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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Robert Alter's Narrative style

A couple of months ago our anonymous commenter - thank you Anon - mentioned the Five Books of Moses by Robert Alter, 2004. I read this review and was able to borrow a copy of the book and had even intended to post on the topic the next day. However, I was distracted.

Here is the passage from Alter which I chose then to demonstrate his narrative style. Gen. 2:4- 7.
    On the day the Lord God made earth and heavens, no shrub of the field being yet on the earth and no plant of the field yet sprouted, for the Lord God had not caused rain to fall on the earth and there was no human to till the soil, and wetness would well from the earth to water all the surface of the soil, then the Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature.
The literary quality of this translation can be appreciated by reading out loud "wetness would well from the earth to water all the surface of the soil." Alliteration, reproduced here, is a key element in the Hebrew scriptures. It is not a secondary feature of the text but a primary one.

When Alter uses alliteration and rhythm and imagery in his translation, he is not catering to the elite. Literary devices are not the exclusive domain of the educated class. Their identification and labeling might be, but an aesthetic appreciation of rhyme and rhythm is one of the first things that a child acquires in learning language.

When I read the text above, it felt natural and flowing as if the consonants were used as colours and chosen deliberately as they so often are in Hebrew. Alliteration is part of the nature and essence of the original text, not a peripheral characteristic.

Another innovation in this text is the use of 'human' as a noun. I mentioned this to a friend a few days ago, and she responded vehemently that 'human' could not be used as a noun. She is over 80 years old and so I have to ask you if this is acceptable today or not.

In the Concise Oxford Dictionary 'human' is listed as a noun and is synonymous with a 'human being'. In various internet dictionaries, some list it as an adjective only and others as a noun.

My own rationale for wanting to use the term human, or possibly human being, are as follows.

In many languages including Hebrew, Greek, Latin and German for starters, there is a word for man and a word for woman and another word for human. If English does not have a word for human then things get tricky.

In Genesis Adam אָדָם is the name of the first human. The English word 'man' came along at some later date, let's not worry about it. Adam, however, had a name which suggests that he was taken from the ground, adamah אֲדָמָה. So let us understand that the nature of the human is that he is gathered from the ground and she is of composed of compost. That is meaning of the word. (the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Eccl. 12:7)

It is true that a woman can understand the generic 'man' of the King James Bible and other literature belonging to our culture. A woman does not want to speak up and say that she would like to have the dumbed-downed version. So a woman will read what is there to read. But how should a woman write?

Can a woman write about how one must love their 'fellow man' and keep a straight face. Or would she feel hampered by the ambiguity and end up feeling ridiculous?

A woman might more easily write about her fellow human being, a human, a person, a friend. And is that a cultural agenda or clarity, plain and simple?

(Does she look to google for permission? I think not! However, I am used to great google tiffs and once started one myself with the microsoft keyboard guy. I didn't enter the comment zone on google results today but I have played those games before.)

Back to language and agendas. If we can't introduce a new form of expression into our language then we can't translate the Bible into English at all. After all, English did not exist in its present form when the scriptures were written. We either come to a full stop or we keep moving.

7 Comments:

At Mon Sep 11, 06:53:00 AM, Blogger J Hearne said...

Language evolves.

Even if it was "improper" to use "human" as a noun, I'd still do it because there is a clear and definite understanding of my use of the word as a noun. When I use it as a noun people will understand my use and my intention. That's all that is needed to call something a "word" as far as I'm concerned.

 
At Mon Sep 11, 07:57:00 AM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

The word 'human' clearly does gets used as a noun in all sorts of contexts. That's just a fact about the English language, and any dictionary that fails to acknowledge that is simply displaying ignorance.

However, sometimes it sounds much more natural to say 'person' or 'human being' or to change the syntax so the noun is 'anyone' or 'someone'. This is not because 'human' cannot be a noun but because using it as a noun suggests a contrast with other sorts of creatures. We can talk about what's true of a human as opposed to an ape. It seems strange to say that you went to answer your doorbell, and you discovered a human there. When you say that, it sounds as if you were expecting the neighbor's dog, an ogre, or aliens from another galaxy. Bible translations should use 'human' as a noun when it's natural to do so, but that isn't always the case.

 
At Mon Sep 11, 08:50:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Bible translations should use 'human' as a noun when it's natural to do so, but that isn't always the case.

That's perceptive, Jeremy. Nice comment.

 
At Mon Sep 11, 11:10:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I wrote,

Can a woman write about how one must love their 'fellow man' and keep a straight face?

Is there a way to rephrase this naturally without using a singular 'they', and not have the sense simply fall apart?

 
At Mon Sep 11, 01:31:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

A few rephrases (some may be bad!!!):

1. When writing about how we must love our 'fellow man', can a woman keep a straight face?

2. With keeping a straight face in mind, can a woman write about loving her 'fellow man'?

3. Can a woman (while maintaining her demeanor) write about loving 'fellow man'?

I'm not sure if these meet your requirements for rephrasing the sentence. These are, at the very least, food for thought "rephrases".

 
At Mon Sep 11, 02:22:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I would rephrase with "one's" in place of "their". That works in this sentence, even if it is not very elegant. Unfortunately it doesn't work in Revelation 3:20.

 
At Mon Sep 11, 03:16:00 PM, Blogger codepoke said...

Wooo! That version READS!

Who cares if it's proper! ... fashioned the human, humus from the soil ... is heady with the tang of freshly formed life. That's gorgeous.

And to think that the original Hebrew might really be alliterative and poetic like this?! How long have I had to suffer "the accurate meaning?" I have turned the earth before, and I know what that smells like. That smells good. It smells like life. It smells like hope, and a new beginning. Now, that's an accurate picture!

... formed man of the dust of the ground...

Come on. What does that smell like? It smells like an old closet. It smells like the great dustbowl that drove the Arkies to California in search of irrigation. Is that supposed to be more understandable? The words are simpler, but what little smell is left is hopeless. Those words leave me in the high desert in late August.

On the day the Lord God made earth and heavens, no shrub of the field being yet on the earth and no plant of the field yet sprouted...

I have never read this verse with power before, but it has power this way. I'm not making this up. This translation of this verse WILL make me reconsider the possibility that God created the heavens and the earth in 6 days, and not in 14 billion years.

... every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew ...

Shrubs and sprouts are things I want to touch and nurture. Plants that grew are just vegetation.

... wetness would well from the earth to water all the surface of the soil ...

Allllll those w's. So beautiful. It feels. The w's build up and kiss the s's, so that the thought naturally rolls like hope flowing from every pore of the planet to sculpt God's vision in emerald.

there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.

I cannot stop laughing long enough to type this. This is supposed to be a translation of the same text? Has this beauty been hidden from me all these years? Is the poetry really there, and the church has been bottle fed on this drivel for 395 years?

If the poetry is not in the Hebrew, I will go away disappointed. But if these evocative images have been there all along, and if I have subsisted on this sterile picture of the sprinkler system at the local high school, then I am going to be an unhappy camper.

then the Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature

I gotta get me some of that!

Forgive me for going over the top, but this translation is genuinely exciting.

Kevin

(And 50 points to Gryffindor for ... he is gathered from the ground and she is of composed of compost. :-)

 

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