The Wing-Beat

I have read lovely phrases recently; e.g., in Franz Rosenzweig’s writings on the “literary and human aspect of the Scriptures” and on translating the Scriptures (he collaborated with Martin Buber on a new OT translation in the 1920s); first, his reference to the painters’ depiction of St. Francis’ halo (Latin nimbus) as an “aureole of light”, second, his metaphor about the deep spirit of translation.  After noting the “history of translation” starting with the translator’s attempt to achieve the essential meaning of the text despite its spirit being lost in the process, he wrote,

 “Then, one day, a miracle happens and the spirits of the two languages mate.  This does not strike like a bolt out of the blue.  The time for such a hieros gamos, for such a Holy Wedding, is not ripe until a receptive people reaches out toward the wing-beat of an alien masterpiece with its own yearning and its own utterance, and when its receptiveness is not longer based on curiosity, interest, desire for education, or even aesthetic pleasure, but has become an integral part of the people’s historical development. . . .”

[Franz Rosenzweig, His Life and Thought, 3rd ed., presented by Nahum N. Glatzer (Indianapolis:  Hackett, 1998), 257, 259.]  Emphasis mine.

I do still need to compare the passage with the original German, when I find a copy.  I wonder, did you think “oriole” when you saw the word aureole as I did?  Yes, they are related (aureolus=golden).  The passage above suggests far more than words, including Rosenzweig’s reverence for the Jewish Scriptures, what he called the “Only Testament.”  When I reflect on his conviction the Scriptures used words-beyond-words to reveal the proper relationship between God, Man, and World, I find his passage and its translation into English to have been inspired.

3 Replies to “The Wing-Beat”

  1. More on how people read scripture: preachers say it is a matter of whether the Scriptures read us, that is, whether the Lord of the Scriptures has a hearing in receptive minds and hearts. I, with Luther and Rosenzweig, say that a society’s Bible-reading habits show up in that society’s character–let me suggest in the way it regards, cares for the poor, the orphans, the widowed, the prisoner, the foreigner. Neither the Tanakh/OT or Jesus let anyone “off the hook” on those counts.

  2. Rosenzweig was saying more than that the two “spirits” joined as one in a new translation: the product good be for good or evil–that’s my way of saying it. For example, the Luther Bible became the basis (a leading basis?) for modern German; the case is strong for that. Rosenzweig and Martin Buber were preparing a new German translation of the Hebrew/OT Scriptures that would “make room for the Hebrew” as Oona Eisenstadt put it in a 2001 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. The gist of the effort was that modern, Protestant, Lutheran, German society left little room for the Jews, and the Bible most Germans read was one reason for it. Well, Herr Professor Rosenzweig, there is something to that, but to impute so much systemic Anti-Semitism to the Scriptures in a modern German translation is too great a burden to shove onto Doktor Luther, even if he pulled his own antisemitic weight (the greatest ones sometimes have compensating flaws). But Rosenzweig had a point: at least many Germans, including German Jews, had developed Bible reading habits (if they read the Bible) that ranged far afield from the gospel teachings or the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (Tanakh). Many people placed their highest Christian or cultural hopes in German imperialism and nationalism, and there was the potential terror. So what’s my point? It is that everyone and all groups sooner or later turn the Scriptures to their own preferred meanings and uses. The only antidote is to keep oneself turning constantly, faithfully to the LORD of Scripture. Rosenzweig and Buber translated so that modern, western Jews would change their minds and their reading habits as they read a new, modern German translation that resembled the Hebrew Scriptures in its meaning and force. And Rosenzweig had a point I think is true after all these years, that the Scripture translation most used in a Christian culture has dominant influence. That was true of the Authorized (“King James”) Version for the Protestant, English-speaking world, but no longer. (For Catholics it was the Latin Vulgate and its translation, and is it not true of Arabic culture and the Qur’an?) But look now at us with our multiple translations–our versions–and while we find great freedom in our textual choices, have we any more freedom in contemplating the will of the LORD? I believe the freedom is there should one seek it; I think few actually seek freedom’s depths as they might, the “oughts” and “habits” in which we move and have our being are so strong.

  3. At least one translation uses the term “genii” instead of “spirits.” Aside from changes in the way we use language, “genii” fits – genius is an ancient word referring to the essential spirit of something; usually we connect it with pagan conceptions, but not always.

Comments are closed.