The Intentions of Better Bible Translators

L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés et désirs
— Bernard de Fontaine, abbé de Clairvaux

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions
— some well-intentioned translator or two of the proverb of St. Bernard

Let me just start this post by stating my intention: I intend for this one to end my blogging. I never intended to be a biblioblogger, much less a Top 50 one, more than once, but…. Earlier this week, I posted something else in a thread on Facebook, and I, writing, intended it to be amusing. This prompted a responder to tell an inside joke on me. Then from a different person another response came; it came from a person who knows both me and the one joking with me; the separate response came from one of the professional translators who has studied English here in a university program I run. The translator has interpreted for the U.S. government in both of the ongoing wars of America. He’s a native speaker of Pashtun who is quite fluent also in Arabic, in Farsi, in French, and now in English as he studies here for a degree in Nursing to go back to Afghanistan, where he intends to assist with the medical need. I am intending to give you this background of this Facebook responder, not to bore you with details but, to make the point that my Afghani friend knows language, and knows languages. Now, verbatim, this is what he wrote: “please spell it for me! All I was trying to say or my intention was to say that, wish you more success.” Yes, I intend to make another point with this paragraph, so stay tuned for it in the next. Let me just wrap up this story by saying that, in our Facebook conversation, several different things were going on. And each of us writers had certain intentions which turned into more of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux’s bonnes volontés et désir. As a writer, I always say more, and invariably say less, than I intend. Cette intention de la mine, en tant que traducteur, est le même, si elle est différente.

So I intend to make a point about “The Intentions of Better Bible Translators.” And I intend to write that point in English. And I intend for you to read it and to make of it only what I intend. But I just now remembered something. I intend for you to hear me out about my interviews of great writers. I intend now for you to listen through one more paragraph (after this one or maybe two) and then to understand that titular point of this blogpost of mine. You do understand I have some sure intention, some thing in my head that will find its way into yours, and so you already know my only writerly intention, don’t you?

Yes, that’s right. I interviewed Virginia Woolf and asked her specifically what she intended by her use of the word of in her title for her essay (or perhaps her intended book), “A Room of One’s Own.” Then Walt Whitman gave me a few minutes; so I asked him about his intentions for of in “Leaves of Grass.” In a separate meeting, Harper Lee confessed to me her intention for The Killing of A Mockingbird and for her only novel to make it to print, To Kill A Mockingbird, which seems to be the same intention of translator Femmy Syahrani, who declined my interview because she intends, of course, only to convey the intention of Ms. Lee, which was not, the translator insists, for the novel to become more popular than the Bible. Next, I was able to chat with John Steinbeck who agreed to tell me exactly what he intended by using his original English phrase “The Grapes of Wrath” for a long novel and for its short title and particularly what he meant by the of in it. And, wonder of wonders, Steinbeck sent me to Julia Ward Howe, whom I also had the privilege of interviewing. After telling me out loud that she intended her songs to be songs of the abolition of slavery (and whispering to me that she did not intend for it to get out that she was also a feminist), Ward Howe explained her intentions of her of in the grapes of wrath. She sent me across the Atlantic, where the Bible translators of King James were, intentionally, writing words of English on paper just as winemakers drop grapes into the winepress, which turns out and churns out the good intentions of fermentation like this: “the great winepress of the wrath of God” and “the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.” (Nobody intended good French words like de or L’enfer). By bringing up the translators of the English Bible, I’m not sure what I intend yet except I want you to know that I don’t intend to get ahead of myself. The KJV translators were as forthcoming to me with their intentions for their “winepress of.” But I still had to go to Patmos and listen to heavenly intentions as John got his vision of the apo-calypse. Well, if we read Revelation 1:1, it practically gives the whole thing away: it’s a clear message (in the KJV) intended by “Jesus Christ” from God, through angels, to John, now to you and to me. (For the life of me, I can’t figure out how so many preachers and Sunday School mess this all up.) It was too late to ask the English Bible translators what they had intended by of in “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” And the angels weren’t talking to me; neither was Jesus or God. So I asked John what was “originally” intended. He told me that the intentions of ἐκ and of εἰς related to the mouth of God and from the actions of the angels (of Revelation 14:19 and of Revelation 19:15) were important since the Greek genitive case, as intended by the Socrates of the Republic of Plato (not of The Battle Hymn of of Julia Ward Howe in her room of one’s own), made mere shadows of those intentions of him as translator of the message of the angels. He also reminded me of the fact that the angels were merely messengers of the revelation of Jesus of Nazareth, which, of course, was the intended message of God, who is the only real character of the parable of the cave. He also acknowledged that the only real intention of Plato was also for God to be the only real character of the Book of Revelation. I replied, “Oh, I never thought of that.”

And that brings me to my real intention for this post. As Bible translators and translation fans convene and bibliobloggers take note, there will be intentions. The intention of the “international” “version” that was once “new” is now old; and the intention of “Today’s” new international version is now yesterday’s; hence, there is the intention of 2011. The common intention is to assign intention. Intention is to be assigned either to the intention of the Hebrew words and the Greek words or to the intention of the real meaning behind those words. No one will be talking with Moses or Elijah. No one can talk with Jesus. No one wants to talk with Virginia Woolf. No one will be worried with his own writing either, with his own intentions for anything he wrote, with the plurality of those intentions of his, with what he intended by writing that of of his, with his intentions of the sure and real meaning behind his of even if he is one who (like Noam Chomsky) intends for his English preposition of to be “semantically empty.” No one will be worried with the intentions of the foreign-language translators of anything that he himself intended with his English writing. No one will be worried because each will presume his position of understanding, of under-stander of the real and only intention of each one of the others of the Bible, the writers of the Bible who are in most cases also the translators of writers with a multiplicity of intentions, some of which are yet to be revealed and recovered and discovered. No one will think of himself as foreign, or of the bible writers who are translators of foreign words as foreign.

And it will be only the occasional bible blogger (maybe also an intentional Top Biblioblogger) who will intend and then will intend again, and who will confess written intentions (hardly the final and singular last word) of this sort: “Sorry about that, … I was thinking of … I now note, ….”

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3 responses to “The Intentions of Better Bible Translators

  1. Rod of Alexandria

    Dr. Gayle for the win!

    “No one can talk to Jesus.”

    Certainly not in the past, but he still speaks in the present. 🙂

  2. Rod of Alexandria

    The problem with the Bible wars isn’t with the original scribes/writers of the biblical text. The problem is that the Bible wars are a primarily Americentric debate where Jesus, the Jews, and the rest of the persons described in the canon are examined and re-examined through an North American gaze uncritically without cultural pre-suppositions being acknowledged.

    • You said it eloquently: Bible wars are dumb. And this one is a real Yankee Doodle dandy. (When did the ancient skirmishes over the Septuagint begin? And when was Jesus first not a Jew?)

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