Thoraxes like Cuirasses.

James Parker reviews David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament for the Atlantic:

In the beginning was … well, what? A clap of the divine hands and a poetic shock wave? Or an itchy node of nothingness inconceivably scratching itself into somethingness? In the beginning was the Word, says the Gospel according to John—a lovely statement of the case, as it’s always seemed to me. A pre-temporal syllable swelling to utterance in the mouth of the universe, spoken once and heard forever: God’s power chord, if you like. For David Bentley Hart, however, whose mind-bending translation of the New Testament was published in October, the Word—as a word—does not suffice: He finds it to be “a curiously bland and impenetrable designation” for the heady concept expressed in the original Greek of the Gospels as Logos. The Chinese word Tao might get at it, Hart tells us, but English has nothing with quite the metaphysical flavor of Logos, the particular sense of a formative moral energy diffusing itself, without diminution, through space and time. So he throws up his hands and leaves it where it is: “In the origin there was the Logos …” […]

So what has he done to the New Testament, this bristling one-man band of a Christian literatus? The surprising aim, Hart tells us in his introduction, was to be as bare-bones and—where appropriate—unsqueamishly prosaic as he can. The New Testament, after all, is not a store of ancient wonders like the Hebrew Bible. It’s a grab bag of reportage, rumor, folk memory, and on-the-hoof mysticism produced by regular people, everyday babblers and clunkers, under the pressure of a supremely irregular event—namely, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So that, says Hart, is what it should sound like. “Again and again,” he insists, “I have elected to produce an almost pitilessly literal translation; many of my departures from received practices are simply my efforts to make the original text as visible as possible through the palimpsest of its translation … Where an author has written bad Greek … I have written bad English.” Herein lies the fascination of this thing: its deliberate, one might say defiant, rawness and lowbrow-ness, as produced by a decidedly overcooked highbrow. […]

A more rugged Mark, then, but not exactly “bad English.” For that, we must go to Hart’s version of Revelation, a book that is, he opines, “if judged purely by the normal standards of literary style and good taste, almost unremittingly atrocious.” Indeed his rendering of the first line—“A revelation from Jesus the Anointed, which God gave him, to show his slaves what things must occur extremely soon”—is quite aggressively maladroit. What things must occur extremely soon. The book as a whole, freshly ranty and ungrammatical, seems more of a schizoid pileup than ever. But even amid Revelation’s welter of imagery, Hart maintains his artistic intent, or at least a radically inspired pedantry. Look what he does with the metallic locusts of Revelation 9, the ones with long, womanly hair and wings that buzz and clatter like a charging army. “They had breastplates, as it were breastplates of iron,” says the King James Version. Hart, fantastically, instead gives them “thoraxes like cuirasses of iron.” Far more monstrous, far more strange. It’s the slurred half-rhyme of thoraxes and cuirasses; it’s the crunch of the ancient Greek against the prissy medieval French; it’s the sheer freaking oddness. […]

I hope I’m getting across the beautiful paradox of his New Testament—that it is simultaneously a kind of feline, Nabokovian modernist project, a meta-text in a matrix of eccentric scholarship, and a wild rush at the original upset, the original amazement, the earthshakingly bad grammar of the Good News. “And opening his mouth he taught them, saying: ‘How blissful the destitute, abject in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of the heavens.’ ” This is from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s gently administered program for pulling down thrones, decapitating idols, and jamming eternity into the present tense. Hart opted for blissful over the traditional blessed, he writes, because the original Greek, makarios, “suggested a special intensity of delight and freedom from care that the more shopworn renderings no longer quite capture.” So now we hear it, and are shocked by it: not the ambiguous benediction of blessed, but the actual bliss, right now, of destitution, the emancipation of everything being stripped away. It comes at us like white light, this generosity of emptiness, and because we’re not angels, we shield our eyes.

