Opposition, 6.1 – 2 Nephi 2:11 in French Translation
Posted by joespencer on October 10, 2012
Four distinct translations of the Book of Mormon into French have appeared over the course of the Church’s history. The first of them (about which a not unhelpful article has been written) was produced already in 1852. A hundred years would pass before a second translation would be produced; it appeared in 1952. Interestingly, after that only a decade passed before a third translation appeared (in the 1960s). Finally, in 1998, the current translation was produced—presumably with the help of the translation guide I mentioned in my last post.
I think what I’d like to do in looking at the differences among these four translations is take the passage bit by bit, exploring the nuances of the various renderings. We’ll see where that takes us.
For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.
The 1852 translation rendered the opening sentence of the passage as follows: “Car il faut que l’opposition règne en toutes choses.” The 1952 translators didn’t change this at all, though the 1960s translators did: “Car il faut qu’il y ait de l’opposition en toutes choses.” The text was changed again in 1998: “car il doit nécessairement y avoir une opposition en toutes choses.” What’s to be said about the differences here?
Note first that the first three translations all agreed on “il faut que” (literally, “it lacks that,” but with the colloquial meaning that “it must be that”), while the most recent translation has replaced this with “doit nécessairement” (literally, “must necessarily”). The colloquialism has been dropped, but at the cost of actually distancing the translation from the “original” English just a bit. Does “it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things” imply that “there must necessarily be an opposition in all things”? At any rate, the more recent translations have removed the “that”-structure that in the English text separates, ever so slightly, the statement of necessity from what is said about opposition.
Note second that the first two translations didn’t at all speak about opposition being in all things, but rather about opposition reigning in all things. With the more recent two translations, this was altered, and some sort of “there is” (literally: “it must be that there be” in the 1960s, “there must necessarily be” in 1998) was inserted into the translation. In this regard, then, the more recent translations have actually approached nearer to the “original” English. Of course, both of the more recent translations complicate the “is” of the “original” English. The 1960s translation doesn’t translate “that there is” as “qu’il y a,” but as “qu’il y ait,” employing a subjunctive rather than an indicative. Still more complicatedly, the 1998 translation, because it drops the “that”-structure, employs an adverb (“necessarily”) and so renders the “is” of the “original” as an infinitive (“there must necessarily be”).
Note third that the first two translations speak simply of “opposition” (“it must be that opposition reigns”), while the third translation speaks of “some opposition” or “something of opposition” (“it must be that there be something of opposition”) and the fourth translation speak of “an opposition” (“there must necessarily be an opposition”). Here there is a kind of progression toward more literalism, since the “original” speaks of “an opposition in all things,” not of “opposition” pure and simple, nor of “some opposition” or “something of opposition.”
Now, what’s to be learned from these variations?
At the very least, we can sense something of a history of interpretation here. Early on, there’s a sense that the point of this first part of the verse is to claim that opposition as such (not an opposition, a particular opposition) rules over or governs all things—or that, at any rate, it must be that such is the case. A little more than a century later, however, this understanding is replaced with the idea that opposition has some role to play, but nothing so absolute (“it must be that there be something of opposition in all things”). Finally, most recently, this first part of the verse has been taken to mean that there must necessarily be an opposition—in the indefinite singular—in all things. As I’ve said before, this seems to mark a certain progression toward literalism, except in one point: there’s no longer a gap between the actual statement of necessity (“it must needs be that”) and the claim about opposition (“there is an opposition in all things”), since it’s now said that “there must necessarily be an opposition in all things.” The shift has been toward less interpretation of or more literalism with regard to each word or each phrase, but the larger structure of this first part of the verse has now been interpreted more heavy-handedly.
But that’s just to get started.
If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.
The 1852 translation rendered the second sentence of the passage as follows: “Si cela n’était ainsi, ô mon premier-né dans le désert, la justice n’existerait pas; et il n’y aurait ni perversité, ni sainteté, ni infortune, ni bien, ni mal.” The 1952 translators again didn’t change the text here, but, again, the 1960s translators did: “S’il n’en était pas ainsi, ô mon premier-né dans le desert, la justice ne pourrait pas exister, pas plus que la méchanceté, la sainteté, la misère, le bien ou le mal.” Finally, the text was changed just slightly in 1998: “S’il n’en était pas ainsi, mon premier-né dans le désert, la justice ne pourrait pas s’accomplir, ni la méchanceté, ni la sainteté ni la misère, ni le bien ni le mal.” What’s to be said about the differences in this case?
