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“Translation is interpretation.” I’m pretty sure someone else said that first, but I can’t recall who. In any case, I say it to my students in almost every class, especially “world literature” and medieval lit, in which they often read (or want to read) translations from Old or Middle English.

A few months ago I posted about the controversy over the translation of the so-called “Gospel of Judas.” This week the Chronicle of Higher Education reviews and updates the whole story, and the four scholars most involved with translating and publicizing the ancient text: Bart Ehrman, Marvin Meyer, Elaine Pagels, who contracted with the owner of the manuscript fragments, National Geographic, to translate it and participate in a highly publicized documentary about the text, and April D. DeConick, who questioned the results:

These discoveries filled her with dread. “I was like, this is bad, and these are my friends,” she says. It’s worth noting that it didn’t take DeConick months of painstaking research to reach her conclusions. Within minutes, she thought something was wrong. Within a day, she was convinced that significant mistakes had been made. Why, if it was so obvious to her, had these other scholars missed it? Why had they seen a good Judas where, according to DeConick, none exists?

Maybe because they were looking for him. The first reference to the Gospel of Judas was made by St. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, in Against Heresies, written around 180. Irenaeus was not a fan of the Gospel of Judas, which he deemed a heretical text (though it’s not known whether he actually read the gospel or had only heard rumors about it). Until the Coptic manuscript surfaced in the 1970s, Irenaeus’ mention of the gospel was the only known reference. Irenaeus wrote that the gospel portrayed Judas as “knowing the truth as no others did.” It was an intriguing statement and suggestive of a more positive Judas.

DeConick thinks the translators were overly influenced by Irenaeus and read the gospel with his interpretation in mind. If you come to the gospel free of preconceptions, she argues, then it’s clear that Judas is evil and cursed, not holy and chosen.

Last week, the Chronicle reviewed a new translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, the first by a woman (a second will be published later this year), and also discussed the interpretive slants of other popular translations:

Our own recent, bloody history makes it easy to hear echoes in Virgil’s tragedy. That has made the Aeneid even more appealing to a post-Vietnam generation of translators.

“Particularly when you get meaningless wars like World War I, Vietnam, and Iraq, the legitimacy of death gets questioned,” says Richard F. Thomas, a professor of Greek and Latin and director of graduate studies in the classics department at Harvard University. “This is a poem that activates that question pretty well: Is Rome worth it?”

He points to a 1971 translation by Allen Mandelbaum as one that has been particularly popular with instructors “who wanted to get Virgil as a post-Vietnam poet.” That resonance has not faded. The cover photo on [Stanley] Lombardo’s 2005 version is a close-up of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, with the names of the fallen inscribed on black stone.

. . .

Richard Thomas . . . points to a phrase in Lombardo’s edition . . . “Without very much justification on the level of Virgil’s Latin but a great deal of justification from what’s going on in the poem,” he says, “Lombardo writes ‘shock and awe,’ which immediately takes one to more-recent events and sets one asking the question, Are we Rome?”

Seamus Heaney’s popular translation of Beowulf is now embedded in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, and although I and many other critics have praised its readability and poetic style, they’ve also noted that it’s not always very accurate. Heaney’s introduction to the translation discusses the many parallels he found to ancient Irish culture, which some think lead to a somewhat odd result. Tom Shippey critiques the pros and cons very even-handedly.

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