Friday, February 01, 2008

The Odd Translations of Garry Wills in "The Rosary"

I've been reading The Rosary, by Garry Wills, which is not a bad book, as far as the history and practice of the rosary are concerned. Nevertheless, the book is a little spoilt for me by the idiosyncratic nature of his New Testament translations.

Wills is a former Classics prof, and I don't doubt his control of the languages. Nevertheless, the phrase "lost in translation" might have been created for his versions. I'll just give a couple of examples, both from the Magnificat (Luke 1:48-55).

First, a word of explanation. Each saying of the Rosary is accompanied by meditation on a Mystery from the life of Christ, whether Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, or Glorious. The Visitation of Elizabeth by the Virgin Mary, which includes the prayer by Mary called the Magnificat, is one of the Joyful Mysteries, and so, as he does with each of the Mysteries, Wills provides an original translation of the relevant Scripture passage and a brief reflection.

In the King James Version, the first line of the Magnificat is "My soul doth magnify the Lord," which renders Gk. megalunei he psuche mou ton kurion. Even the most modern version does little to change this, with the NRSV rendering "My soul magnifies the Lord" and the NIV "My soul glorifies the Lord." The background is Hebraic; a similar phrase from Ps. 34:4 "O magnify the Lord with me" (Heb. gaddelu l-YHWH itti) is rendered by the Septuagint megalunate ton kurion sun emoi. A good Hebrew back-translation for Mary's utterance would begin tegaddel naphshi l-YHWH.

But this makes Wills uncomfortable; he quotes St. Augustine to the effect that "we cannot make [God] any greater than he is." And so he translates: "My soul expands toward the Lord." Now this isn't just fine as a paraphrase, it's inaccurate. The verb megalunein is not intransitive; and the Virgin isn't making a statement about her religious experience, she is praising the Lord. Stripped down to its denotative core, her statement means "I am praising the Lord," and the rest of the canticle follows in that intention.

Wills, having chosen the theme of "expansion," inserts it again in his translation of Luke 1:49a, which I always memorized as "he that is mighty has done great things for me" (Gk. epoiesen moi megala ho dunatos). But Wills renders this as "Power itself has expanded me." Again, this is not quite correct. The phrase "to do great things" is also Hebraic, reflecting Heb. 'asah gedolot (e.g., Psa 71:19; 106:21; Job 5:9; 9:10; 37:5). The reference is to miraculous, amazing works, whereas it is not clear at all to me what "Power itself has expanded me" means. Plus, "Power" is not an apt rendition of ho dunatos, which means "the mighty one, the powerful one," not an impersonal "Power" (for which he dunamis would be a better original). The original Hebrew might have been ki 'asah li gedolot ha-gibbor.

To be fair, not all of Wills's translations are this inept; but regrettably the clunkers are too many for comfort (although I do like the color reproductions of the paintings of Tintoretto). Those who are looking for a good book on the Rosary can probably do better.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Garry Wills, The Rosary (Penguin, 2005); Randall Buth's seminal article, "Hebrew Poetic Tenses and the Magnificat," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 21 (1984) 67-83, should be read by all NT scholars. He includes a complete back-translation.


Anonymous said...

Mary's soul does magnify the Lord. She carries the light of Christ within her, and such light carries power. Because Christ has shared his power with her, Mary now has a power of her own. The light of God always magnifies a person (that's why them there Saints have so many haloes). (At least, That's the Kathryn translation. I may have missed your point entirely -- I do have a tendency to do that.)

Jim Janknegt said...

Hi Ed,

I just finished a painting of the visitation for my Rosary series. I haven't read the Wills book.

Here is a link to it: