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Comparing translations

After completing a cycle of Torah with Targum Onkelos, this year I am going to try to complete a cycle with Peshitta and Septuagint as well, or 𝕾 and 𝕲, as BHS refers to them. Here is something I noticed in Genesis chapter 1:

In  verse 11 God commands the creation of trees:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים תַּדְשֵׁא הָאָרֶץ דֶּשֶׁא עֵשֶׂב מַזְרִיעַ זֶרַע עֵץ פְּרִי עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי לְמִינוֹ אֲשֶׁר זַרְעוֹ־בוֹ עַל-הָאָרֶץ וַיְהִי־כֵן

And in verse 12 the command is fulfilled:

וַתּוֹצֵא הָאָרֶץ דֶּשֶׁא עֵשֶׂב מַזְרִיעַ זֶרַע לְמִינֵהוּ וְעֵץ עֹשֶׂה־פְּרִי אֲשֶׁר זַרְעוֹ־בוֹ לְמִינֵהוּ וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים כִּי-טוֹב

Here are the two verses in English (old JPS translation):

And God said: ‘Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth.’ And it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit, wherein is the seed thereof, after its kind; and God saw that it was good.

Note the difference between the two verses that I have highlighted. This is picked up by the Midrash (Bereshit Rabba 5:9) as no mere verbal variation but as an incomplete fulfillment of God’s command by the earth, an original sin even earlier than Adam and Eve’s (explaining why the earth is also cursed in 3:17): God intended the trees to be literally “fruit trees” where even the tree itself was edible, but they only became fruit-bearing.

In the Septuagint the phrase is the same in both verses:

καὶ εἶπεν ὁ Θεός· βλαστησάτω ἡ γῆ … ξύλον κάρπιμον ποιοῦν καρπόν … καὶ ἐξήνεγκεν ἡ γῆ … ξύλον κάρπιμον ποιοῦν καρπόν

Rather to my surprise, neither BHK nor BHS mentions this as a variant reading. It could be just a harmonization by the translator, but it could also be a genuine variant text.

I checked The Biblical Qumran Scrolls: Transcriptions and Textual Variants, ed. Eugene Ulrich; (Brill, Leiden, 2010), and there is no corresponding variant listed there, but he does mention in the apparatus that it also appears in the old Latin version, Targum Neofiti and the Targum attributed to Jonathan.

Aramaic
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The One Book Meme

I don’t tag, but I like memes. I saw this one at Codex.

  1. One book that changed your life:
    We Have Reason To Believe by the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs.
  2. One book that you’ve read more than once:
    Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome.
  3. One book that you’d want on a desert island:
    Midrash Tanhhuma.
  4. One book that made you laugh:
    My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.
  5. One book that made you cry:
    Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein.
  6. One book that you wish had been written:
    A sequel to The Promise by Chaim Potok in which Danny makes aliya to Israel. I was at a screening of The Chosen where Potok spoke, and he hinted that he was working on this, but I might have misinterpreted him.
  7. One book that you wish had never been written:
    The Da Vinci Code
  8. One book you’re currently reading:
    Blue at the Mizzen by Patrick O’Brian
  9. One book you’ve been meaning to read:
    Stephen King On Writing

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Asterix the Linguist

The year is 50 BC. All Gaul is occupied by the Romans. All? No! One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders…

A lot of the charm of the Asterix series by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo comes from the way satirical projections of modern life (e.g. chariots on dual carriageways with service stations staffed by the Michelin man or the Rugby game in Asterix and Britain) are combined with very accurate and carefully drawn reconstructions of the first century B.C.E. For example compare this illustration of Olympia from Asterix and the Olympic Games with this reconstruction.

View of Olympia

However, occasionally they make a slip. In Asterix and the Black Gold a few pages after a similar aerial view of Jerusalem closely based on the model at the Holyland Hotel, we see Asterix and Obelix walking out of the mediæval Lion Gate. And what does the sign on this Phoenician ship in Asterix the Gladiator say?

Phoenician ship

I only recently noticed that and realized that the sign is intended as Phoenician script. Here is a closeup from another panel:

Sign on Phoenician ship

The letters are rosh, yod, tau, or in Hebrew transcription רית. (Phoenician is not yet encoded in Unicode, but according to the current beta of Unicode 5.0, they will soon be 𐤓𐤉𐤕).

