Andrea Scrima: Madeleine, you translate, write critical essays, and have been editing for Music & Literature for six years. Recently, all these areas of your expertise were called upon in a particularly rigorous way in preparation for a quietly sensational literary event: the publication of a mammoth portfolio of Swiss writer Peter Bichsel’s work in English translation. Can you tell us a bit about Bichsel, and what some of the difficulties were in producing this issue?
Madeleine LaRue: It did turn out to be pretty mammoth! How about I tell you, by way of introduction, about the first time I met Bichsel in person. He’d come to read at the Literarisches Colloquium in Berlin, the center of the grand old West Berlin literary establishment. It was November, it was dark and cold, and when he emerged at the back of the room and started walking up toward the stage, wearing the same black leather vest he’s been wearing for the past forty years, I think we were all a little worried about him. He was eighty-two then, and he looked exhausted. It had been a while since he’d been on such an extensive reading tour outside of Switzerland. He got to the stage and settled into his chair. The moderator welcomed him and asked how it felt to be back in Berlin—a simple question, a nice, easy opener. Bichsel still seemed tired, but as he leaned back and said, very slowly, in his lilting Swiss accent, “Ja, ja, Berlin,” his eyes lit up and he launched into a story about his first time in the city, in the early 1960s, and how he got caught in the middle of a bar fight with some people! Who turned out to be Swiss! And they all got thrown out onto the street together, and he’ll never forget it! And ja, ja, Berlin—and from his very first word, we all became like delighted children at Grandfather’s feet, totally enraptured, utterly unwilling to go to bed until we’d heard just one more story, pleeeease? And he himself became younger, full of life, charming and hilarious and genuine and profound. Read more »
Taking its cue from French politics, French experimental writing has always been a clubby affair. Unlike in Britain or America, where economic and political liberalism have encouraged writers to view themselves as individual talents engaged in private agons with tradition, in France, with a few notable exceptions, avant-garde writers have presented themselves as members of an organization, complete with founding documents, by-laws, regular meetings, and a leadership structure, in short, as citoyens of a mini-republic.
Founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, the Ouvroir de littérature potentielleor Workshop of Potential Literature, known by its acronym, Oulipo, is the longest-lasting experimental writing group in history. Oulipians marry two strange bedfellows, literature and mathematics, adopting and inventing rigorous formal constraints—most famously, the lipogram, in which the use of a certain letter is proscribed, and the n+7 rule, in which every noun is replaced by the noun that follows it seven entries later in a dictionary—to generate poems, novels, essays, memoirs and “texts that defy all classification.” From its ten original members, all but one of whom are now dead, the group has nearly tripled in size, “co-opting” (to use the group's official term) writers from Italy, Germany, the UK, and America. Although it has by no means achieved anything close to gender parity, five of its new co-optees have been women.
The Oulipo owes its longevity, in part, to its refusal as a collective to entertain any kind of political line, despite the avowed leftism of many of its members. In so doing, it managed to avoid the power struggles, excommunications, and splintering characteristic of the avant-garde movements that were fatally drawn into the orbit of French Marxism and Maoism. But its survival can also be attributed to the fruitfulness of constrained writing itself. The widespread availability of constrained writing techniques has enabled Oulipians to identify those who are working along parallel lines and co-opt them.
How could Joseph's brothers have plotted to kill him? Why would they, and why stop amidst a frenzy of murderous intent? Was fratricide common in biblical times? Surely the story of Cain and Abel, whether it is factual or not, appeared with some historical context in which jealousy led to unbounded anger, and before the perpetrator could regain his senses, the regrettable act was complete. Intentional killings—be they foolishly impassioned manslaughter, premeditated murder or political assignation—continue to occupy our fascination today. A few thousand years later, and we're not all that different. What can we learn from this ancient story?
Perhaps a reading of Genesis was meant, at least in part, to provide an opportunity to reflect on the power of envy before it was too late. What thinking person who read the Bible would choose to become Cain in his own personal narrative? Later in the Book of Genesis, Jacob's older sons manage to stop short of killing their brother, and while throwing him in a dry cistern and selling him off to slavery was nothing to write home about—indeed they did not tell their father what they had done—at least they spared Joseph's life.
My problem with the story was that the brothers' jealousy motive never really made sense to me. Ok, their father Jacob's thoughtless favoritism for a younger son not born of their mother would certainly breed some resentment, but even with the ‘coat of many colors,' and Joseph's self-aggrandizing dreams, the plot remained simply too thin to support a murderous rage… that is, until I understood a couple of key words in the Hebrew I was not able to understand in English translation. Once I saw what I had previously missed, there was no going back. The meaning of the sequence of events in the whole story fell into place.
“Meaning of Heb. Uncertain”
The footnote “Meaning of Heb. uncertain” appears dozens of times. In spite of all the learning, teaching and preaching rooted in the stories of the biblical narrative over the past few thousand years, we know that some of the meaning has been lost in translation along the way. How does one know when to be uncertain? Let's face it; in the Bible as in life, there may be much more uncertainty than we are comfortable admitting to ourselves. Ambiguity reigns in a world that is subject to multiple interpretation. Ancient Hebrew is so foreign to modern readers that there are simply many passages where the translation relies on interpretations, rather than on a verifiably definitive meaning of the text itself. There are many phrases where wordplay carries the deeper meaning of a passage, and the unfortunate reader of a translated text cannot even see the double entendre that may well be the literary jewel of a certain passage.
