Sunday, December 04, 2005

Speak ye uncomfortably

I'm a lector at my church, and the passage I had to read at Mass this morning was both easy and difficult. Easy, because it's one of the most famous and beautiful passages in the Old Testament: Isaiah 40:1-11, 'Comfort ye, comfort ye my people. ...' Unlike some of the drier paragraphs of St Paul, for example, you don't have to think about how to read this one expressively.

Yet it was difficult, because in the
translation used by the Catholic Church in this country, it isn't 'Comfort ye, comfort ye my people' at all; it's 'Console my people, console them.' Although I try to concentrate on the sense rather than the sounds, it's hard not to choke on lines like 'Let every valley be filled in.' (As Barbara Grizzuti Harrison once remarked, 'Try setting that to Handel.')

This would be easier to take if the modern translation were more accurate than the King James version, but that isn't always the case. Take the phrase I just quoted (better known to music-lovers as 'Every valley shall be exalted'). The Jerusalem Bible's version is a direct translation from the Septuagint (πασα φάραγξ πληροθήσεται), but I would have hoped that in the 21st century we wouldn't still be translating Hebrew scriptures via a frequently inaccurate Greek version. The Hebrew contains nothing to justify the Jerusalem Bible's translation. The word for what is going to happen to the valleys, נשא (which is used here in a passive form), means 'to lift up' (physically) or 'to exalt' (in status); it never means 'to fill in.'

The Jerusalem Bible's translation takes a description of a miraculous occurrence (who but God can 'lift up' a valley?) and turns it into something man-made ('filling' valleys is what sleazebag coal companies do in Appalachia). It also ignores the metaphorical meaning of נשא and destroys the parallel with the mountains and hills in the next part of the verse (שפל, which the Jerusalem Bible accurately translates as 'be laid low', can mean either 'be lowered physically' or 'be humbled').

Although this translation doesn't seem to have come from as far out of left field as
'mother' for τροφός in 1 Thessalonians, it is none the less ugly and misleading. Things like this make me wonder why the Church has used the Jerusalem Bible for so long.


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