Since the ship comes from Tyre, I am guessing that the authors intended the sign to be the name of its home port, and tried to transcribe “Tyre” into Phoenician, from left to right. In fact, the Phoenician for Tyre is צור or צר (‎𐤑𐤓 in Unicode 5.0), and should appear something like Tyre in Phoenician

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Jewish Book Week II

Thanks to Hagahot, I picked up the bargain of my life today: the Magnes Press facsimile edition of Gershom Scholem’s own copy of the Zohar.

According to the introduction Scholem bought this Zohar in 1915 when he was 17, and it never left his desk for the rest of his life. At some point when the margins were too full of his annotations, he had it rebound with blank pages interleaved, and he went on to fill most of those with annotations as well, and also stuffed the volumes with notes on separate sheets. The whole lot is reproduced in the facsimile, six fat volumes weighing in at 10.3 kg.

And this was going for ₪185, about $50 Canadian, or less than the list price of one volume of the Pritzker Zohar.

Let’s look at one of the annotations, on something which puzzles me in the very first paragraph of the Zohar, which I had been meaning to blog about if I had found a good answer to my question:

There are a lot of numbers in that paragraph: two colours in the rose (which represent justice and mercy), thirteen petals (which represent thirteen measures of compassion), five leaves (which are five gates and which are symbolized by five fingers holding the kiddush cup).

These numbers are hidden in a “figure/ground” kind of way in the first verses of Genesis: if you take the occurences of God’s name, אלהים, and count the words in between them, you get:

בראשית ברא — 2 
את השמים ואת הארץ והארץ היתה תהו ובהו וחשך על פני תהום ורוח — 13
מרחפת על פני המים ויאמר — 5 

So far I follow. But then in the last line we get another number appearing out of left field:

וכמה דדיוקנא דברית אזדרע בארבעין ותרין זווגין דההוא זרעא. כך אזדרע שמא גליפא מפרש במ”ב אתוון דעובדא דבראשית

And just as the image of the covenant sows that seed in forty-two couplings so the engraved, explicit Name sows in forty-two letters of the Work of Creation.

Which forty-two letters are those exactly? The commentary I linked to above has a few suggestions, but none of them really seem to me to fit the description “forty-two letters of the Work of Creation”. Because of the “couplings”, I tried to work out a theory that it was a calculation of the number of possible pairings of the seven days of the week (or the seven lower sefirot), 7 × 6 = 42 but never came up with anything totally convincing.

So let’s see what Scholem says:

מ”ב זווגים (צ”ל גוונין?) דהיינו לב אלהים + י’ מאמרות

First, he suggests emending זווגין, couplings, to גוונין, colours, and then he explains 42 as the sum of 32 times that אלהים occurs in the whole chapter plus the “10 sayings”, i.e. the 10 occurences of ויאמר אלהים, “and God said”. (Actually there are 9 but let’s not get sidetracked. There are several ways of resolving this difficulty, trust me on this.)

He then points to an earlier work that lists the 32 occurences of אלהים, Sha’arei Orah (I think this is by Yosef Gikatilla, an important Spanish Kabbalist from a generation or two before the first appearance of the Zohar), and then there is a note in German which I can’t really read and wouldn’t be able to understand if I could (the notes are mostly in very clearly written Hebrew, interspersed with quite illegible German), but I can at least see that it points to a parallel passage on page 30a. Turning to there, I see more notes pointing to two more parallel passages …

… and so it goes on. This clearly doesn’t represent anything like a systematic course on the Zohar, but it’s a huge resource of information, and a great acquisition, and did I say it was a huge bargain?

Books
Hebrew language and literature

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Jewish Book Week

I stopped by the Jewish Book Week on the way home. It’s the first day, so I’m still comparing prices and looking at titles and haven’t bought anything yet. One title really made my mind boggle: חכמי טרנסילבניה, The Sages of Transylvania. I wonder what they were studying. I didn’t open it, because I thought it would be an anti-climax, but wouldn’t it be great if there was a section on ולד הטומאה?

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Five things about books

Blog meme time (thanks to Talmida).

Total number of books I’ve owned.

No idea. How do you count? Do multi-volume sets count as 1 or the number of volumes? I have a lot of those. The total is certainly more than 1,000, probably less than 10,000

Last book I bought.

A dead heat between Travels in Hyperreality by Umberto Eco and The Bible and the Sword by Barbara Tuchman, from the very cool bookshop in Shatz Street.

Last book I read.

