Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Obituaries should be read by everyone. We already know that life can be stranger than fiction—although contemporary fiction goes a long way toward strangeness—but what we should also know is how fascinating obituaries can be. No wonder many readers of the New York Times begin their reading with them. After all, deaths are in a dead heat with taxes in inevitability and universality, so that every life, tersely summarized in an obituary, should be of commanding  interest and importance to any mortal.

Take the September 4 obit of (to quote the headline) “Rev. Eugene A. Nida, 96; Spurred Bible Translations.” Now I have a modest interest in the Bible as literature, but a greater one in Dr. Nida, who, I read, traversed the globe from pole to pole by plane, train and canoe to oversee the translating of Scripture into more than 200 languages.

Margalit Fox, the obituarist, points out that Nida’s efforts were to make the Bible’s language as accessible as possible in all those languages, including English, where the Good News Bible, possibly at Nida’s instigation, translated “Behold the fowls of the air” as “Look at the birds flying around.” That is certifiably colloquial, but surely less appealing than the King James version. The latter, by the way, owes much of its popularity to its English being archaic enough for exoticism, but not enough so to defeat comprehension.

Yet what is most informative, indeed instructive, about the Nida obit is its last paragraph, which concludes: “’I am sorrowful’ gets a variety of translations for tribes within a small area of central Africa:  ‘My eye is black,’ ‘My heart is rotten,’ ‘My stomach is heavy’ or ‘My liver is sick.’”

This gives us a lot to think about.  If there can be that much difference between adjacent tongues, does that not imply sizable differences between less neighborly ones the world over? To be sure most languages do not—naively or poetically—locate sadness in diverse parts of the anatomy.  Still, even without checking up, I can assume that “sorrowful” resonates differently from what I imagine as its counterpart in German and French Bibles.  It is peculiar even in English, as is “fowls of the air.”

How? Well, “sorrowful” has a literary, or perhaps romantic, aura that the commonplace, expectable “sad” would not have.  It suggests a Byronic hero going about (or flying around) in a showily melancholy state. A modern sports fan, for example, after his team loses, can hardly be described as “sorrowful.”

As for “fowls,” they mean to us chickens or ducks or geese, but certainly not pigeons and sparrows. We are inadvertently nudged to imagine the air around us populated by, say, hens and turkeys, the better to befoul us with bird droppings, but also, conversely, to provide the needy with easily available sustenance.

What this means is that foreign languages may well be more alien, less fathomable, than we realize. The moment another language waxes even moderately poetic like our pre-Nidan biblical English (never mind such difficult poets as Mallarme and Rilke, or, in reverse, Eliot and Pound), we find ourselves more left out than we might imagine.

Still, in Europe and America, thanks to education, travel and dictionaries, these differences have been reduced. But what about other parts of the world, where differences in language may intensify other kinds of difference into hostility and bloody strife?

I have no wish to exaggerate. Even within the same language there can be incomprehension and lack of tolerance. Most Germans read their classical poets—Goethe, Heine, George, Rilke—just as most French people read theirs—Villon, Ronsard, Baudelaire, Verlaine—and such delectable modern ones as the German Erich Kaestner and the French Jacques Prevert, without its making them more tolerant of their neighbor nations, or even of their very own Jews. Did it even keep so many Germans from becoming Nazis that they read, memorized and sang settings of beloved poems by Heine, a converted Jew?

What I really wonder about, though, is those contiguous African tribes. Now that they have, thanks to Rev. Nida, the Bible in their own lingo, does that make them better Christians? Better human beings? Does it stop their slaughtering one another even if they are as neighborly as Sudan and the just recently created South Sudan? It looks as though the confusions of the biblical Babel (which begat the English “babble”), though surely contributive to mutual intolerance in, say, Israel and Palestine, were not the only reasons for the deadly enmity. Does possession of, for all I know, well-translated Bibles in Syria, Libya and Iran make those countries, even intramurally, less murderous?

Alas, poor human nature—plagued by social, political, economic, religious as well as linguistic disparity—whose fault is it that you are so unnatural?


  1. That American literary oddball William Saroyan, who produced a number of works that have quite nicely stood the test of time, wrote a book toward the end of his life entitled OBITUARIES (1979). Every day of the year he read the New York Times obits and wrote a comment. Some obits included people he knew, others famous people he knew of, still others people he did not know at all but felt free to comment on. A strangely addictive book, though I don't remember if I ever finished it.

  2. "Did it even keep so many Germans from becoming Nazis that they read, memorized and sang settings of beloved poems by Heine, a converted Jew?"

