We all know these words as "Exodus 33:11." They are amazing and wonderful words to me for far too many reasons to enumerate here. Let me discuss just one. And eventually narrow the discussion to just one word.
It is not that this particular Bible verse casts aspersions on all its translations. It's not, I'm suggesting, that this bit of text is glorious in some way that will, as my fellow blogger John Hobbins insists, absolutely "show you that you have no chance of understanding the fine grain of the biblical text unless you know the original languages, and know them well." Nor is there any hint of some categorical insistence, as is that insistence of John's, that "All extant translations of the Bible fall short of the glory of the original."
Rather, one reason these very words are incredible is that they themselves are a translating and an invitation to further translating.
Don't they render as rather rough "the fine grain" of "understanding" and of "knowing well"? Don't they point to distance for any "original" observer of Moses or of God? Don't they highlight the unobtained vantage of every "original" reader of anything Moses ostensibly ever wrote? Even more here and now, don't they point to the fact that John and I (and even you) stand outside those Hebrew scriptures of so long ago and far away as we read them (- as you MUST read them - John would have no trouble quickly adding, as a human might quickly command a sitting dog to "Sit!", though not necessarily intending the ironic ambiguity of his imperative command)?
An approximate insider to this verse will humbly add this kind of footnote:
"11. And the LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow. These two idioms for direct communication cannot be literally true because the burden of what follows in this chapter is that no man, not even Moses, can see God's face. The hyperbole is in all likelihood a continuation of the visual perspective of the people so clearly marked in verses 8-10; as it appears to the Israelites from their vantage point in front of their tents, Moses conversing with the pillar of cloud is speaking to God as a man speaks to his fellow.
Joshua son of Nun, a lad. . . . the Hebrew na'ar here reflects its not infrequent sense of someone in a subaltern position. . . ." (page 503)
The near insider who writes such a note is Robert Alter, a Jewish translator of and commenter on The Five Books of Moses. There are plenty of places where Alter finds a translation more compelling than the traditional (i.e., closest to the "original") text. For example, in one note, he adds:
"The [Hebrew] Masoretic Text is not really intelligible at this point, and this English version [i.e., the English of Alter] follows the Septuagint [Greek translation] for the first part of the verse, which has the double virtue of coherence and of resembling several similar parallel locutions elsewhere in biblical poetry." (page 289)
Now, I do recognize that many Jews have trouble with the Septuagint principally because it's a translation of the Hebrew. For instance, former blogger Iyov (whom some of us miss very much for, among other things, reminding us of our goyish perspectives on things Jewish) once started a post this way:
"Biblical translations are often a cause for great sorrow. Famously, the Rabbis compared the completion of the Septuagint to the making of the Golden Calf (see minor Talmudic tractates, Sefer Torah and Soferim. The Talmudic view speaks only of the translation of the Pentateuch into Greek, since other books of Tanach in Greek are not considered to be the Septuagint, see the Letter of Aristeas, or Megilla 9A. The latter reference is particularly interesting since it enumerates many flaws in the Septuagint.) Soferim 1:5 explicitly declares, 'The Torah cannot be perfectly translated.'
Indeed, the Septuagint as we have it today goes to great length to point out that translations are not to be relied upon -- thus we read in the prologue to Sirachus (Ben Sira):
I'm not really trying to go back and forth between disputing practices or views. However, I do want to get back to those Hebrew words at the top of this post. And, I'd like us to consider them and how they open up translating. Alter reads them as "hyperbole." And he rushes us readers (whoever we are) forward to Exodus 33:23, which he in part translates and comments on as follows:
'What was originally expressed in Hebrew does not have exactly the same sense when translated into another language. Not only this book, but even the Law itself, the Prophecies, and the rest of the books differ not a little when read in the original.' (NRSV)"
"23. you will see My back, but My face will not be seen. Volumes of theology have been spun out of these enigmatic words. Imagining the deity in frankly physical terms was entirely natural for ancient monotheists: this God had, or at least could assume, a concrete manifestation which had front and rear, face and back, and that face man was forbidden to see. But such concreteness does not imply conceptual naïveté. Through it the Hebrew writer suggests and idea that makes good sense from later theological perspectives: that God's intrinsic nature is inaccessible, and perhaps also intolerable, to the finite mind of man, but that something of His attributes--His 'goodness,' the directional pitch of His ethical intentions, the afterglow of the effulgence of His presence--can be glimpsed by humankind."
Never mind that Alter can't seem to restrain himself from using words like "effulgence" or from the merely male sense of God and humanity made, male and female, in the divine likeness. Alter has to imagine not only the Hebrew words of Moses but also his translation - Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow - as hyperbole. The original language, like its translation, must be hyperbole: "These two idioms for direct communication cannot be literally true because the burden of what follows in this chapter is that no man, not even Moses, can see God's face."
What the Hebrew words focus on is how יהוה spoke with משה. When Moses or his narrator wrote this in Hebrew, there was immediately a transposition. But more there was a rendering. What, really, is the original?
Once we allow that it's not just Joshua or the other Israelites watching who are getting these words in translation, then Pandora's box has opened. Why can't the Jews back in Egypt (Alexandria, Egypt, that is), why can't they translate as beautifully the fine grain of this speaking?
