Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Doing Lectio Divina: the problem of translations

In my previous post I set out some general comments around doing lectio divina, and suggested that there are essential six stages in the process: read - think - study - meditate - pray - contemplate - work.

In this post I want to take start looking at the first of these stages, 'reading' the text, and particularly the vexed question of which translation to use.

In particular I want to make the case for at least taking a look at the Latin text even if you don't actually know any Latin (you will quickly pick it up!).

Reading was hard work

The first point to keep in mind is that reading, in late antiquity and medieval times, was hard work.  The monk was generally working in a second language - Latin - in which he might have varying degrees of fluency.

And the book he had in front of him wasn't easy to read even if he was fluent in the language. We tend to think of the nice clear, beautifully illuminated texts as the norm. In fact, however, deciphering most medieval books was a laborious process, constituting hard physical work.

It is pretty hard for us today to reproduce the effort that a person in earlier times went through to puzzle out the text and its meaning. Curiously, though, the internet does in a way allow us, at least potentially, to get a little closer to that experience than readers in the more recent past.

Take a look at a site like the Blueletter Bible for example. For each verse it offers multiple translations to compare, dictionaries of Biblical terms, a Greek/Hebrew lexicon which enables you to cross-reference word use to other Scriptural citations, background material on the text, maps, and much more. Working through your verse using some of these kinds of tools (taking due care with protestant commentaries however!) is not a bad place to start.

Reading in Latin?

I would also  recommend at least taking a look at (or listening to) the Latin.   If, of course, you attend the traditional Latin Mass, or say the Office in Latin, it is well worth looking at the Latin text as part of your lectio divina, so you can readily recognise it when you come across it used in the liturgy.

Even if you attend Mass in English though, there are still good reasons for at least starting from the Latin in terms of reading in the mind of the Church, in my view, even if your Latin is almost non-existent (at first!).  In particular, a lot of the nuances of meaning depend on the exact word or words being used, which can so easily be lost in translation.

You don't need to try and translate every word - what I'm suggesting is that you read (or listen to) the text in Latin first, and then work with a good translation, picking out key words in the Latin to explore further as necessary using a dictionary or through commentaries (there are some good resources available online, which I'll point you to).

Over time, you'll find you will build up a working knowledge of some key words, which you can then build on more systematically if you want to.

Personally I'd suggest working with (at least) two English translations: one very literal (such as the Douay-Rheims) and one that works harder to convey the meaning of the text.

As an aid to getting at the underlying meaning of the text, I'd particularly recommend the Knox translation, available on the New Advent site, but this is a matter of taste: the Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition) is also good in my view, and there are others.

Why its worth starting from the Latin (even if you have none!)

Why go to all that effort though?

The answer is that many words in Scripture have rich associations that can be gleaned from them, in part from how they are used elsewhere in Scripture, and in part from their consideration in the tradition.  These associations are all too often lost or obscured in translation.

Let me give an example using Psalm 3, which St Benedict specifies is to be said daily, opening Matins in his Office.  Verse 3 of the psalm reads, in the Latin Vulgate and the current official 'Neo-Vulgate':  Tu autem, Dómine, suscéptor meus es, glória mea, et exáltans caput meum.   The Douay-Rheims' fairly literal translation gives this verse as: But thou, O Lord art my protector, my glory, and the lifter up of my head.  

I want to focus in on just one word here, susceptor.

The word susceptor, from the verb suscipere, is quite difficult to translate into English, but extremely important theologically, attracting extended commentary on it by St Augustine among others.  It comes from the verb suscipere, to guard, protect, uphold, support;  receive, accept; to seize.