It certainly sounds intriguing, and I wouldn’t mind having a look at it, but the idea of rendering the quirks of the original in quirky English isn’t nearly as novel as Parker seems to think, and if you run with it you risk winding up with “La no reke hath she” (or even “Lodehead lodehead-brooking” if you run all the way off the field). Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. The desire to “recapture the awkward, multivoiced power of the original” seems admirable, but Hart’s “thoraxes like cuirasses of iron” translates θώρακας ὡς θώρακας σιδηροῦς. I can’t see any motivation for introducing “the crunch of the ancient Greek against the prissy medieval French” here.

    Would it really have been so difficult for Parker to find someone who can read Greek to comment on this rendering that he found so striking, rather than just comparing it against the KJV?

  2. John Cowan says:

    I am glad that someone has finally translated Revelation as it is written, viz. in a variety of Greek hitherto (and theretofore) unknown to science, or indeed to humanity.
    What is more, despite being an agnostic, I think his descriptions of Dawkins and Harris are exactly right (Dawkins should stick to biology and Harris to, well, I don’t know what), and as for Dan Brown, quant. suff.

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    He is indeed spot-on with Dawkins. The man’s ignorance of pretty much the entire tradition of philosophy is the particularly grating sort of ignorance which refuses to learn anything because he just knows that it’s all rubbish, so it would be a waste of his valuable time to investigate the matter. If I were an atheist I would be hoping that he might be converted so that I wouldn’t have to make any more excuses for him.

    Quibusdam, et iis quidem non admodum indoctis, totum hoc displicet philosophari.

    I doubt whether Cicero would think Dawkins doctus, however.

    Incidentally, I like the implication that True Religion opposes prescriptivism – by example.

  4. J.W. Brewer says:

    Ah, but why not “thoraces”? Which is not a mere learned affectation but was the more common spelling variant as recently (saith the google books n-gram viewer) as 1995. Or rather, the more Latinate plural is only a learned affectation because using the word “thorax,” whether singular or plural, is already a bit of a learned affectation, certainly in any non-entomological context.

    I think one thing that may be going on here is that several different translation strategies are being pursued simultaneously and they don’t necessarily all hang together. “Use an unusual/unexpected English word to render a common/unexceptional Greek word” — in order to jolt the reader out of an undue sense of familiarity and comfort based on exposure to prior translations of the same Greek text — is a coherent strategy with whatever pluses and minuses it has, but it does not necessarily mesh well with “translate bad (or informal/colloquial) Greek as bad (or informal/colloquial) English.”

  5. David Marjanović says:

    Hart opted for blissful over the traditional blessed

    …That’s how it’s always been done in German: selig, not gesegnet.

    He is indeed spot-on with Dawkins.

    Attacking Dawkins over philosophy seems to me to be missing the point. Dawkins has a different problem, and that is the same as Pinker’s: he’s an upper-class twit. He takes everything easy because he’s not used to consequences for anyone; he throws out less than half-baked ideas just to open a useless discussion for, I suppose, the fun of it; when people’s background differs too much from his, he has trouble empathizing with them.

    Harris is just a straight-up xenophobic asshole, and has been so since before it was cool in the US.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    Dawkins has a different problem … he’s an upper-class twit.

    I wouldn’t disagree, but repellent people can (alas) be correct, so one cannot oppose their ideas simply by ad hominem arguments, no matter how tempting.

    I try to steer those who I care about who’ve fallen under Dawkins’ miasma in the direction of a better class of atheist (like Thomas Nagel): people who engage with the issues instead of loudly trumpeting that anybody who disagrees with them is a fool or a knave or both.

    I know nothing of Sam Harris, but I see from Wikipedia that he feels that useful information about religious belief can be derived from fMRI. This tells me pretty much all I need to know.

  7. Archbishop Makarios wasn’t a victim of nominative determinism. He was born Mouskos and chose the blissful name later himself. I see he’s died (actually 40 years ago but I missed it).

