A New Method for an Old Challenge

This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2013 issue of our newsletter, Logos.


By Jonathan S. Rose, series editor of the New Century Edition


If you put yourself in the shoes of a translator journeying through a work of Swedenborg, you might think that each of the thousands of passages Swedenborg quotes from the Bible would offer you a welcome rest. After all, the Bible has been translated into English many times over. Quotations from it should be easy to translate.

But Swedenborg’s extracts from the Bible are seldom actual quotations, in the modern sense. They do not necessarily begin at the first word of a verse, end with the last word, and quote all the words in between. Nor do they always present a range of verses in a straightforward fashion. For example, at one point Swedenborg presents, as a single block quotation, material from Psalm 119, verses 7 and 164. You may have to look up these verses to appreciate the stretch he makes in citing them as one continuous passage: they occur some seven pages apart in a typical Bible. And this sort of compilation of fragments is the rule rather than the exception.

Why would Swedenborg quote the Bible in this way? No doubt because he could assume his contemporary audience had a profound familiarity with it, as had he. When you have much of the Bible memorized, you don’t need more than a phrase to trigger your remembrance of a given passage.

What makes this sort of quotation challenging is that Swedenborg often jettisons grammatical continuity along with extraneous words. Here, as a random example, is a quotation from Jeremiah chapter 30, verses 3 and 7, from his 1763 work The Lord:

Ecce dies venientes, quibus conversurus. Heu magnus dies hic, et non erit sicut ille.

You can see from the punctuation that it has four clauses; if you know some Latin, you will see that only one of them contains a finite verb. To represent it word for word in English, we might say:

Behold days coming, in which turning-to-come. Alas great day this, and will not be like that.

This rendering would of course be completely unacceptable as a translation.

In the King James Version, the verses that include the four clauses of the quotation, which are here set in boldface type, read in full:

For, lo, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will bring again the captivity of my people Israel and Judah, saith the Lord: and I will cause them to return to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it. . . . Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob’s trouble, but he shall be saved out of it.

This full context shows that Swedenborg’s quotation is just a stub containing keywords. It may strike modern readers as more a search string than a quotation! Some of Swedenborg’s Bible quotations are easier to understand than this example, but many are as hard or harder.

How is one to translate these quotations, especially considering that today’s readers, even if they are church-going Christians, do not have the same ready familiarity with the Bible as did Swedenborg’s contemporaries?

It might seem appropriate (and time-saving) for translators of Swedenborg simply to stitch together snippets of a well-received Bible translation, such as the King James Version or the New Revised Standard Version, inserting points of ellipsis (. . .) to show gaps in continuity. Swedenborg never used such ellipses, however. And as has just been shown, merely adopting snippets of a standard translation would often result in an unintelligible text. For this reason, all the Bible passages in Swedenborg need to be freshly translated.

But retranslation in itself presents a new challenge. If we are not referring to a standard Bible version, how can we obtain a reasonable uniformity of Bible translation across multiple volumes? To achieve such consistency, editing is required; but the Bible passages are as difficult to edit as they are to translate.

A Massive Yet Elegant Solution

The New Century Edition project has recently taken a new approach to this challenge. We have developed a spreadsheet containing all the Bible passages in the volumes still to be edited. We affectionately refer to it as the Massive Bible Passage Editing Tool (MBPET). It is an array of 994,294 cells, showing the exact form of the quoted text, both in the original Latin and in our draft translations. Each quotation is tagged with its location in Swedenborg’s works. Instead of following the greatly reordered sequence in which the quotations appear in Swedenborg’s works, all passages appear in biblical order.

This single view of all the biblical quotations allows the editor not only to understand the context of the snippets Swedenborg quotes, but also to find the translator’s most inspired renderings and to utilize them in all related quotations; thus it greatly aids both quality and consistency. And editing these passages in biblical order keeps the editor’s mind focused on the biblical context of each phrase, which is helpful for interpretation.

This novel tool may seem mechanical or laborious, but it is actually a timesaver. Since Swedenborg quotes much of the Bible, and comes back to the same verses again and again, the editor can in effect handle many related passages at once, and can more easily deal with repetitions. Over the life of this grand project, this tool is likely to save months of effort and produce a better result. It is one example of how the New Century Edition project constantly seeks more efficient methods of getting these translations into print, while enhancing rather than sacrificing quality.

About the New Century Edition

The New Century Edition is a modern-language, scholarly translation of the theological works of one of the world’s most extraordinary visionaries. The series’ easy-to-read style retains the dignity, variety, clarity, and gender-inclusive language of Swedenborg’s original Latin, bringing his thought to life. This translation project is the first to be undertaken by a single publisher and team of translators employing unified standards of translation and scholarship. Introductions and annotations by eminent international scholars place Swedenborg’s writings in their historical context and illuminate obscure references within the text, enabling readers to follow Swedenborg’s thought as never before.

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