Friday, January 27, 2012

Sola Scriptura: Writing Against a Secular Doctrine

I am beginning work on what, if all the stars align, will be a major literary translation project. In short order, I am meeting with the author of the text. And I find myself at a bit of a giddy loss.

Most literary critics don't consider the intentions of the author to be a valid consideration within analysis; and for medievalists it's very easy. Our authors are eight or ten centuries dead; there's no chance I'll ever read an interview with Judah ibn Tibbon in the Times Literary Supplement in which he explains what really motivated the famous 1190 critique of his son that I happily spend my days analyzing. He's never going to be talking about his work on Oprah after being named her new book club author of the month. And he's never going to say anything while accepting a Pulitzer Prize that throws my previous analysis into total chaos. I will never be able to ask him what he meant by a tricky turn of phrase or an example of ambiguous diction. It's not hard to read sola scriptura because that's all there is. Even the prologues that talk about the theories of translation and writing and language are, by now, text, punto final.

 So  you can imagine that every fiber of my being that has been influenced by my training as a critic is shouting: "All you have is the text! The intention of the author is irrelevant! It is wrong and cheating and detrimental to ask him any questions about his work! All you may read is the text." I've always suspected I had a bit of an inner John Calvin; but even I am surprised by the vocal fortitude of this curiously secularizing Martin Luther I never knew existed in my psyche. My inner basic human being, though, the ruins of the Yale freshman who walked into the office of her Spanish literature professor, saw the full bookshelves and the framed manuscript page facsimiles and suddenly realized it was possible to make a living at the two things she loved best in the world — reading and writing — the remains of the human reader from whose head I sprang as a literary critic is dying to ask the author questions about how he understands the subject of his own writing and about his place within the text.

I don't know how I will handle this yet. I suspect that I shall keep our first meeting brief and translate the first chapter keeping careful notes of why I will have made certain decisions in certain ways and others in others and reserving the questions of my inner lay reader until I after I have rendered my own analysis — for that is all translation really is: Interpretation of a text by a congruent idiom. And with a concrete analysis in place, I can safely and deliberately take the postponed decision of how much to include of the author's intention as I revise and edit.

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