Psalm 23

    1 With the LORD as my shepherd,
    … there is nothing I lack.
    2 He has me rest in lush pastures,
    … and walks with me by tranquil streams.
    3 He puts my life back together again,
    … and lets me be who I really am.

    He shows me the right path to take,
    … because that’s the kind of person he is.
    4 Even if that way takes me
    … through a ravine as dark as death,
    I need have no fear of harm –
    … because you are with me;
    and your shepherd’s rod and staff
    … will keep me safe.

    5 You prepare a feast for me,
    … right there in front of my enemies.
    You treat me as an honoured guest;
    … and give me far more than I need.
    6 I know that your goodness and kindness
    … will doggedly pursue me to the very end;
    and that the LORD’s home will be mine
    … for endless days to come.

    • John, thank you again for sharing. I’m fascinated by the “product” of your translating and by your “processes”. It’s the brave person and skilled, I think, who will talk not only about translation as an ideal but about his or her attempts to do it.

  3. John Radcliffe

    Brave? Skilled? I assume you have me confused with someone else.

    Thanks for the continuing (and valued) conversation.

    • For the past 2 weeks, John, all of my blogging and Facebooking and emailing and commenting has had more than the usual number of spelling and grammar errors and such (thanks in large part to being absolutely restricted to an iPhone). Nonetheless, I’m certain you and your writing are recognizable! 🙂 yes and I value the conversation with you too!

  4. Kurk, as promised (but later than intended), here’s the revised Psalm 23 (although I’ll actually put the text in the next comment by itself and my comments on it here).

    I’ve tried to change as little as possible, not only because I believe the old adage (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”), but also because it’s intended as a revision and not a complete rethink. I could have changed more (and some might say there’s much that needs changing), but that would have been a different rendering. So apart from tweaking the punctuation, these are the only changes:

    In verse 2b I was never happy with “I’m done”.

    In 4d and 4e I’ve corrected the 3rd person pronouns to 2nd person.

    I must say that I find the move from 3rd to 2nd rather awkward. Perhaps the psalmist started out meditating on God as his Shepherd, but then the thought that “he was with him” moved him from thinking about God (in the 3rd person) to talking to him directly (in the 2nd person – a.k.a. prayer). That the 3rd person returns in v6c might imply that is a final thought added after he’s “finished praying”, but I do note that because of this he never actually addresses God “by name”, as it were (i.e. as YHWH).

    In 6a, as you probably realised, “covenant” needs to be pronounced as two syllables, not three. Although my dictionary offers that as a “legitimate” pronunciation, to clarify this I’ve put “cov’nant”.

    Fixing 6b wasn’t as easy since pronouncing “doggedly” with two syllables isn’t really an option. The obvious fix was “pursue me all my days”, but (1) I was reluctant to lose “doggedly” (even though I think a mark of a good translator or exegete is the willingness to scrap a “pet” wording or theory if it just doesn’t fit the text); and (2) I found that having “days” here and in 6d always seemed to sound rather awkward, whatever I did with 6d. So in the end I kept “doggedly”, even if it meant apparently losing “all the days of my life” entirely. I say “apparently” because “doggedly” does carry the idea of continuance (although less precisely), and the revised punctuation hints that 6d might apply to 6b as well as to the 6c.

    I’m still not entirely happy with 6d, but after trying various rewrites, I simply went back to my original draft which had “to come” rather than “that come” (my idea was that “that” sounded more “definite”, but I don’t think it really worked). I think those translations that have “forever” here are going beyond what the text says. I don’t mean that the psalmist must be understood as referring to “just this life” (as is the case in 6b); rather, I think the idea left open-ended (and I like that).

  5. Psalm 23

    1 The LORD my shepherd does ensure
    … there’s nothing that I lack.
    2 In pastures lush he has me feed
    … – then, satisfied, to rest;
    and takes me to the tranquil streams,
    … where I can drink my fill:
    3 and so my life he does rebuild
    … – to make me truly “me”.

    He points the way that I should go,
    … because it pleases him;
    4 and even if that way is dark
    … – as dark as death can be,
    I need not fear I’ll come to grief,
    … because you come with me:
    your shepherd’s rod and your staff too
    … will keep me safe from harm.

    5 You spread a feast out just for me
    … – right there, before my foes;
    and bless me with far more than I
    … could ever need or use.
    6 Your goodness and your cov’nant love
    … me doggedly pursue,
    and the LORD’s home will be my own
    … – throughout the days to come.

    • Dear John,
      Can I thank you enough for this? How? Thank you for making so many changes, for explaining each one, for so publicly posting what’s so precious and personal, and always for leaving some things, as you say the psalmist does, “open-ended.”

  6. Kurk, that my efforts are appreciated is thanks enough.

    I’m mindful that if you had conversed with “like-minded” people by e-mail, I wouldn’t have benefited from various posts and comments of yours, and indeed we would never have “met”. So perhaps someone else too may find our conversation of some help.

    • So perhaps someone else too may find our conversation of some help.

      Indeed, John! Thank you again for posting your rendering, showing both some of the process of choices in your translating but also the translation itself. And I too value our conversation so open.

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