Originally published in the Swedenborg Foundation’s newsletter Logos, in the spring of 2007.
by George F. Dole (with a little help from his friends)
Was there ever a poem shorter than its title? Yes, at least one: Ogden Nash’s “Lines Written on the Antiquity of Microbes.” The entire poem:
I suspect it would be simple to translate this into just about any language on earth in a way that would accurately convey its meaning, and just about impossible to translate it in a way that conveyed Nash’s intent. He intended it to be fun, and the fun is in the rhyme, the sound. The meaning is almost incidental. As a contrasting example, we might think of trying to translate the instructions for defusing live explosives. Here meaning is absolutely paramount, while sound is utterly irrelevant—and no fun intended.
Most of our communications fall somewhere between these two extremes. What’s more, meaning and sound are just two of the features that a translator has to consider. Which features to focus on and which features to sacrifice—the translator is constantly faced with those decisions.
As translator of three of the New Century Edition volumes now in print, I do get occasional critical questions about my choices, and there is a recurrent theme in my responses. It is to say first of all that New Century Edition policy requires me to translate everything in the Latin text. This is a welcome requirement and one that is in fact impossible. For example, the outward appearance of words has to be given up. Traditional translations look much “closer to the Latin,” when they translate the Latin verb existere as “to exist.” The trouble is that existere doesn’t mean “to exist.” It means “to arise, to come forth.” Recipere, which has often been translated “receive” because it looks like that English word, actually means “to accept,” and accipere, though it looks like “accept,” means “to receive.” We are obliged to sacrifice the quality of a Latin word that we believe to be least important; and using an English word that looks like the Latin one is surely less important than using an English word that means what the Latin means.
Decisions, decisions—and they all have to add up to a single version. The translator does not have the luxury of offering alternative readings in the middle of things. Here, however, we do not have that limitation—we can explore some of the potential alternatives that can be found in a text.
Perhaps you are familiar with interlinear translations of the Bible, translations in which every Hebrew or Greek word has its English equivalent over it. If we were to supply an interlinear translation of section 11 of The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Teachings, for example, we would come up with something like the text in the blue box at the bottom of this page.
There is, of course, much more contained or at least implied in the Latin than that, but that is how a strict, interlinear rendering might come out.
The Standard Edition of the Works of Swedenborg, published by the Swedenborg Foundation a century ago, moves this kind of literalism a long way in the direction of intelligibility:
All things in the universe, which are according to Divine order, have relation to good and truth. There is nothing in heaven, and nothing in the world, which has not relation to these two; the reason is, because both good and truth proceed from the Divine from Whom all things are.
This rendering involves supplying definite articles and a verb where English syntax expects them; interpreting se referre, which literally means “bear oneself back,” as broadly as possible; and following the rules of English, rather than Latin, word order and diction. It does not go so far as to correct the ungrammatical “the reason is because” (the more recent Redesigned Standard Edition does correct this); and its use of “good” (Latin bonum) as a noun without any article or modifier may be confusing to readers.
In one recent version of New Jerusalem, titled Heavenly City: A Spiritual Guidebook, translator Lee Woofenden deals with this last problem by translating bonum as “goodness.” His translation also conveys the cause-effect relationship between the last two statements of the passage in question by putting the sentence expressing the cause before the one expressing the effect.
Everything in the universe that is in harmony with the divine plan relates to goodness and truth. Goodness and truth come from the divine, which is the source of everything. This means that there cannot be anything in heaven or on earth that does not relate to these two things.
The rearrangement of sentences does follow more closely the usual logic of English prose. Rendering bonum as “goodness,” however, leaves something to be desired.
Let me explain. Technically, bonum does not mean goodness. It is what grammarians call a “substantive adjective”; it is Latin’s way of saying “a particular thing that is good.” It has a concreteness that is hard to convey in simple, clear English. We could try: “Everything relates to what is good and what is true.” Or maybe it would help to interpret se referunt less broadly: “Everything goes back to what is good and what is true.”
That is still rather elusive. Let’s try:
Everything in the universe that is in accord with the divine design must have two fundamental characteristics: it must be good and it must be true. There is nothing in heaven and nothing in the world to which these fundamental criteria do not apply, because everything good, like everything true, comes from the Deity who is the source of everything.
Though this strays beyond the policies of the New Century Edition, it has the merit of turning attention toward the “things” that have the qualities. Nevertheless, it still teeters on the brink of abstraction and does not bring home the full impact of the Latin. If, as I search for the personal import and application of these words, I fill in the generalizations of “something good” and “something true” with specifics from my own experience, I get at least a glimpse of the intended concreteness. I can do this most readily by recognizing that love of the neighbor is “something good” and that seeing things in the Lord’s light is “something true.” Working these substitutions into the paragraph might yield the following.
My whole being, to the extent that I am living as the Lord intends me to, comes down to caring about others and seeing them clearly. Everything in my soul and in my body bears some relationship to these two functions because they both come from the Deity who is the source of everything.
Then I test this personal reading on other passages in the same chapter of New Jerusalem. When I do, the Standard Edition’s
Because the conjunction of good and truth is an image of marriage, it is plain that good loves truth, and truth, in its turn, loves good, and that one desires to be conjoined with the other.
comes out as
Because the relationship between my caring about others and my perception of them is a kind of marriage, I can see that when I care about others I truly want to understand them, and that the more clearly I understand, the more deeply I care. Each motion of my being feels incomplete if it is separated from the other.
I find both of these statements powerful and practical. They give me something I can work toward in my day-to-day life. Nevertheless, these renderings are obviously more of an adaptation than a translation of the Latin. What they have gained in concreteness, they have lost in universality. I may be a microcosm, but I am definitely not “everything in the universe.” The principles that are laid out in the Latin apply not just to humans, but to everything else, too—animals, plants, and minerals. This universality is too precious to disregard.
The New Century Edition has a commitment to preserve and include as much as possible of the intent of the original Latin. That is why its oversight committee has opted for a relatively conservative approach to translation. But what are translators to do when they glimpse the depth and the urgency of the meaning contained in Swedenborg’s Latin sentence Omnia in Universo, quae sunt secundum Divinum Ordinem, se referunt ad bonum et verum? Sadly, much is lost in “All things in the universe, which are according to Divine order, have relation to good and truth.” And yet, it seems the only way to “put more in” is to take something else out. Language is a finite container, after all.
I do take comfort in the sheer mass of the theological works, though. If no individual sentence can be translated in a way that is completely self-explanatory or readily applicable on the personal level, there are always more sentences coming. After all, the deeper levels of our minds are opened not by simply reading a text, but by “leading the life that leads to heaven.” This means that the translator’s responsibility is shared by the reader. Perhaps the most translators can do is to remove as many obstacles to comprehension as they can.
Interlinear Translation of The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Teachings §11 (Excerpt)
All things in universe, which are following divine order, themselves
Omnia in Universo, quae sunt secundum Divinum Ordinem, se
refer to good and true. Nothing is given in heaven, and nothing in
referunt ad bonum et verum; Nihil datur in Coelo, & nihil in
world, that not to two these itself refers; cause is because each,
mundo, quod non ad duo illa se refert: causa est, quia utrumque,
as much good as true, proceeds from Divine, from which all.
tam bonum quam verum, procedit a Divino, a Quo omnia.