Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Mini Rant Set off by an Ancient Jewish Poem of Thanksgiving

Nostalgically, I grabbed my worn-out copy of Biblia Hebraica off my bookshelf this afternoon and started flipping through it. Then I realized that I had placed a bookmark at the location of poem #136 in the collection of ancient Jewish poetry known by its Hellenized name, the Psalms. It's a thanksgiving poem. And today is thanksgiving in the US. Uncanny. I still can't recall why I placed my bookmark there.

By the way, psalm 136 is a beautiful poem, but something about the repetition in it just doesn't appeal to me. I'm more interested in poems like Psalm 119 which is brilliantly acrostic. Now that's hard to compose. Repeating the same sentence over and over in the same poem? Not so much.

Regardless, let's get back to #136.

As any competent translator will tell you, nothing presents more difficulty than the task of rendering poetry from one language to another. The task of translation is already extremely challenging. In fact, show me a translator who finds his/her job easy and I'll show you someone who stinks at what s/he does). Subjecting one poem structure used in one culture and language group to another poem structure used in another culture and language group requires a skill which, well, I'd say, nobody has. If you want accurate translation of a poem in its entirety, the structure goes out the window. If you want to preserve the poetic appeal of the original poem, the translator almost always has to take poetic license, in which case dynamic translation becomes necessary and literal translation not only impractical but utterly impossible.

And that's perhaps why if you ask anyone well-versed in classical Hebrew, they'll tell you that the translators of the Septuagint (LXX) which is the Greek version of these Jewish sacred writings kind of messed it up.

The sentence that is repeated throughout #136 is כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ which says, for/because his (i.e. YHWH's) "hesed" is forever. We'll come back to hesed in a moment.

The LXX has rendered that Hebrew sentence thus: ὅτι εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ. Literally, it means, "for/because his mercy [is] forever."

The Greek word used to render חסד (hesed) is ἔλεος (elelos), the word that Hebraists will tell you is too general, too weak, too insufficient to convey the meaning of something so deep and relationship-focused as hesed. "Loyalty" or "covenantal loyalty" have been suggested as a better translation. Even so, it's still not quite accurate. Hesed is a loaded word carrying with it tons of historical and religious significance, and "mercy," it's been pointed out, is merely a tiny, tiny part of this covenantal loyalty which the main deity of the ancient Hebrews, to and about whom this poem is written, has with his people.

Why, then, is the suggested translation not more prevalent among the various English versions? Given what we know about western civilization, which language has more chances of influencing/reaching the masses? Not classical Hebrew. Which version of the psalm reached far and wide into the world? Not the Hebrew version.

Hence the feeling that this is not right, that a culture or a language group is misrepresented. This may not represent one of the cases that are considered big deals—and this whole thing may seem trivial to many—but I figure it's kind of a big deal to the misunderstood.

Which brings me to something that has bothered me for nearly two weeks now.

I don't know why this bugs me so much. It happened a long time ago; and by this time people know better than to reconstruct the history of Thailand based solely, or even heavily, on the various accounts of western visitors who perceived things through their western lenses.

An outsider's view is not a bad thing. Not only is it not bad, it can also be very useful in providing a perspective you don't have as an insider. An outsider's view is bad only when the outsider is not aware of—or, worse, will not acknowledge—the limitations of his/her view or the possibility that it could be skewed due to various factors. An outsider's view is particularly bad when the outsider commits a preventable gaffe of making assertions without proper and thorough verification with respectable sources.

For example: "Having no corn, they supply its lack by cakes of rice," said François Henri Turpin of the Burmese, in Histoire naturelle et civile du royaume de Siam (1771).

The Burmese ate rice because they lacked corn? Is rice what you eat when you don't have corn? Nothing personal, but shut up, Turpin. Oh, sorry, I was being rude. Shut up, s'il vous plaît.

But the screen shot above doesn't come from Turpin; it's an excerpt from a different book, Du Royaume de Siam by Simon de la Loubère.

In this excerpt, de la Loubère asserts that the Siamese in the 1600s called their king, "Pra Maha Crassat." The word, "crassat [sic]," says he, means "living" (vivant). Since "pra" generally means "god" ("according to the Portuguese," he writes) and "maha" means "big," de la Loubère concludes that "Pra Maha Crassat," the term used to refer to the king of Siam, means, "The Great Living God" (le Grand Dieu vivant).

O. Kay.

Although ... the Thai word for "king," กษัตริย์ (ka-sat), comes from the Sanskrit Kshatriya (क्षत्रिय) which means "warrior." And since Kshatriya is one of the four varnas in Hinduism which apply only to people, its semantic range can't possibly cover "god."

[Also, I can't figure out what led the guy to such a messed-up spelling, "crassat," which suggests he couldn't hear very well (for I can't imagine the Siamese collectively pronounced the word with the consonant cluster "cr/kr" in the first syllable). But this is a minor point compared to the previous one. It can also be corrected more easily.]

Regardless, De la Loubère "facts" aren't facts. The guy was wrong. And if he was wrong about objective, verifiable things, one wonders how wrong he might have been in the less verifiable parts of his accounts. But did his readers realize this? Unlikely. Did they have the ability or the curiosity to find out? Back then, probably not. The guy went to a foreign land where most of his readers had never gone to. He comes home with tales about that place and its people. He's now the expert among his own people. If De La Loubère had written a magazine article about the food/culture/lifestyle of the Siamese, his piece would probably won a few awards from a committee of people who couldn't/didn't bother to verify his "facts" too.

Did the Siamese have any chance of correcting those pieces of misinformation? No. They didn't speak the language spoken by de la Loubère's audience; they didn't know what was being said about them in the first place. And even if they did and tried to correct it, being from a non-dominant culture, they most likely wouldn't have a voice or a platform to do so. Some of them probably even noticed that people from the dominant culture had a tendency to believe their fellow countrymen, who looked like them and whose names rolled off their tongues more easily, than some foreigners from a faraway land.

Now I know why this whole thing about De la Loubère still bugs me today. It's precisely because this kind of thing still happens in the present time.