Originally published in the Swedenborg Foundation’s newsletter Logos, in the summer of 2008.
by Sylvia Montgomery Shaw
With his characteristic incisiveness, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed: “All writing comes by the grace of God.” Literally, the invention of writing owes far more to the Lord than to human innovation. It is a gift to humanity. Likewise, anyone who knows firsthand the challenges of writing understands Emerson’s dictum in terms of struggle. And anyone who understands Swedenborg’s paradoxical “as-of-self” concept knows that whatever clarity or beauty or power writers achieve is not through their efforts alone, but by the grace of God working through them. So in a very real sense, all such endeavors are a partnership of the divine and mediate means. All writers, even the most talented, or especially the most talented, labor hard. Swedenborg was no exception.
Though given spiritual sight by the Lord, he was also given the freedom to articulate his experiences and his understanding as he saw fit. That means he was free to make linguistic choices, to select the words he found most apt, to choose among rhetorical strategies, and to develop his own style. Had Swedenborg simply taken dictation from the Lord, there would have been no struggle—just the cramping of his fingers as his hand sped across page after page with a kind of mechanistic mindlessness. But with choice came the consequent struggle of having to make judgment calls. The decisions with which he was faced could be enormous; for example, whether he ought to change direction in the midst of a huge project. Consider how Swedenborg began Secrets of Heaven intending to write exegetically about the entire Old Testament. Yet he stopped after explaining the Book of Exodus, turning instead to shorter, equally important works, such as Heaven and Hell. After those works were published, he wrote Revelation Explained (traditionally known as Apocalypse Explained). He labored over it for two years, compiling a total of 2,590 pages—by hand, with a quill pen—and copied the book over again in a manuscript of another 1,985 pages. Then he completely abandoned that attempt to explain the Book of Revelation. But his effort was not lost: what eventually emerged from his seemingly fruitless struggle was the far more concise, better organized Revelation Unveiled (Apocalypse Revealed).
Certainly Swedenborg was obeying the Lord’s promptings with these important shifts in direction. Yet who can doubt on seeing them that Swedenborg had to struggle in order to find the best way to convey his discoveries about the Bible and the spiritual world? His rough drafts, too, with their crossed-out lines and blotted paragraphs, prove that Swedenborg wrestled to put his thoughts into language, as indeed any good writer must.
The same is true of translators of Swedenborg’s works. They are, after all, writers, and they have the same God-given freedom Swedenborg had to turn from or to follow the work at hand. But they also must remain true to the same charge given to Swedenborg by the Lord: to make the inner sense of the Word known to others.
To do so they must remain attuned to language, with all its nuances, as it is currently used. They cannot rely on repeating the choices made by translators who have gone before, because words shift meaning as denotations and connotations morph over time. Words are not sacred, only the Word and its meaning. Words change, but divine truth does not. The translator’s task is to honor that truth to the best of his or her ability.
To find out the history of the struggle to put Swedenborg into English words, I spoke recently with Jonathan S. Rose, a translator and series editor of the New Century Edition (NCE). What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
Shaw: Jonathan, until the New Century Edition project began, many students of Swedenborg relied on what is called the Standard Edition—also called the Green Thirty, because its thirty volumes were traditionally bound in green. What is the history of the translations in that edition?
Rose: Well, let’s take Secrets of Heaven as an example, which appeared in the Standard Edition under the traditional title Arcana Coelestia. It was translated by the Reverend John Clowes from 1774 to 1806. Subsequently it was revised by him and by other revisers, such as John Worcester, Benjamin Worcester, Samuel Mills Warren, and Horace Wright.
Shaw: Do you really mean “revised”? Wasn’t it actually retranslated?
Rose: I do mean revised. You’ve put your finger right on the problem. In one respect, the Standard Edition is amazing: it was assembled and issued at a staggering rate—all thirty volumes were published over the course of a mere fourteen months in 1914 and 1915. That’s astonishing! But part of the explanation for that accomplishment is that almost everything, except for a few items in the volume titled Posthumous Theological Works, was not translated afresh. Only a very small percentage of the edition was new—roughly 6 percent.
Shaw: So the editors who issued it really were just revising old translations?
