Saturday, May 8, 2010

Essay: The Bible as Translated Literature

Here is another essay I wrote for school. This one was written for my Bible as Literature class in the fall term of 2008. In addition to the Bible itself, I also reference Northrop Frye's The Great Code and Jaroslav Pelikan's Whose Bible Is It?.

Please note, its style is very casual because the professor wanted us to focus more on what we were saying than on things like smooth transitions.

I know I might be stepping on some toes here, talking about the Bible. I hope I don't offend anyone.

Translations, the story of Joseph, and then finally Judas

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The difficulty of translated literature is a nuisance I’ve come across before. It’s not always so obvious, and the reader may not realize how much they are missing out on in translated texts until they read something explaining what is missing from the translation. For example, I have read some of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” but I have not read about the differences between the original in French and the translation, so I did not really feel a sense of loss. (And anyways, the translation I read had lots of footnotes about the translation.) But in studying the Bible, and reading in Pelicans’ and Frye’s books about the translation, I am acutely aware of the puns and other subtleties which have been lost in the translation. And even though some of them have been called to my attention, I am sure there are many more not mentioned. And yet, I wonder if perhaps layers of a piece of literature can be uncovered through translation.
This has led me to reflect on the differences from when a story is “translated” from book form to another form, such as musical, opera, or movie. The many translations of “Les Miserables” to opera and movies come to mind, but there are others which are more relevant to the topic of this paper. One of them is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.” It is based on the tale of Joseph in the Old Testament. There are ways in which it is different, and has a different flavor, and yet it still gets at the heart of the story. For example, there is a woman narrator throughout the musical. (I find that a quite a stark contrast to the Bible, which is mostly male oriented.) Joseph’s brothers pull him out of the pit to be sold to slavers, rather than the slavers finding him in the pit. Mrs. Potiphar was caught in the act of trying to seduce Joseph, but it was misinterpreted as Joseph trying to seduce her. Despite these differences, and more, differences, it is still the same story, just told differently.
Ultimately, it seems that translating a piece of literature from one form to another is similar to translating from one language to another. It is impossible to keep the same nuances. For example, translating written word into music certainly gives it different nuances and textures. It is one thing to read about Joseph being unfairly thrown in jail by Potiphar, but it is an entirely different experience to hear him sing the lyrics “Close every door to me, / Keep those I love from me,” in the musical.
I also want to comment that it’s fascinating to hear the different translations of the Bible. In reading/listening to my assignments I stick to reading my King James translation of it (though there are also other translations around my house). In class, however, I hear other translations when people are asked to read aloud bits of the Bible. As with other translated literature, it is fascinating to read/hear different translations. In a way that’s almost an advantage over things written in my own language in that allows me a chance to read different interpretations of it, and it’s fun. The Bible is not the only piece of literature which I have encountered various translations of; I have also enjoyed numerous translations of Sappho’s poetry.
Abrupt subject change – the betrayal of Jesus. Jesus says that one will betray him, and he even says that it will be Judas. I wonder why Jesus said so. It almost seems like he was telling Judas to go ahead and do it. If so, then is it a true betrayal? This is a question I have been wondering about. Perhaps Jesus wanted Judas to do exactly has he did. After all, Jesus knew his death was near, and perhaps he simply wanted to get it over with. Maybe he was simply trying to “move things along,” so to speak.
It also seems that Jesus intended for something such as the crucifixion to happen, or at least suspected it. He says “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11) He goes on to explain that a “hireling” would run at the first sign of danger, whereas the true shepherd would stand his ground, and give his life if necessary, for his flock. That is certainly what Jesus did when he died on the cross. So perhaps Judas was doing as Jesus wanted him to, even though Judas likely did not realize it.


Debra She Who Seeks said...

If you like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, you should watch Jesus Christ Superstar too (if you haven't already). Both Lloyd Webber/Rice musicals.

Sarita Rucker said...

I watched Jesus Christ Superstar years ago and didn't really like it. Maybe I'll like it more now that I've studied the Bible and am an adult. Hmm...


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