    Like global warming & elevator music nearly everyone hates Dawkins. At this stage only the few who like him should mention it, giving reasons.

    With respect, what’s the point of declaring yourself an agnostic? It’s merely stating the obvious, that no one knows. But that’s the reason there’s a discussion. Christians, atheists etc. make reasoned predictions about life after death, rather like a weather forecast. Agnostics shake their heads and say “No, we cannot possibly tell what the weather will be like. Anything could happen.” It’s true but uninteresting.

  8. John Cowan says:

    I am an agnostic because I am an infideist: I am constitutionally incapable of believing in a god or gods, and since I consider all arguments from reason for the existence of God to be fatally flawed, “the snow of ignorance remains untrodden” (Le Guin).

    Update: my original post suggested that I considered all arguments from reason on any topic to be flawed.

  9. Christians, atheists etc. make reasoned predictions about life after death, rather like a weather forecast.

    Really? Whatever definition of “reasoned” applies to a weather forecast has nothing to do with whatever “reasons” Christians and atheists allege for their various unfounded beliefs.

  10. Dawkins has a different problem, and that is the same as Pinker’s: he’s an upper-class twit.

    As The Kids say, “like”. It’s the attitude which I find makes him so unreadable (and which makes him so irresistible to some others). Stuck-up self-righteous atheists are not any more fun than ditto religionists.

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    what’s the point of declaring yourself an agnostic?

    I think T H Huxley’s point was proto-positivist: he didn’t describe himself as an atheist (which he plainly was, at least in my worldview) because he felt that the question of the existence of God was essentially meaningless, as being not susceptible in principle of a scientific answer in either direction.

    I get the impression that most people who self-describe as agnostic are not using the word in this sense, and different individuals evidently mean different things by it. Nagel (who calls himself an atheist) seems in fact to have a rather similar view to John Cowan. Some “agnostics” are probably just atheists being polite to theists – good for them! – and some just don’t see what the fuss is about and can’t see why they need to have an opinion at all.

    I suspect most believers are actually in the same boat as John Cowan far as their purely intellectual position is concerned. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who really believed in God because he was actually persuaded by logical argument or physical evidence that there must be a God. I myself agree with John Cowan that all arguments from reason are fatally flawed; though I suspect that the actual function of things like the Paley watch argument in Christian discourse has never been exactly what simple souls like Dawkins think it was. People don’t believe in God because of apologetics: that’s not what it’s for.

  12. January First-of-May says:

    With respect, what’s the point of declaring yourself an agnostic? It’s merely stating the obvious, that no one knows. But that’s the reason there’s a discussion. Christians, atheists etc. make reasoned predictions about life after death, rather like a weather forecast. Agnostics shake their heads and say “No, we cannot possibly tell what the weather will be like. Anything could happen.” It’s true but uninteresting.

    Well, to be fair, unlike a weather forecast, any predictions about life after death are going to be rather hard to verify (or indeed, in many cases, falsify).
    For the sake of a silly analogy, I guess we could talk about the weather forecast for Jupiter…

    Theist: “I believe it must be raining on Jupiter.”
    Atheist: “Haha, are you crazy? There’s no way it could possibly be raining on Jupiter.”
    Agnostic: “Are we seriously discussing whether it is raining on Jupiter? I guess someone could try to get a probe there and check, maybe, but until then it’s a bit of an irrelevant question.”
    Ignostic (the ideology I currently subscribe to): “It depends on what range of possible Jovian weather phenomena you are willing to count as ‘raining’. And incidentally, said phenomena are likely to have almost nothing in common with what we have on Earth, so this is a harder question than it looks like.”

    (Note: I have no idea whether any Jovian weather phenomena are actually generally accepted as a kind of rain – or, for that matter, whether we even know enough about Jovian weather to make that determination at all.
    I do know that it’s raining on Venus, and that it’s not raining on Mars, but I’m genuinely unsure about Jupiter.)

