Sunday, September 14, 2014

Wordplay in Isaiah

I have heard, on several occasions, that some of the beauty and eloquence of Elder Neal A. Maxwell's talks are, to some extent, lost in translation. His carefully constructed choice of verbiage provides poetic expression that capitalizes upon the nuances of the English language. When his words are converted into a foreign language, apparently much of the intended wordplay does not carry over, and as such, appreciation for his sophisticated use of the language seems lessened, if not lost.
Isaiah was similarly highly-skilled in his writing abilities. When we often hear that Isaiah is difficult to understand, part of that difficulty comes with the inherent loss of his masterful artistry of language that is lost through translation. The intended message may become indecipherable in English. Margaret Barker demonstrates some of this wordplay in Isaiah that illustrates this point in a subtitled, "Echoing texts," in her The Hidden Tradition of the Kingdom of God:

More elaborate examples are found throughout Isaiah, showing that the style was ancient. A sophisticated pattern is woven through the opening oracle of judgement, based on the fallen angels, the foundation myth of the Enoch tradition. The same myth appears in Psalm 82, so there is no doubt that it was part of temple tradition: the heavenly beings, 'elohim, were the sons of God Most High, sang the psalmist, but they rebelled. They had neither knowledge nor understanding, and would fall and die like mortals. Isaiah used these images in the opening oracle against the fallen and rebellious sons of God who had neither knowledge nor understanding (Isa. 1.3). Then the wordplay begins. 'The ox, šor, knows its owner, qoneh', is very similar in sound to 'the prince, śar, know his begetter', qoneh being the ancient title for El Elyon in Genesis 14.19. The ass, amor, sounds like komer, priest, and 'ebus, crib, is like jebus, the ancient name for Jerusalem. Beneath the familiar text can be heard another message: 'The prince knows his father and the priest of Jerusalem his master.' The ideal is contrasted with the reality, and that is the point of the oracle. What follows is multiple wordplay: the prophet condemns a sinful (ote') nation, which sounds like a visionary (ozeh) nation. They are a people heavy with iniquity (kebed 'wn) or honoured with wealth (kebed 'wn) (wordplay found also in Hosea 12.9, English 12.8). They are the offspring/seed of evildoers (mere 'im) or from seers (mero 'im). They are corrupted (maśitim) sons or anointed (mešuim) sons.
The intended message is certainly lost in translation, as the either/or construct based on homophones does not carry the equivalency into the English language. Thus, the English reader would never catch that the condemnation of a sinful nation being the offspring of evildoers, could just as well be inferred that if they had been righteous, they would then be a visionary nation being the offspring of seers. Part of understanding Isaiah, I suppose, includes attempting to understand what is meant beyond the confines of the English language.

No comments:

Post a Comment