    Those poems were not so beloved by Germans. Heine expressed boundless contempt for Germans and mocked German people and culture in so many ways. And so what if he was a 'converted Jew'. Karl Marx too was a converted Jew.

    And I resent how Jews are always written up as poor hapless victims who tried to do their best to get along with the goyim. In fact, no people have been as arrogant, irascible, and radical as Jews on both sides of the Atlantic.
    And it doesn't seem to matter that Jews and Muslims share the same God. Jews in the Middle East have stolen land from Palestinians and spit openly on Christians.

  3. "Israel is the Promised Land,"
    About that I don't care---
    The Zionists own Israel
    'cause they stole it fair and square.

    Like ev'ry nation's stolen,
    Wh'er by pillage or by sack---
    The conquered should accept it
    Or try hard to steal it back.

    The Palis they are trying,
    And the Mexicans them too---
    The kinder and the gentler
    'herit nothing but a loo.

  4. The French bible has (so my professor in medieval English history once told me) a charmingly sanguine (or is it phlegmatic?) rendering of the King James' "The Lord was wroth" in:

    Le Seigneur était très irrité.

    P.S.: In taking a look at the King James bible's passages where "wroth" is used, I came upon a delightful old preterite form of "chide" in Genesis 31:36:

    And Jacob was wroth, and chode with Laban...

  5. H. L. Mencken:
    "Whoever it was that translated the Bible into excellent French prose is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in France. Contrariwise, the men who put the Bible into archaic, sonorous and often unintelligible English gave Christianity a new lease of life wherever English is spoken. The Bible they produced was so unutterably beautiful that the great majority of men, in the face of it, could not fix their minds upon its ideas."

  6. Mr. Simon wrote:

    "What I really wonder about, though, is those contiguous African tribes. Now that they have, thanks to Rev. Nida, the Bible in their own lingo, does that make them better Christians? Better human beings? Does it stop their slaughtering one another...?"

    A good region to study concerning this question (and its implicit obverse, Does Islam make African tribes worse?) is Nigeria, where the northern half is Muslim, and the southern half is Christian. No doubt many of the Christian Nigerians are imperfect and indulge in various crimes and misdemeanors; but two facts are interesting in this regard:

    1) the Christian Nigerians have no problem with a certain common sociocultural custom: namely, that of male motorcycle drivers who works as "moto-taxis" and drive individuals (including individual women) around on various errands -- such as to the market for shopping, to school, or to work. The Muslim Nigerians, however, have been stamping out this practice by hook (official laws) and by crook (violent vigilantism) because according to Islam, women should never be with men (who are not related to the women) in any sustained close proximity, whether alone or in public, and certainly not in the filthy contiguity of riding on the back of a male motorcycle rider while holding onto his love-handles. Now, I thought Christianity was supposed to be irrationally puritanical; so how come it translates, in Nigerian society, into normal rational insouciance with regard to this (among other) practices?

    2) Nigeria has been plagued by violent internecine conflicts for decades, and it continues to this day -- but it is not a mutual conflict: the Muslim Nigerians have been far more violently belligerent, while the Christians have been largely defending themselves from the Muslims. As I mentioned, this problem has been going on for decades, indeed centuries. It is part of the ongoing Jihad against black Africans which Muslims have been waging for centuries.

    As Hugh Fitzgerald wrote, about one small installment of that perennial jihad that occurred in the 60s:

    During the Biafra War of 1967-1969, which was triggered by a massacre by Muslims of Christians, the entire Western world stood by and allowed the Muslims of the North to slaughter the Christian, mainly Ibo, south. These Muslims were aided by outside Muslims, including Egyptian pilots who strafed and bombed Ibo villages, killing tens of thousands -- without any opposition, anti-aircraft fire, anything.

    The war was brought on by the Jihad against the Christian Ibo and other Christian peoples of southern Nigeria by the Hausa and Fulani Muslims of the north (Islam itself was spread most recently in the 1804 Jihad declared by Othman Dan Fodio), and by the desperate attempt of the Ibo (Igbo) people to free themselves from Muslim aggression. Tens of thousands of civilians were murdered --- by the Egyptian pilots who repeatedly bombed and strafed them.

    But as long as Westerners continue to fit Muslim violence around the world into the template of "mutual conflicts" -- such as: the "mutual intolerance in, say, Israel and Palestine" (a curious locution for one side attacking in the name of genocidal hatred while the other side is defending itself reasonably) -- we will be letting Muslims get away literally with murder.