    [EDIT: sounds like Huxley was an ignostic…]

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    Agnosticism is not nearly so interesting as translating Greek into English, is it?

    I find the reviewer’s description of “cuirass” as a “prissy” word particularly odd. It’s a somewhat archaic word because armor (and thus widespread use of technical terms for different bits of it) fell out of common military use some centuries ago, but the worldview it calls to mind, where you needed to protect your torso to avoid being fatally wounded by people trying to kill you with sword or spear, is not what I’d call a prissy one. “Breastplate” seems to be more common in more recent English for Biblical references, often treated metaphorically, including for less military objects like the thingie with the Urim & Thummim that Aaron wore on his chest, while “cuirass” seems more common in non-metaphorical discussions of historical types of armor. But you can find an English translation online of some of the scriptural commentary of Augustine where “cuirass” is used in an allusion to 1 Thess 5:8, where “breastplate” is how the KJV renders “θώραξ.” (The Vulgate uses “lorica,” FWIW, which apparently could mean lots of different types of armor depending on context.)

    The broader problem here is that the Biblical text is making use (whether metaphorical as in Paul or more psychedelic as in John the Revelator) of a noun describing a physical object that was commonplace for the work’s original audience but is not commonplace today, and is only something you see in museums or picture books about the olden days. “Breastplate” or any plausible synonym sounds like a fusty old Bible word because its referent isn’t something we come across in our everyday life. But that, it seems to me, is our problem that the translator oughtn’t be trying to protect us from. The same is true of chariots and lots of other obsolete technology. Whatever word is used, I’m not sure that Hart using two different English words when the Greek uses the same word twice in close succession fits well with his overall claim about what he’s trying to do. If “elegant variation” was not the style of the original, why introduce it in the English?

  14. David Eddyshaw says:

    more psychedelic as in John the Revelator

    I recall an undoubtedly devout and orthodox young Scot once saying of the Revelation of John that “it would make a great cartoon.” (It sounds better in Scots.)

    I myself am far too dour to have agreed (or even smiled), but I did inwardly admit to myself that I could see what he meant.

    Someone must actually have done it. I don’t want to know.

  15. R. Crumb did a fine job with Genesis; I’d like to see his Revelation.

  16. J.W. Brewer says:

    Perhaps I ought to have used a more respectable and high-falutin’ word than “psychedelic.” Maybe “entheogenic” would fit the bill?

    I will admit that Revelation may be the one NT book I have not gone back to and peeked at in Greek since first doing so under professorial supervision 32 years ago (the professor giving us what I take to be the standard warning that John was doing things with his case endings and whatnot that would have gotten us very bad grades had we done them in our own Intro Greek classes, but despite that he was in the NT canon and we weren’t).

  17. David Eddyshaw says:

    he was in the NT canon and we weren’t

    Hard to top as a definitive put-down.

  18. J.W. Brewer says:

    I will assume that in an R. Crumb adaptation of Revelation, the mysterious word “maranatha” that the KJV translators didn’t know what to do with will be rendered in a rather loose translation as “keep on truckin’.”

  19. The Flaming Fire Illustrated Bible was an ambitious effort to illustrate every single verse in the Bible by the combined effort of volunteering minor and major cartoonists. Hundreds of participants provided illustrations for thousands of verses, which all ended up on the 404 heap of digital history. If you have the patience to dig through archive.org for surviving scraps, it will be worth your trouble.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    but repellent people can (alas) be correct, so one cannot oppose their ideas simply by ad hominem arguments

    That wasn’t my intent! Dawkins is right about a lot of things. 🙂 My point was “if we’re hating on Dawkins, here’s a better reason”.

    what’s the point of declaring yourself an agnostic?

    The audience. More than a few outspoken atheists, Dawkins included, will readily describe themselves as technically agnostic to an audience of philosophers: rather than having a metaphysical belief in the absence of deities, they don’t see a reason to think any deities exist, are therefore atheists for practical purposes and prefer to use that term.

