books literature peevishness

Rosenberg's A Literary Bible: A brief hatchet job


Awful, awful, awful.

I picked up Daniel Rosenberg’s 2009 A Literary Bible with a bit of initial interest, interest that was soon to be thoroughly brutalized.  This turgid morass bills itself as a “translation” of the Hebrew Bible, which is bollocks.  To pick one mite from a mountain, consider this excerpt from what appears to be intended as Chapter 2 of Isaiah:

all the upright oaks
of Bashan
all the straight-backed mountains

and high-rising hills
the skyscrapers
and sheer walls

the Super Powers
and their walls of missiles

Um, what?

This isn’t translation.  This isn’t “literary” anything.  This is Bible-flavored poetastery.  A perfectly legitimate endeavor, as long as you keep it to yourself and don’t try to claim that the random associative crap that floats through your head is anything other than random associative crap that floated through your head.

Not convinced?  Perhaps we should try a bit of “Job”:

We’re all somebody’s workers
in a big factory
grasping for breaks

reaching for paychecks and prizes
here I’m paid these empty months
heavy nights awarded


listen to this mind in pain
this “educated” soul
in words it complains

am I some Frankenstein
to be guarded
can’t go to sleep alone

This may be poetry (in as much as any act of writing stuff down with random line breaks and [ooh!] violating conventional English sentence structure is poetry), but it clearly reflects more on Rosenberg than on the source text.  Perhaps it’s the “method” school of literature: just make sure you emote like a Great Poet-Author while you’re writing it.

His Yahweh talks like an aphasic Yoda.

“Who told you naked is what you are?” he [Yahweh] asked.  “Did you touch the tree I desired you not to eat?”


“What disturbs you so?” said Yahweh to Cain.  “Why wear a face so fallen?  Look up: if you conceive good it is moving; if not good, sin is an open door, a demon crouching there.”

I was horrified anew at each page.  Rosenberg picks and chooses what he “translates,” leaving out books or chapters at whim.  This is, I suppose, a mercy.  I must admit that I thought some of “Lamentations” wasn’t too bad, but at the end he swings into a bathetic

I lighten their labors
I am the guinea pig of their salvation

Recently, I read two poetic renderings of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one by Stephen Mitchell, one by David Ferry.  Neither writer knows Sumerian, Akkadian, or Old Babylonian, and each worked from various literal translations and textual commentaries.  Neither one claims to be “translating” their source; they explicitly state that what they are doing is composing English-language poetry.  While I’m not too keen on the Mitchell (which was a bit tepid and tried to fill in the gaps to make a nicely rounded story), I have much more respect for his efforts than Rosenberg’s haphazard textual flailing.

If you’re in the mood for modern adaption of ancient literature, give this “literary” Bible a miss.  Pick up a copy of Ferry, who understands the importance of language and cadence to poetry.

And so they traveled until they reached Uruk.
There Gilgamesh the king said to the boatman:

“Study the brickwork, study the fortification;
climb the great ancient staircase to the terrace;

study how it is made; from the terrace see
the planted and fallow fields, the ponds and orchards.

One league is the inner city, another league
is orchards; still another the fields beyond;

over there is the precinct of the temple.
Three leagues and the temple precinct of Ishtar

measure Uruk, the city of Gilgamesh.

languages literature

Dipped in Honey and Sprinkled with Sesame

I’ve been playing at translating a bit of Petronius, which is great fun—when I saw that a LatinStudy Satyricon group was starting up, I couldn’t resist. Perhaps it is somewhat beyond my nascent Latin skills, but it’s a nice change from the Vulgate. I’ve been taking a fairly loose approach, a bit looser than I’d think acceptable for a translation I was reading.

The opening fragment begins with a superb rant. Here’s a bit from my rendering of paragraph II:

Great oratory is, if I may say it, modest. It is not this swollen, disreputable blather; rather, it flows beautifully and naturally. Your flatulent spew of words is a recent migrant to Athens from Asia, a pestiferous, ill-starred exhalation upon the growing minds of our young men. Once established, it rotted our standards of eloquence, rendering us dumb.

Since then, who has risen to the level of a Thucydides or a Hyperides?

Poetry herself glistens with an unhealthy pallor. All the arts, in fact, have been weakened by a diet of this tripe, sapped of their chance to whiten into old age. Even painting has fared no better since those Egyptian poseurs discovered how to ruin that great art with their slapdashery.

There’s something reassuring about millennia-old vituperation.

(The title of this post, incidentally, comes from a line in paragraph I: “. . . sed mellitos verborum globulos, et omnia dicta factaque quasi papavere et sesamo sparsa.)