Translating Sacred Text: Can Poets Beautify the Language of God?

        Mary Sidney Herbert, Sir Philip Sidney, Amelia Lanyer, and John Donne all had to consider seriously the ethics/morals/aesthetics of translating sacred scriptures into secular verses.  Any religion grounded in a written text faces the problem of how to reproduce the sacred text without somehow falsifying its truth.  For instance, even modern scribes and others who labored to repair damaged hand-copied Torah scrolls regard them as so sacred that they in a sense have "life."  So strict are the rules for Torah manuscripts that when wear obliterates a certain percentage of a single letter or word, its sacredness becomes impaired and some rabbinical opinions declare that the manuscript must be buried in sacred ground.  Translation of the Hebrew into English, for instance, does far more than obscure a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, of course, so the ability to read and pronounce correctly at least a limited set of prayers in Hebrew is a basic requirement for most sects of Judaism I am aware of.  By contrast, most Christians do not consider themselves deficient if they cannot read the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts which are foundation documents of their faith.  Protestant Christianity, especially, incorporated translation as one of its rebellious foundation mandates. 

        Until the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation (C15-17), the Christian sacred text lived only in the Vulgate Latin translation produced by Jerome and other "Fathers of the Church," the first scholars and popes.  Jerome's translation was said to have been divinely inspired, so that it partook of the sacredness of the texts in their original languages.  This doctrine embodies the rule guiding one principle of translation: render a new text faithful to the spirit of the original text, rather than to its specific words.  Worshipers would have seen and heard only that Latin text in Chaucer's era, except for the small sect of followers of John Wyclif, the so-called "Lollards," considered heretics by the Church.  That was what the people charged Margery Kempe with because, although she was a woman untrained in Latin, she could recite and interpret scripture in English.  Luther and other Protestants forced the Church into open schism on a variety of issues, including the doctrine that universal access to the sacred text must be afforded all worshipers, whether they spoke Latin or not.  They inferred that, if Jerome could translate the Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek of the original into Latin, others could translate the Latin into the vernacular languages of Europe, including English. Some medieval artists who depicted Jerome translating would show that his interpretation of the original text was divinely aided by drawing the image of the Holy Spirit, the dove representing the third person of the Trinity, speaking into his ear.  Similarly, illuminations of Mary's hearing the angel Gabriel announcing her pregnancy with Jesus (the "Annunciation") sometimes show her receiving not only the angel's words, but also a Divine Message brought to her by a dove riding a beam of light from God's lips.  This draws attention to the difference from merely seeing the text (which any illiterate or bad interpreter can do), and understanding the text, which requires some kind of merging with the Author's thought.

            Sir Philip Sidney and Mary Sidney Herbert might have compared their translations of the psalms with the actions of those artisans who repair the Torah scrolls because they make the sacred text intelligibly visible to readers.  They also with those who create embroidered covers for the scrolls, or with the Medieval monks who drew images on sacred manuscripts to "illuminate" their messages, literally, to bring light to their "dark" meaning for the illiterate.  This view of translation, and of visual representation, assumes the artist can make beautiful the divine meaning.  Amelia Lanyer makes a rare secular invocation of inspired biblical transformation when she tells readers that the title of Salve Deus Rex Judeorum came to her in a dream, though she does not make the same claim for the work, itself.  Andrew Marvell and George Herbert specifically will be troubled by the implications of this assumption, though they will make great poems out of their troubled thought.  For what John Donne thought about interpreting God's word, see the excerpt from Expostulation #19, which the Norton editors title "The Language of God" (1279).