    Agnosticism is not nearly so interesting as translating Greek into English, is it?

    That, in turn, can be less interesting than translating Hebrew into Lolcat.

    which all ended up on the 404 heap of digital history

    Gah!

  21. David Eddyshaw says:

    “if we’re hating on Dawkins, here’s a better reason”

    No, I think his philosophical illiteracy really is the point. His whole shtick is founded on basic philosophical errors. I’d think exactly the same if he were a paragon of reasonable and courteous debate. As I say, there is no law that means that boors have to be wrong, so that aspect is irrelevant (though embarrassing, I would have thought, to those of similar convictions but greater civility.)

    We’ve all been there. There are plenty of people on the other (my) side that I really, really wish would stop trying to help. It is sadly superfluous to name names. The list writes itself.

  22. Dawkins has a different problem …

    I try to steer those who I care about who’ve fallen under Dawkins’ miasma in the direction of a better class of atheist (like Thomas Nagel): people who engage with the issues instead of loudly trumpeting that anybody who disagrees with them is a fool or a knave or both.

    Um, confused student of atheism here. Most of the comments about Dawkins seem to me to be describing Hitchens. The latter is who aggresively calls people fools/knaves.

    The “problem” I see Dawkins tackling, as an evolutionary biologist, is biblical literalists/creationists, even in guise of ‘intelligent design’. He can’t help being upper-class. I can well understand, him being a trained scientist, his lack of empathy with those who think the world started 6,000 years ago. I can’t empathise with them any more than I can empathise with flat-earthers. And I’m the ‘umblest sort of lower-middle class.

    The lack of empathy arises from a total disagreement over what counts as evidence. There is indeed no hope of rational engagement with those who disregard the whole science behind carbon dating.

    An analogy: I as a non-smoker for years had to put up with second-hand smoke if I wanted to go to any social event. Complaining would have got me ostracised. As an atheist I had to put up with a presumption of religiosity/the beliefs and ‘traditions’ of Christmas (most of which traditions were Victorian, and all derived from pre-Christianity). So now the tables have turned: smokers huddle outside the social events; believers huddle in dwindling congregations; if god-botherers knock on my door I nowadays have no embarrassment in asking them why the Lord isn’t punishing those who take His Name to abuse little boys and girls.

    If Dawkins (or Hitchens) are not entirely au fait with a subject (philosophy) that is not their discipline, this is only balancing-up the claptrap I’ve put up with from priests in the pulpit and RI teachers, who seem to think themselves equally priviliged to pontificate outside their expertise — whatever they think that is.

  23. Stu Clayton says:

    Moar smartz, moar greefz [Teechurcat]

  24. Some random thoughts…

    Is it cool to first criticize Dawkins and Harris and then translate a book about them? They are two of the Horsemen after all.

    No mentioning of cuirass can escape a quote from W.S.Gilbert:
    This tight-fitting cuirass
    Is but a useless mass
    It’s made of steel
    And weighs a deal
    etc.

    I really don’t know how Logos is bad English. It’s hardly English at all.

    As for the Order of Obnoxious Atheists, at least they think that everyone they disagree with are the fools and the knaves in this life, but they are for complete equality after that.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    The “problem” I see Dawkins tackling, as an evolutionary biologist, is biblical literalists/creationists, even in guise of ‘intelligent design’.

    That’s part of why I agree that philosophy is beside his point. Where he fails hardest is when he talks about issues of society that are not closely related to religion (or biology).

  26. Order of Obnoxious Atheists

    I don’t see you calling out the Obnoxious Catholics or Anglicans/Protestants for their hating on each other, on homosexuals, on Jews, on Muslims, … I don’t see you calling out the Obnoxious Muslims for their medieval theocracies in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, …

    Is calling someone who doesn’t agree with your religion an “apostate” any better than “fool/knave”? Although I repeat, it’s Hitchens who does that.