It should come as no surprise that we cannot easily render ancient Hebrew into modern English. It can also be difficult to render ancient Hebrew into modern Hebrew. It's not that the meaning of an occasional word is uncertain. The very fact that these words came to us via hand written text on parchment scrolls is enough to suggest that we might easily misunderstand some of the words and much of the context. We really ought to have a bit less hubris about our own abilities to grasp the meaning of the ancient past.
Translators are interpreters who make choices for less informed readers. Some of those choices render the text in ways that alter or limit the meaning of the original. This is even true when we look at contemporary texts translated from one widely used and easily understood language to another. How much more so, must this be the case when we read translations of ancient texts? From spelling and usage to grammar and syntax to style and circumstances, we have to accept that we can neither see nor hear the text in quite the same way it was seen and heard a few millennia ago, and the differences are not always clear.
Genesis 37; 1-2
Here is the King James Version (KJV) rendering of Genesis 37:1-2 “And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives: and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report.”
Here is the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) version: “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan. This, then, is the line of Jacob: At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, as a helper to the sons of his father's wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father.” In these and in many other Christian and Jewish translations, there are both subtle and significant differences.
I want to focus here on three key words. As I see it, they clarify the reasons for the intensity of the brothers enduring anger. They are: “na'ar,” “et” and “dibah.”
In the case of the word “na'ar,” both of the translations above and others completely miss a possible instance of double entendre. Simply by putting the accent on one syllable or the other, the word could either be the noun for ‘young person' or the verb for vocalizing an aggressive animal sound.* Take them together, given the possibility that the double meaning is intended, and we have young Joseph braying like a jackass or growling like a dog, barking orders at his older brothers, taking advantage of his privileged position in his father's eye's.
The preposition “et” could indicate that he is with his brothers, or that he is doing something to his brothers. It would be nice if Joseph was just a helpful lad, herding with his brothers, but it would be out of step with the rest of the story. Nothing else in the text supports that reading. It makes much more sense that he is he is 'herding his brothers,' as a simple reading of the Hebrew text suggests. He is treating them as they treat the animals, taunting and maybe even threatening them. He is lording over them, as his dream portends.
The report Joseph brings to Jacob is labeled “dibah,” which could mean ‘bad' (according to JPS) or ‘evil' (according to KJV.) If it is bad, is that because of the quality of the report or the way it was delivered? If it is evil, who is responsible for that? Is it a report on the evil brothers, or is Joseph the evil one, intentionally delivering a slanderous report? If the brothers found out that Joseph provided Jacob with an intentionally false report to increase his own standing in their father's eyes, this clearly strengthens the case for their resentment boiling into a rage.
Here is an alternate translation of the second verse of Genesis 37:
Joseph at seventeen years
was herding his brothers
with the flock
And he brays
at the sons of Bilha and Zilpah, his father's wives
and Joseph comes with an slanderous report to their father
יוסף בן-שבע-עשרה שנה
היה רעה את-אחיו
את-בני בלהה ואת-בני זלפה נשי אביו
ויבא יוסף את-דבתם רעה אל-אביהם
Fallen Hero Rising
Jacob does not see through Joseph's act until his favorite son dreams that his parents will bow down to him. At this notion Jacob becomes livid, finally castigating Joseph. It is no coincidence that in the next passage of the story Jacob sends Joseph into the hands of his brothers. It is a set up, and Jacob is the one who put it in motion. As the opening of chapter 37 indicates in a slightly ambiguous way, 'these are Jacob's issues,' implying perhaps both the progeny and the problems with which they must all contend.^
It is worth remembering that Jacob didn't ‘start the fire.' He inherited his contentious family relationships. His parents, Isaac and Rebecca, taught him to set up his brother. Later his uncle Laban set him up, tricking him into marrying Leah before Rachel, and making him work for fourteen years as an indentured servant. Jacob later returns the favor, tricking Laban into losing much of his flock. Tricking and trapping each other seems to be the robust and irresistible inclination of this family. It is what they do, over and over again.
All of the archetypal characters in the Book of Genesis follow this arc of rising to become the hero of the narrative for a time, until they fall to the depths of disgraceful behavior. But Joseph is a new type of hero, with the opposite trajectory. He is the first and only character in the Genesis narrative to get off to a despicable beginning and then rise above himself without falling from greatness. After Joseph is thrown to the depths of the pit where he is almost left to die, the story continues and of our fallen hero begins to rise. The rest is history, or perhaps not, but that is a subject for a different day.
* Think of an English word such as ‘kid.' Figuring our whether it means a young human or a young goat, or the verb to tease in a playful way, is all a matter of context. Another example would be ‘ram' or ‘buck' which could be an animal or an aggressive action. In the case of ‘buck' the word can also be a proper name or slang for a dollar. A young buck might ram a kid, and you might have to read that passage more than a few times to figure out who is who and what is going on.
^ “These are Jacob's issues,” The Hebrew word “toldot” is a plural that refers to things that have been born of other things, in either a literal or a figurative manner. 'Toldot' is alternately rendered in English as generations, lineage, history, events, etc.