And they do. The original Jewish rendering of their Hebrew into their Greek as Exodus 33:11 goes something like this:
καὶ ἐλάλησεν κύριος
πρὸς Μωυσῆν ἐνώπιος ἐνωπίῳ
ὡς εἴ τις λαλήσει
πρὸς τὸν ἑαυτοῦ φίλον
εἰς τὴν παρεμβολήν
ὁ δὲ θεράπων
Ἰησοῦς υἱὸς Ναυη
ἐκ τῆς σκηνῆς
(Brenton makes that into English as this:
"And the Lord spoke
to Moses face to face,
as if one should speak
to his friend;
and he retired
into the camp:
but his servant
Joshua the son of Naue,
a young man,
departed not forth
from the tabernacle.")
What is incredibly important here in this Torah translating is that the translators aren't just rendering the unspeakable יהוה as κύριος but, rather, that neither the Hebrew nor the Jewish Greek fills in the silences. (Anne Carson won't fill in Homer's μῶλυ, his "language of the gods," either.) The outsiders, the lurkers and eavesdroppers, are left to do all that.
What is incredibly important here in this Torah translating is that the translators aren't just avoiding words with rhetorical erotical political correctness. (Although they do plenty of that).
What is incredibly important to me is the word φίλον instead of πλησίον. Suzanne McCarthy's already noted that the latter doesn't have to mean "neighbor" as in Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself. And she's added that it can mean "mate," "companion," and "fellow human."
The LXX translators rather consistently translate the Hebrew word רע (rea`) as πλησίον. Alter consistently translates the Hebrew word as "his fellow" and as "fellow man."
But here is φίλον. It's as familiar, as intimate, as a Greek kiss. And is equally as womanly as manly. Not suitable, in fact, only for "fellow men."
Listen to Plato's tenth muse, the lyric poet Sappho (as translated by Edwin Marion Cox):
she speaks of Helen's "dear parents"
parents from whom Helen "was led astray
And to a man, perhaps a handsome man,
perhaps her dear brother, she says
"Face me, my dear one...
and unveil the grace in thine eyes."
Στᾶθι κἄντα φίλος,....
καὶ τὰν ἔπ᾽ ὄσσοις ἀμπέτασον χάριν.
"Lato [the mother of Apollo and Artemis]
and Niobe [the Theban woman murdered by Apollo and Artemis]
were most dear friends."
μάλα μὲν φίλαι ἦσαν ἔταιραι
And she wonders,
"For if thou lovest us,
choose another and a younger spouse,
for I will not endure to live with thee,
old woman with young man."
᾽Αλλ᾽ ἔων φίλος ἄμμιν [ἄλλο]
λέχος ἄρνυσω νεώτερον
οὐ γὰρ τλάσομ᾽ ἔγω ξυνοίκην
νεῳ γ᾽ ἔσσα γεραιτερα.
She expresses longings:
"I love refinement and for me Love has the splendour and beauty of the sun."
Ἕγω δὲ φίλημ᾽ ἀβροσύναν, καὶ μοι τὸ λάμπρον
ἔρος ἀελίω καὶ τὸ κάλον λέλογχεν
She asks him, the beloved betrothed:
"To what may I liken thee, dear bridegroom?"
Τίῳ, σ᾽, ὦ φίλε γάμβρε, κάλως ἔικάσω;
And in her Hymn to Aphrodite, there are these three last(ing) stanzas, a reply from the goddess about another lover (with Anne Carson translating):
and what I want to happen most of all
in my crazy heart. Whom should I persuade (now again)
to lead you back into her love? Who, O
Sappho, is wronging you?
For if she flees, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them.
If she does not love, soon she will love
Come to me now: loose me from hard
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish. You
be my ally.
κὤττι μοι μάλιστα θέλω γένεσθαι
μαινόλᾳ θύμῳ, τίνα δηὖτε πείθω
μαῖς ἄγην ἐς σὰν φιλότατα τίς τ, ὦ
καὶ γάρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέως διώξει,
αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ ἀλλά δώσει,
αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει ταχέως φιλήσει,
ἐκ μερίμναν ὄσσα δέ μοι τέλεσσαι
θῦμος ἰμμέρρει τέλεσον, σὐ δ᾽ αὔτα
So there's God speaking, the one with the unspeakable name, the invisible one appearing, to Moses. We overhear, eavesdropping. We look from a distance, lurking. The translation Moses leaves them is רע rea` - as an intimate familiar lover. The grain is not any less refined for the inexpert readers, hearing φίλον.
We might call this as much "interlation" as "translation." We might "know" it as much as an "untranslating," the way Ruth Behar's editor declares (in English only): "Ruth's classic ethnography, Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza's Story, has just been untranslated into Spanish as Cuéntame algo aunque sea una mentira: Las historias de la comadre Esperanza with Fondo de Cultura Económica in Mexico."
In either translating (whether Hebrew or Hellene), the "knowing" may not necessarily be "understanding" - but is nonetheless a profound and a profoundly close "knowing" of those who love.