    ‘Any better’? No a lot worse: atheists do not claim there is a benign being watching over the world; do not claim there is some Order/Institution representing that being; do not claim the Evils of those Institutions are defensible because of what they represent. The world contains both Good and Evil, but mostly indifference. It contains knaves, fools, the beneficient and the wise, but mostly something in between. Evolution has produced marvels but also much destruction. The ‘forces of nature’ likewise. The world is just as you’d expect if there were only small corners of rhyme or reason to it. Then the rationalisation against God is merely Occam’s Razor: in the absence of personal religious revelation, why introduce a Being that explains nothing and is having no visible effect in making anything ‘better’?

    “merely Occam’s Razor” (in the absence of evidence) is hardly something to get passionate about: then an atheist might well describe themselves as ‘technically agnostic to a Philosopher’. It is not of much moment. I can certainly say that if there’s a single God, it’s not the God that modern-day liberal Christians profess.

  27. J.W. Brewer says:

    Apparently Hart first ventured into translation a few years previously, publishing (with a co-translator) in 2014 the first-ever English version of the apparently-renowned-in-some-circles Analogia Entis (first published 1932) by the German Jesuit Erich Przywara (1889-1972). One review amazon has by an academic theologian I vaguely think I’ve heard of before praises the translation’s “highly readable English” as retaining all of the “nuances of the German original,” but without suggesting anything as wacky or novel about the approach to translation as the subsequent New Testament involves. Retaining the nuances of the German original requires such highly readable English chapter titles as, to begin at the beginning of the work, “Meta-Noetics and Meta-Ontics.”

  28. If I were to write about an obnoxious specimen of genus christianus, I would call them that. Or worse.

  29. Update: my original post suggested …

    Please excuse me, how does one change one’s own posted posts here at LH? Does it involve javascript? Is there a way to register and log in? I would much like to be able to clean up any ugly formatting mistakes and typos, and there doesn’t seem to be a preview. I would be grateful for directions to any posts explaining how to use the comment pit.

  30. You get a window in which they can be edited; after that you can e-mail me (or just ask in the thread) for something to be fixed. JC’s “Update” implies that he was unable to change his comment and thus was explaining what was wrong in a new one (I think).

  31. January First-of-May says:

    Please excuse me, how does one change one’s own posted posts here at LH?

    In principle, at the bottom of every comment you posted, there should be an “Click to Edit” link allowing you to edit the post text within 15 minutes from when it was originally posted (with a timer conveniently counting down the remaining editing time).
    I have, occasionally, not had this link appear; it might be a browser thing, a cookie thing, or a cache thing, but in any case it’s very uncommon.

    If the 15 minutes have already passed, you’re mostly out of luck – though apparently some people have managed to get their old comments edited by appealing to Steve directly.
    (Be very careful when doing that; I distinctly recall at least one case where a comment had already been permanently deleted by the time its author realized that they didn’t actually intend to delete that particular comment.)

    ETA: JC’s “Update” implies that he was unable to change his comment and thus was explaining what was wrong in a new one (I think).

    No, it’s clearly referring to the same comment it’s in. That was a busy time in the thread; he could well have been responding to something pointed out in a later comment, which then also got edited away.

  32. Ah! Very confusing. But yes, be careful what you ask for!

  33. Lars (the original one) says:

    @Øltanker, is that beer thoughts or a whole tanker ship of beer?

    Anyway, yes, I’m pretty sure the edit function needs ECMAscript to be enabled since it doesn’t reload the page when editing. I’ll look when I post this… Yes, a few bits of CSS manipulation and probably an innerHTML insertion when saving.

  34. Trond Engen says:

    I read it as a cross-Germanic pun.

    My father used to tell about when he travelled to Munchen as a young man and ordered Ein ôl, bitte.

  35. Lars (the original one) says:

    @Trond, that sounds likely. Nice one.

  36. Trond Engen says:

    There’s circumflexional evidence that I held down shift too early.

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