The Dream of the Rood (Vercelli Manuscript)I’m a research junkie and a word nerd. When I was in graduate school, I spent a year researching one of the earliest Old English poems, “The Dream of the Rood.” The project began as a lexical analysis for a linguistics class, and what I discovered was that many words had multiple senses — and the available translations didn’t emphasize this. I ended up doing my own translation of all 256 lines. It was immensely rewarding to unfold levels and layers of meaning this way.

I then began studying the Bible with a concordance and would spend whole afternoons looking up every word in one verse. I felt like I was digging up ancient treasure. Word archaeology. I began to see an analogy between words and computer icons. The way you can click on something and it opens up a whole world you couldn’t have imagined before you clicked.

I’ve also read a couple of books by Neil Douglas-Klotz in which he translates various words of Jesus into the Aramaic that Jesus actually spoke, and from there into English. The result is quite poetic and illuminated. For instance, here’s an excerpt from his translation of the Lord’s Prayer:

Grant us what we need each day in bread and insight:
Loose the cords of mistakes binding us,
As we release the strands we hold of others’ guilt.

The other day I was doing evening prayer with the radiant little book, Celtic Benedictions, by J. Philip Newell. One of the verses was: ”I commune with my heart in the night, I meditate and search my spirit” (Psalm 77:6). In my New Revised Standard Version Bible, there was an alternate translation for “I commune,” which I read as “My music spirit searches.” I found this odd but inspiring. It took me a minute to realize that because of how the notes were laid out, I was reading it wrong. The alternate translation for “I commune” was simply “My music,” and for “search my spirit,” it was “my spirit searches.” So the verse would then read, “My music is with my heart in the night; I meditate and my spirit searches.” The New International Version translates this verse as “I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit inquired.”

Maybe all of this doesn’t excite you like it does me. I realize it’s this very sort of thing that confirms some folks’ rejection of the Bible, but, for me, it emphasizes poetic truth as what’s valuable over hard fact. There’s grace and mystery in it, not fixed formulaic answers.

Much has been made of what gets lost in translation, but I’m here to say that a lot can be found. When I research and explore this way I feel like I’m peering into a divine kaleidoscope. My music spirit searches, and finds communion in and with the words.

The image above of “The Dream of the Rood” is scanned from the only surviving manuscript, known as the Vercelli Book, from the medieval period.
(credit: image and text courtesy of the University of Oxford)

Susan Carpenter SimsSusan Carpenter Sims is a writer and collage-maker living in Taos, New Mexico. She writes a weekly column for The Taos News and blogs about her love of a historic local church at The Whole Blooming World.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

Editor’s note: Update (2010.07.14) A resourceful reader, Allison Boyd, helped us find her! The following entry was submitted by a guest contributor without a name or an email address. Rather than letting this lovely post go unread, we published it with the hopes that the author will recognize her or his fine work and contact us so we can give proper credit and adulation!

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Mistranslations are more common than not, especially when translating the Hebrew Bible into English, particularly when it is done by Christians looking for black and white in a world of gray. Joel Hoffman has written an excellent book on the deep meanings lost by mistranslation of the Hebrew Bible.

Yes, very interesting post. Thanks for sharing. Hopefully the original contributor will surface.

One caution in studying and doing lexical analysis is to be aware of what some call the illegitimate totality transfer fallacy, applying all possible meanings of a word to it in a given context. Lexicographers gather possible meanings based on usage in the wide-variety of contexts in which the word appears. To then apply all those meanings back on the word in a single context is then somewhat fallacious. Alternate translations, on the other hand, may arise in cases where the translator has a choice of either finding an appropriate idiom in the target language or translating the idiom literally. Joel Hoffman's new book And God Said has good thoughts on this.

The "Notes" section on Tumblr says that this was submitted by Susan Carpenter Sims.

Thanks Allison! This must be pretty new functionality (as in today or yesterday). I was looking at the notes section when I saw your comment. No "submitted by" was showing up; refresh and there it was. Voila! I appreciate you helping us out. Cheers.

I just wanted to thank you again for finding me!

Perfectly lovely! This piece expresses my thinking about religious texts and translations. New versions can bring deep insights and connections. Thanks for sharing!

your metaphor "divine kaleidoscope" says it beautifully---and is reminiscent of stained glass windows. Thanks for sharing Neil Douglas-Klotz's work---my next reading to do.

I second the editor's note that this post is lovely, especially how the author's examples show us "poetic truth as what's valuable over hard fact."
Sri Aurobindo, a great poet in his own right, makes this explicit (and poetically rendered) in his book The Future Poetry. He distinguishes between the purpose of prose and poetry. He says that if "the first aim of prose style is to define and fix an object, fact, feeling, thought before the appreciating intelligence with whatever clearness, power, richness or other beauty of presentation may be added to that essential aim, the first aim of poetic style is to make the thing presented living to the imaginative vision, the responsive inner emotion, the spiritual sense, the soul-feeling and soul sight." He notes that we are still in an age that values the intellect over intuitive vision, so there is a predominant value on thought in modern poetry. And poetry does not hold its rightful place of honor in our society. But he predicted a future intuitive poetry in which the poet would "make us live in the soul and in the inner mind and heart what is ordinarily lived in the outer mind and the senses, and for that he must first make us see by the soul, in its light and with its deeper vision, what we ordinarily see in a more limited and halting fashion by the sense and the intelligence."
I should add that for Sri Aurobindo the soul is a specific, unifying consciousness accessible at the center of the person (behind the heart), and not a vague idea or metaphor.

Wow! My name is Susan Carpenter Sims, and this is my piece. I just discovered that it was here because a resourceful reader found me on Facebook somehow. Thank you so much for publishing this!

Susan, it's pretty incredible how people lighten the load. Thanks to Allison Boyd for alerting us. And, thank you so much for sharing your writing. I've updated the post with your byline and biography. Cheers!

Thanks so much!

Read your work. Love it. Keep at it. Rev. Peter Panagore

“I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit inquired.”
I think that is awesome! Elegant-flowing like the soft breeze upon the wind chimes...wonderful!

I just want to thank everyone who's commented here for all your thoughtful responses.

Susan - I like this and am glad you posted it and am glad you were found. Thank you for giving me something to ponder tonight as my spirit searches.