Note first the slight change made in shift from the first and second translations to the third and fourth in the first phrase. The more recent translations replace “this” (“if this were not so”) with “it” (“if it were not so”). This seems to be a step toward literalism, though that’s a complicated gesture, since the “original” English doesn’t employ either “this” or “it,” but simply “if not so.” It might also be briefly noted that the more recent translations have inserted the negation “pas,” just to be a bit clearer. All in all, there has been relatively little change in this first phrase—changes more stylistic than anything else.
Note second the slight change in the most recent translation, with the dropping of the vocative “ô” before “mon premier-né dans le désert.” It’s interesting that the vocative appeared at all in the earlier three translations (“O, my first-born in the wilderness”), since there’s nothing corresponding to it in the English. But it has been removed in the end. The rest of this phrase is straightforwardly translated (though it might be noted that “wilderness” is simply interpreted as “désert,” something that proves to be a bit contentious in translations in other languages).
Note next the different constructions for the subsequent phrase. The first two translations claim that “justice would not exist,” while the third translation claims that “justice could not exist” (“justice would not be able to exist”). The most recent translation maintains the “could” over the “would,” but it replaces the verb “to exist” with “to be accomplished” (not a bad equivalent for “to be brought to pass,” since s’accomplir can have the sense of “being past”): “justice could not be accomplished” or “justice could not be brought to pass.” Here again there’s a kind of increasing sense of literalism: the English doesn’t say “would” but “could,” and it doesn’t speak of existence but of being brought to pass. It’s also worth noting that all the translations agree on rendering “righteousness” as “justice.” This is probably to be preferred to “droiture” (“uprightness”), even though that is probably what the average Latter-day Saint hears in “righteousness” today: “righteousness” throughout the Bible translates Hebrew or Greek words that just mean “justice.”
Note finally the radically distinct renderings of the last bit of this part of the verse. The first two translations, following up on their claim that “justice would not exist,” assert that several other things simply “would not be”: “and there would not be perversity, nor holiness, nor misfortune, nor good, nor bad.” The third translation, in accordance with its claim that “justice could not exist,” marks a closer connection between this impossible existence and the impossible existence of several other things: “any more than wickedness, holiness, misery, good, or bad.” The most recent translation transforms this “list” of sorts—this list of things that couldn’t exist—into a series of paired opposites (making them into the “ethical” oppositions we’ve been talking about in previous posts): “justice could not be brought to pass, nor wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.” Here again we can see a progression of sorts toward literalism, but it’s well worth noting what the earlier, less literal translations on this bit suggested about interpretation: they took the things mentioned here to be a kind of unordered list rather than a series of paired opposites. Moreover, the earlier of these interpretations took there to be a kind of separable status for righteousness or justice—it was privileged by being separated from the list—while the later of these interpretations marked a closer connection between them, though still marking it as privileged. Any such privileging was erased in the most recent translation, which took righteousness or justice to be paired with wickedness. Finally, it should be noted that while “wickedness” was originally rendered as “perversity,” it has more recently been translation by the more literal méchanceté, “wickedness,” and that while “misery” was originally rendered as “misfortune,” this too has been more literally interpreted in the most recent translation.
Okay, now what’s to be learned from this set of variations?
Again we witness a kind of progression toward strict(er) literalism. But again it’s the earlier, less literal translations that instruct us about a kind of history of interpretation. It’s striking that the earlier translations show a heavy emphasis on existence, a move that—to a certain extent, anyway—subtracts God from the passage. When “justice would not exist” or “justice could not exist” takes the place of “righteousness could not be brought to pass,” there’s a subtle removal of God’s being the one who would bring things to pass. (This is possible, of course, because of the passive construction of the English “original”—which allows God’s name not to appear, even if His instrumentality is implied.) It’s interesting, moreover, that this subtraction of God of sorts was predicated on the ruling or reigning of opposition as such (from the first part of the verse). Where the translation makes opposition (rather than an opposition) reign in or even over things (rather than simply be in or among things), justice et al are granted existence, it seems, directly from opposition. It’s only with the shift to literalism that we recognize the possibility that something else is at work in the verse—that an opposition, which is in all things, makes possible or conditions the production of justice et al, a production that would presumably be undertaken (“accomplished,” as the latest French rendering puts it) by God.
