Monday, October 17, 2011

Translating God

St Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read, East Anglian 14th century altar frontal
Recently I spent the weekend in Florence in the company of my two translators, Andrea Sirotti and Loredana Magazzeni. It was fun. It was also an intellectual workout that left me zonked. It's probably something all poets should do however, even on their own: to go over poems you've authored, asking "What EXACTLY do you mean?" "Tell us in other words." "Why that word, not another?" "Why that sound?" "What is the nearest approximation in Italian?"

It was, in other words, a distillation of the process of writing: effortfully or inspirationally squeezing shut that gap between notion/feeling/image--and word. The translator tries to close the gap between new language and original language. The writer tries to close the gap between word and thing, and as such is also a translator-- she translates reality into language. Choosing a word is like choosing a house-- you need a structure the reader can walk into and inhabit; an atmosphere (smell, temperature, accoustics, colour) to persuade the reader they are experiencing something firsthand. Or perhaps it's more like wandering into a belt of weather. Or slipping into a silk dress. The language should only be 'beautiful' or noticeable in that it clings like staticky silk to the naked body of feeling. It should only clothe formally to enhance feeling's figure.

Translation is a big issue in all areas of life (military, diplomatic, legal etc etc). God has the biggest translation job of all time. His thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways. And you can be sure his language is not our language. Which is why the creationists and the literalists are pointlessly barking up the wrong tree of knowledge.

As a new Catholic I'm constantly amazed by the beauty of prayer and liturgy. I love that the bones of the Catholic mass were formed at the Last Supper in the sharing of bread and wine. That Christians in the 1st Century confessed and sang the sanctus, and were exhorted to "Lift up their hearts", just as we are today. Greek was the main language of the gospels, and the first language of the church. Greek was the original staticky silk robe attempting to cling to the naked body of Christ. Yet even Greek wasn’t the language used by Jesus at the Last Supper.

It was after taking communion this sunday I was struck, again, by the impossibility (as yet) of giving voice to the experience of receiving the living Christ in the communion wafer. I'm in the process of writing an 'apologia', an explanation of my recent conversion from vociferous atheist to Catholic, and I was struck, again, by the un-sayables; the un-knowables; the breadth, depth and shape of feeling that I experience when taking communion. It's a sensation that seems to defy even a poet's dextrous tongue. And I don't want to try to describe it here. What I want to enshrine is the human difficulty of describing an encounter with God in language.

Love: how do writers describe that truth and not resort to cliché?

Misery: how do we make a reader feel that without recourse to sentimentality and bathos?

Poets face these questions every day, and good poets overcome them.

The Liturgy has the greatest poetic challenge of all—to clothe and convey the presence of God. It has been said, of course, in lilies and burning bushes, and dark nights; it is said every day in doxologies and hosannas. Is it possible to use a modern metaphor? Does cliché exist in spiritual writing, or is it a question of genre?

The hermitage where I am poet in residence is Byzantine. The Byzantines haven't substantially changed their Divine Liturgys since they were first penned 1500-1900 years ago. For what it's worth, the experience of receiving communion in the cathedral of that language (even in its English translation) comes as close to the skin of God as you are likely to get. It contains the truth of the Eucharist: time eternal, saints and angels present with Christ:

...there stand beside thee thousands of Archangels and ten thousands of Angels, the Cherubim and the Seraphim, six-winged, many eyed, soaring aloft, borne on their pinions...

In its dazzling poetic engagement it comes closest to Truth: the Truth we can only shadow with language. Language used badly distances us from experience; but language used well allows us to re-enter experience, or know something better than before. I’m left with the greatest challenge I’ll probably ever face as a poet: how to describe my knowledge of the presence of God. As poets we can only be translators of deep and wordless truths. Or seek to be.



andrew bebb said...

Thank you Sarah. As an 82 year cradle Catholic and retired Theologian, I have only recently discovered your beautiful poetry by accident. I recall an old friend, Conrad Peplar o.p. saying that only poetic language can communicate authentic insight into the loveliness of God's presence. For myself it is important to experience Divine creativity not as an event in the past but as a continuing creative action in the present moment. Every little event is a Symbol or sacramentum or as the Greeks would say a mysterion of the Divine nearness. The real presence in everything mostly within ourselves.

Sally Read said...

Thank you, Andrew, Your words are very true. As a poet these are interesting times for me, and much of what I'm writing is prose. My poems, pre-conversion (my three books in effect!), sought to reveal the world's hard truths. Revealing even deeper truths is a new vocation.