Started or finished? I am reading the Tuchman book in my commute and the Eco book in bed. The last one I finished reading was The Picturegoers, David Lodge’s first novel.

Five books that mean a lot to me.

I will write down more or less the first five I think of. I am sure I will think of others and regret not being able to include them.

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth.

Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Yes, I know it’s geeky, but what do you expect?

Borges’ short stories.

Souls on Fire by Eli Wiesel. Money quote:

Two men separated by space and time can nevertheless take part in an exchange. One asks a question and the other, elsewhere and later, asks another, unaware that his question is an answer to the first.

The Once and Future King by T. H. White, especially The Book of Merlin

Tag 5 people and have them do this on their blog

No.

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VIZZINI: I’m waiting

Last January I
read
that someone had discovered an annotated edition of Beowulf with translation by no less than J. R. R. Tolkien, and that it was “scheduled for publication this coming summer.”

I’m still waiting.

Being an unashamed intellectual snob and show-off (what my ex-wife would have called a “tadas mocka”), I prefer for myself to read Beowulf in the original, but I would like to be able to recommend to friends a translation that goes some way towards conveying the atmosphere of the poem as well as just telling the story, and I have high hopes of Tolkien in this respect.

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I read Golden Gate by Vikram Seth this week, a book I have been keeping an eye open for for years, and was not disappointed. When I read An Equal Music a few years ago I thought it was one of the best books I had read for a long time (although I later found A Suitable Boy impossible to digest).

Golden Gate is a rare tour de force: a novel in verse. The whole book, including the Acknowledgments, Dedication, Table of Contents, and endnote about the author, is written in fourteen line sonnet-like stanzas with a strict meter and rhyme scheme. There is no sign that these constraints have done anything to inhibit the author’s freedom or expressive power.

Here is a beautiful example, describing one of my favourite places, the source of the book’s title, and also of this site’s colour scheme:

They park the car by the Marina.
The surface of the cobalt bay
Is flecked with white. The moister, keener
October air has rinsed away
The whispering mists with crisp intensity
And over the opaque immensity
A deliquescent wash of blue
Reveals the bridge, long lost to view
In summer’s quilt of fog: the towers,
High-built, red-gold, with their long span
—The most majestic spun by man—
Whose threads of steel through mist and showers
Wind, spray, and the momentous roar
Of ocean storms, link shore to shore.

It is an interesting coincidence that both the books by Vikram Seth that I have enjoyed so much have been about places that I have been familiar with. In An Equal Music almost every location, especially Kensington and Venice, was resonant with my own memories, and Golden Gate is set in my new home, the San Francisco Bay area.

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I’m sorry that I returned Antoine de Saint-Exupery’sThe Wisdom of the Sands to the library without having read much of it. I found it difficult to get into, I don’t know whether because of something in the book itself or because of defects in the translation.

Chiefly though, it isn’t really a book to take out of the library, read through and return after three weeks. I would like to have had it around for a few months and dip into it from time to time when feeling thoughtful, not race through it on the bus to and from work where I do most of my reading, which is fine for unwinding with a thriller after a long day’s hard concentration, but an injustice to a book full of ideas like this one.

I took the book out in the first place because Matthew Thomas pointed me towards it on IRC as the source of something I have been misquoting for years:

La perfection est atteinte non quand il ne reste rien à ajouter, mais quand il ne reste rien à enlever. [No translation will be provided this time, chiefly because every translation I’ve seen is lame. If you care, find out!]

The trouble with the book is that it has no particular structure. It is full of fascinating gems like that, which you could remove from the frame story and turn into an excellent common-place book, but the frame story itself never seems to get going nor to lead anywhere. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a totally superficial judgement on my part based on a very sketchy reading, but I (arrogantly) blame the book itself for not drawing me in to a less sketchy reading.

The parts that made the most impression on me were those where he talks about giving and receiving. Not so much the frequently-quoted “when you give yourself, you receive more than you give,” as the concept that in order for you to give, there must be someone to receive. This is not so frequently quoted &mdash I can’t find any page on the internet with the exact text, and the point is a subtle one.

There is a difference between giving and meeting demands. The worst thing that one partner can do in a relationship is to cross that thin line between receiving a gift and demanding a service. Saint Exupery compares this kind of relationship to prostitution — you can’t give a prostitute anything, you can only supply her with the payment that she has earned.

If there is a doublet of this post below, it’s because I haven’t worked out how to cancel a blogger post with errors in it. Grrr.

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