Rose: In fact they were revising revisions of old translations. The Green Thirty has often been assumed to be a monolithic achievement of original translation. Yet when I did some research into its history, I found that it was, frankly, a kind of patchwork—what you would expect from various writers working on the same piece of writing over the course of a century, each with a slightly different agenda and set of scholarly standards.
Shaw: A key part of the NCE effort is that translators and editors work together in a team. Was that true of these older revisers?
Rose: My impression is that they were largely working as soloists. It wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s that the idea of teamwork started to become the standard approach in Swedenborgian translation. This is true not only of Swedenborg Foundation translations but of those of the Swedenborg Society in England and of the General Church Translation Committee. There was suddenly a heavier use of consultants and readers to help the translator. Yet I don’t think that any effort has gone quite as far in this regard as the NCE. It has as many as seven readers and editors working with the translator.
Shaw: Would you say that the philosophy behind your translation effort is different as well?
Rose: Yes, I would. First of all, we start from scratch, translating every word from the original Latin expressly for the purpose of this edition and according to its stringent standards. Good Latin word order is terrible English word order. Latin is an inflected language, so it doesn’t matter as much where the words are in the sentence. You can put the subject in the middle, at the end, wherever. In English it matters. Word order is crucial. The English mind can’t wait around for the verb to appear at the end of the sentence, for example. Therefore, in order to make Latin syntax comprehensible in English, we need to move the pieces around. Swedenborg is masterful at expressing high thoughts in very simple language. His Latin is straightforward and modern; the Standard Edition translations of Swedenborg tended not to be. Swedenborg’s Latin is remarkably clear; again, clarity is not the first word that comes to mind when describing earlier English translations.
Shaw: I remember a comment that one of the newer members of my church made last year about the NCE. He said, “I love those new translations! They’re so much easier to read. I could never get through the older ones. These are so much more accessible!”
Rose: That’s really encouraging, because that’s what we’re striving for—to make Swedenborg’s works accessible to today’s readers.
About the NCE: The New Century Edition of the Works of Emanuel Swedenborg
The New Century Edition is a modern-language, scholarly translation of the theological works of one of the world’s most extraordinary visionaries. It is a consistent, integral presentation for twenty-first-century readers, scholars, and seekers.
The NCE removes the barriers to understanding imposed by the ponderous, Latinate translations of the past. The NCE’s easy-to-read translations, retaining the dignity, variety, clarity, and gender-inclusive language of Swedenborg’s original Latin, bring Swedenborg’s thought to life, making it accessible at various levels of study and interest.
This translation project is the first to be undertaken by a single publisher and team of translators employing unified standards of translation and scholarship. Contextualizing prefaces and annotations by eminent, international scholars enable readers to trace Swedenborg’s influence as never before.
Swedenborg’s illustrative insights, describing his experience and conversations in the spiritual realm over more than a quarter-century, have long drawn the world’s attention. Yet, despite his familiarity with otherworldly experiences, Swedenborg’s theology is firmly grounded in everyday life. Only through an active, useful, and loving life on earth, he said, can we be regenerated and brought to knowledge of the Divine.
Scope and Purpose of the Translation
The Swedenborg Foundation is undertaking this project of international scope to illuminate Swedenborg’s role in the history of Western thought. The bedrock of the New Century Edition is a completely fresh, English translation of Swedenborg’s theological works that makes them accessible to students and scholars alike.
Internationally known scholars preface each individual work, placing it in its eighteenth-century context. The easy-to-read, annotated NCE:
- brings Swedenborg’s thought to life for all readers and researchers, even those with no background in Swedenborg or the eighteenth century.
- speaks to readers in contemporary, accessible, gender-inclusive language;
- conveys the richness of Swedenborg’s original prose styles and the beauty of his original design;
- integrates seminal work in the field of Neo-Latin.
- allows the influence of Swedenborgian thought in literature, art, architecture, music, psychology, philosophy, science, and theology to be traced as never before.
The NCE Publishing Standards and Schedule
Eighteen titles, in twenty-five volumes of translation and one introductory volume, are scheduled for publication between 2000 and 2015. In deluxe hardcover binding, its large interior pages are embellished with Swedenborg’s original ornaments and set in two-color, Garamond typeface.
NCE Scholars and Translators
Lisa Hyatt Cooper
George F. Dole
Jonathan S. Rose
“The life leading to heaven is not one withdrawn from the world, but a life active in the world.”—Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell 535