The first problem a modern reader faces is the differences between the Septuagint-Greek/Latin Vulgate and Hebrew Masoretic Text tradition: the received Hebrew text for this verse uses the idea of God as a shield rather than sustainer/helper.  Moreover, despite the fact that the official approved text is the Vulgate/neo-Vulgate, which uses the word susceptor, virtually all modern translations used by Catholics follow the received Hebrew text instead, as the following selection illustrates:

But thou, O LORD, art a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.
New American
But you, Lord, are a shield around me; my glory, you keep my head high.
New Jerusalem
But you, Yahweh, the shield at my side, my glory, you hold my head high
Grail Psalter
But you, Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, who lift up my head.

The Greek-Latin tradition on this is not an error or mistranslation though, but rather a systematic choice reflecting the distinctive theology of the Septuagint Greek, a monument of tradition that the Fathers generally viewed as a distinctive stage of revelation particularly meant for the salvation of the Gentiles.  Certainly the translations of the verse that reflect the Septuagint-Vulgate (and Neo-Vulgate) give it a subtly different flavour:

But thou, O Lord art my protector, my glory, and the lifter up of my head.
Yet, Lord, thou art my champion, thou art the pride that keeps my head erect.
But thou, O Lord, art my helper: my glory, and the one that lifts up my head.
New English Translation from the Septuagint
But you, O Lord, you are my supporter, my glory, and the one who lifts up my head.

Even so, if one only looked at the English even of these translations that follow the officially approved text, the underlying Latin or Greek could be anyone of several words.  Yet the particular the concept of God as susceptor is quite important in the tradition.

The theology of God as susceptor

St Augustine's take on the word points to the analogy of the Roman paterfamilias, who 'received' (acknowledged) his child, thus saving it from the fate of exposure.  He also explains it as a word used to mean a powerful man who takes up the cause of someone, or a doctor or lawyer accepting a case.   When God becomes our susceptor, in other words, he acts as a Father or powerful protector of us, someone who has taken our cause on as his own, and will work to sustain, help and heal us.

The monastic commentator Cassian (c. 360 – 435) took the discussion of its meaning a step further, for in Chapter 17 of his Conference 13 he discusses God's intervention in various types of vocation:

 "Hence it comes in our prayers we proclaim God as not only protector and Saviour, but actually as our Helper and Sponsor [adjuitorem et susceptorem] for whereas He first calls us to him, and while we are ignorant and unwilling, draws us towards salvation, he is our Protector and Saviour, but whereas when we are already striving, He is want to bring us help, and to receive and defend those who fly to Him for refuge, He is our Sponsor and Refuge.' "

St Benedict's contemporary Cassiodorus' commentary on the verse puts more emphasis on the idea of God as our 'sustainer', particularly in the ennoblement of the flesh through grace made possible through the Incarnation:

"Sustainer, that is, of the form of slave, since the taking up of human nature is the Word made flesh. So it is the flesh which speaks of its glory and the lifting up of its head, for the all-powerful Word assumed it so that the divine and human substance might be one Person without any admixture. This verse is relevant too to the confounding of the Pelagians, who believe that man can by his own efforts achieve something good; for who, pray, could be self-sufficient for performing good without abundance of divine grace? It is through grace by which it is united to God that human nature has taken its place at the Father's right hand."

St Benedict himself was probably alluding to all of these layers of meaning of the word when he selected the Suscipe verse (Psalm 118:114) for use in the monastic profession ceremony (it is worth noting that the phrase Cassian uses, adjutor et susceptor, appears two verses earlier in the stanza of the Psalm St Benedict drew the Suscipe from).

All of these layers of meaning, however, can be quite hard to glean from the standard translations of this verse, and others that use the same word.

Building up our reading knowledge

The first time you encounter a word such as susceptor, we won't of course, necessarily appreciate its importance.

But if you work with a good commentary, or anthology of commentaries (such as St Thomas' Catena Aurea on the Gospels) you will gradually build up a knowledge of some of these key words and phrases, and recognise them when you see them in another context.

So it is worth at least looking at the Latin in my view, and certainly looking at a few different modern translations rather than just relying on one.

And you can find the next part of this series here.

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