Originally published in the Swedenborg Foundation’s newsletter Logos, in the winter of 2008.
by Stuart Shotwell
We are accustomed to think of meaning being “lost in translation,” but sometimes it is found instead. One of the felicities of being a translator of Swedenborg’s works is discovering some nuance in the meaning of a passage that, for one reason or another, no one has discovered before—or at least, a nuance that none of the previous translators has captured. Usually these discoveries are trivial, but occasionally they completely change the way we understand an important passage.
As an example of a minor discovery, consider one in True Christianity 127. This passage is part of Swedenborg’s explanation that the sufferings of the cross should not be confused with redemption. As is often the case in True Christianity, he uses several very colorful similes to reinforce his point:
Redemption and the suffering on the cross must be seen as separate. Otherwise the human mind gets wrecked as a ship does on sandbars or rocks, causing the loss of the ship, the helmsman, the captain, and the sailors. It goes astray in everything having to do with salvation by the Lord. If we lack separate ideas of these two things we are in a kind of dream; we see images that are unreal and we make conjectures based on them that we think are real but are just made up.
The passage just quoted is from the New Century Edition translation by Jonathan S. Rose. Let’s switch to the Standard Edition translation at this point to see how it renders the last simile in this series. It goes on to say that a person who does not distinguish between redemption and the sufferings of Jesus on the cross
is like one walking in the dark, who takes hold of the leaves of some tree and thinks them to be the hair of a man, and going nearer entangles his own hair in the branches.
Now, certainly this is a very strange picture we are supposed to be forming! Why would a man walking through the woods at night, who happened to take hold of some leaves, be so silly as to think them the hair of another man? And why (even sillier) would he immediately push his own hair into the same branches? Clearly Swedenborg has some scenario in mind that the old translators missed.
In fact, the Latin word here translated “of a man” is hominis, and most likely means “of a human” or just “human,” not “of a man.” That is, this man wandering in the dark thinks the leaves are human hair, not another man’s hair. And if the hair is not that of a man—well, perhaps it is the hair of a woman. This puts a whole new spin on things. Furthermore, a check of the 1724 edition of Adam Littleton’s Latin Dictionary (useful for appreciating the Latin idioms of Swedenborg’s time) suggests that in that era the Latin phrase for “walking in the dark” could mean not just taking an innocent stroll through the evening, but “going to a rendezvous.” Thus the New Century Edition translation of this passage reads:
We are like someone walking out [to a tryst] at night, who, thinking that the leaves of a tree within his grasp are human tresses, sidles closer, only to entangle his own hair in them.
Not only does this new scenario have its own internal logic, as well as a stinging, ironic humor, it serves as an excellent simile: the man walking in the dark has eagerly made a conjecture (that his lover is next to him) based on something that is unreal (a perception of her hair), and he becomes literally entangled by his mistake. In the same way, people who think Jesus’ suffering alone will redeem them are grasping eagerly and mistakenly after something they want—namely, salvation—and only getting deeper into trouble.
While anyone who appreciates Swedenborg will be glad at this nearer approach to his meaning, the old mistranslation of this passage does not prevent the proper interpretation of any weighty matter. Not so in the case of True Christianity 449, where readers of Swedenborg have been puzzled for generations by the Standard Edition translation:
It should be said that no one is able to explore the interiors of the mind of those with whom he associates or deals; and this is not necessary; only let him guard against a friendship of love with anyone.
This seems a strikingly strong expression. Are we to avoid forming a loving friendship with anyone? A fresh look at the Latin, though, is reassuring. It reads cum quocunque, which means something like “with any person who happens to come down the road.” Thus the New Century Edition translation reads:
It might be worth saying that it is impossible for any of us to investigate the inner qualities of mind in people with whom we socialize and interact. But this type of investigation is not necessary provided we take care not to form bonds of love with just anyone.
To be perfectly fair, however, this is not a new discovery so much as a rediscovery. The New Century Edition team found that this passage had been correctly rendered in the Swedenborg Society translation of 1950 by William C. Dick. In reviewing that translation, the great Swedenborg scholar Alfred Acton remarked:
I note with pleasure the translation “with any one indiscriminately”
(n. 449). So far as I know, all other translations have been “Beware of the friendship of love with any one”—a translation which has troubled many readers; for conjugial love is one with inmost friendship, and this surely is the friendship of love: see C. L. n. 460. The Latin for “with any one” is cum aliquo, but here the Latin is cum quocunque. (The New Philosophy 54:209)
The New Century Edition team was not at all sorry to find it had been “scooped.” Originality doesn’t count in translation, only accuracy; and it was an honor to see the New Century Edition rendering supported and seconded (or “firsted”) by scholars such as William C. Dick and Alfred Acton.
In conclusion, we should reflect on the larger meaning of these little discoveries. Every generation ought to retranslate the works of Swedenborg, to its own taste, and for its own use; and in doing so, it is bound to find one or two or a few things that advance our knowledge of Swedenborg’s meaning. In that sense, the translations of former years will never be superseded; they will always be a resource that scholars can consult, a way of conversing with the Swedenborgian scholars and translators of the past on points of interpretation.
Thus the New Century Edition team is honored not only to serve a present use, but to be part of a continuing dialog with past and future.