Friday, January 29, 2016

When Biblical Translation is Kinda Weird

Translation is an art. In the Catholic Church in America, we use the New American Bible (NAB) translation at Mass (other English speaking countries use different translations). I've never liked it because the language, phrasing, and flow is just weird. 

Today's reading (from the 11th chapter of Second Samuel) is a great example of why. The word מִשְׁכָּבוֹ֙ is translated as "his siesta". Perhaps it's a word that while making sense to an American audience, is still far more jarring from even the most literal translation of מִשְׁכָּבוֹ֙, which could be "his lying down". In the context of the rest of the sentence and episode it simply means that King David was lazily lying down while his generals fought his battles in his stead, something David would never had done up until this moment. This brief line sets up the rest of the episode: this simple shirking of his most most basic responsibilities as King will cascade into a series of events where laziness becomes a wandering eye that sees him as a voyeur to a married woman bathing from a rooftop, seducing her and committing adultery with her, getting her pregnant, trying to cover it up by trying to arrange for her husband (a most loyal soldier of his) to sleep with her, and then having him killed on the front line when that fails to happen. 

That little line is crucial to understanding the precondition to David's behavior. His whole identity up to this point has been about loyalty, responsibility, courage, and fidelity to God. He betrays his most basic principals and paves a path away from them in a series of choices where each is more catastrophic than the last. At the end of it he will repent but he will still pay dearly. We can never avoid our responsibilities for very long and we shouldn't expect that things will go back to the way things were. Still, David will pick up the pieces and try again and try to earn back his nobility, something he never completely achieves. 

But "siesta" is bizarre by making a lateral move to another language. Both Old and New Testaments will use loan words but not here. By conflating the concept of the rest, the approximate time of the arising from the rest (which in Hebrew is simply "evening"), and the context of the rest, I think it confuses clarity and simplicity for the sake of economical phrasing. If I were reading an American novel written in English, the presence of the word "siesta" would usually lead me to pay attention to the cultural situation in the scene (I remember reading a Barbara Kingsolver book that did that very well). In this translation of the passage from Second Samuel, instead of pointing ahead to the rest of the story it seems to me that it's pointing out of the text. That can be valid but that doesn't seem to be the aim of the NAB (and, interestingly enough the revised edition of the NAB - not currently used at Mass - translates this part as "rose from his bed", letting "one evening" suffice in providing the context of the time of rest). 

I really hate this translation and wish we had a different one for Mass.