The appeal of the idiosyncratic

Preparations for teaching have brought me into contact with two new translations: Robert Alter’s rendering of Genesis and Joe Sachs’s version of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Though the underlying texts could not be more different in style and genre, I think that the impulse behind the two translations is similar: to cut through a translation tradition that has impeded understanding, but more than that, has rendered the texts in question boring.

It is a gesture that I find profoundly attractive, a kind of “Protestant principle” of translation. Part of the appeal is probably the individualism of it, which sits well with someone like me, since I flatter myself that I have “charted my own way” without accumulating an approved pedigree. More than that, though, I think the attraction of this kind of radical retranslation is the sense that it’s not just possible to say something new about some of the most commented-upon texts in the Western tradition, but to see them again for the first time.

Genesis, for instance, is obviously one of the most familiar texts in the world to me, and yet Alter’s translation made it feel brand-new. I can’t say I’ve studied Aristotle anywhere near as closely, but the contrast between Sachs’s translation and the jargon-laden near-nonsense I struggled to work through before could not be clearer. I now want to read every translation both authors have done of their respective body of texts — which is especially striking in the case of Sachs, since I’ve previously had no particular interest in Aristotle.

Do others know of similarly iconoclastic translations of other major works?

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10 Responses to “The appeal of the idiosyncratic”

  1. Hill Says:

    Just scanned through The Five Books of Moses. I will be buying this.

  2. Chris Says:

    Joe Sachs also did the Republic recently I think…I just came across a translation of the Bible called “The Message//remix”…I don’t know if it’s actually a new translation or a paraphrase of existing translations. I leafed through it, it seemed to fluctuate between being annoying (as the title implies) and reading pretty well, but I just looked at it briefly…it seems to have a lot of stuff like “‘What are you talking about?’ said the Pharoah.”

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I always thought it was a paraphrase of the NIV, but the wikipedia page says it’s a translation directly from the original languages. It’s such a loose translation that I think it’s still fair to call it basically a paraphrase.

    I personally think The Message is bullshit and that it takes things in the exact opposite direction that is necessary — too chatty and “relevant.”

  4. Chris Says:

    Shit, I was just going to post some of the quotes from the wiki page but anyone interested can just follow your link above…hilarious.

  5. Chris Says:

    I didn’t see anything bathetic when I leafed through it, which frankly is what I was looking for. But I can’t help myself, this is from the Lord’s Prayer:

    You’re in charge!
    You can do anything you want!
    You’re ablaze in beauty!
    Yes. Yes. Yes.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    That’s the kind of idiocy that makes me think it’s a little “much” to call it a direct translation.

  7. Hill Says:

    It’s things like “The Message” that make me long for the good old days of censorship.

  8. Rob L Says:

    The above quote urges me to reply, “that’s what she said”, but I should refrain from such juvenalia.

  9. Shanana Says:

    The Message surely has it’s place–I usedto be very down on it and still shudder a bit at his rendering of some passages in the Gospels, but one can’t fault Eugene peterson’s quality of scholarship or the epic scope of the work. The “remix” only has the verses put in the pages, otherwise is exactly the same translation.

    As for best idiosyncratic but valid/high quality modern translations, have a look at the Bible in Scots (perhaps just New Testament?) by William Lattimer of St Andrews University. Absolutely breathtaking. Very gritty, earthy, working class. Love it. Makes Jesus sound like the carpenter he was without dumbing down.

  10. Ben Says:

    I liked Ted Hughes’s translation of the Oresteia, which I was trying to read for Badiou related purposes and this made it ‘readable’ for me. (Actually dislike Hughes as a poet, so this was a surprise)


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