It’s also fascinating that the earlier translations suggest a kind of indifference toward the possibility of interpreting the list of ethical things beginning with justice as a series of paired opposites. It’s only with the most recent translation that a repeating “neither X nor Y” structure appears in the French text; before that, there’s just a laundry list of things that wouldn’t or couldn’t exist without opposition being granted its sovereignty in all things. This suggests that earlier interpretations of the text saw in it a claim just that opposition played a role in making things in general possible, while the more recent translation suggests the idea that an opposition in all things makes possible ethical opposites, which (again) God has to bring about through His own instrumentality. All of these differences show—and perhaps more strongly than the first part—the radical instability of the interpretation of this passage.
But there’s more, indeed, the most fascinating part of all, in my opinion.
Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one.
The 1852 translation rendered this difficult sentence as follows: “C’est pourquoi, toutes choses sont, nécessairement, composées en un.” Here, for the first time, the 1952 translators altered the text: “C’est pourquoi, toute chose est nécessairement un compose en elle-même.” Curiously, the 1960s translators didn’t change this at all. Finally, the text was reworked in 1998: “C’est pourquoi, chaque chose doit nécessairement être un composé.” What to say here?
The very first thing to note here, interestingly, is a point of continuity across all three renderings. All three—1852, 1960s, 1998—open this sentence with “c’est pourquoi.” It’s not at all a bad rendering of “wherefore,” but it reads more strongly than we’re used to in English, perhaps simply because we stop thinking about the meaning of archaicisms like “wherefore.” “C’est pourquoi” means, of course, “that’s why,” and that already forces a certain interpretation: “That’s why all things must needs be a compound in one.” Remember from earlier posts that there seems to be a (relatively) universal interpretation of this part of the verse: this “compound in one” business is almost always taken to describe the bad situation that would result if there weren’t opposition. But the “c’est pourquoi” here already points in the direction of a complete reversal of that interpretation. The point here is to say that the impossibilities spelled out in the preceding sentence explain why, over against any lack of “an opposition in all things,” it must be the case that “all things [are] a compound in one.” And that’s exactly what the several renderings do. “All things are, necessarily, compound in one”; “every thing is necessarily a compound in itself”; “each thing must necessarily be a compound.” All of these renderings see the “compound in one” business as the way things actually are, not the way things would unfortunately be were there no opposition in all things.
That said, what about the differences among the translations? We should note the fact that each of the three renderings handles differently the phrase “all things,” in this case moving away from (rather than toward) literalism (though perhaps always moving closer to the obvious meaning?). The 1852 rendering is plural, as is the English “original” (toutes choses), but the 1960s rendering shifts to the singular but not colloquially incorrect (toute chose), and the 1998 rendering shifts to an almost emphatic singular (chaque chose). Each of these changes rather drastically changes the meaning of the sentence. Is it that all things are compound (adjectival)? Or is it that every thing is, “in itself,” a compound (nominal)? Or is it, finally, that each thing is a compound (nominal again)? How do we measure the distances among these three renderings? Does “all things” differ strongly from “every thing”? Does “every thing” differ strongly from “each thing”? What’s meant by “all things,” anyway? How is all this to be understood. The constant shifting here only emphasizes how unstable the interpretation of the English really is.
But what of the other details, which I’ve cited just above without analyzing? We shift from the earlier three translations, where “all things are, necessarily, compound” or “every thing is necessarily a compound in itself,” to the most recent translation, where “each thing must necessarily be a compound.” Is there a significant difference between “are, necessarily”/”is necessarily” and “must necessarily be”? What’s to be said about the difference between the claim that things are, necessarily, a certain way and the claim that things must necessarily be a certain way? But perhaps this is a minor point.
Far more significant, certainly, are the differences among the renderings of “a compound in one.” Here again the progression seems to be away from literalism, at least in certain regards. The earliest rendering compromises literalism only in that it replaces a noun (“a compound”) with an adjective (“compound”); it takes “in one” directly over, in all its awkwardness, into French (“en un”). The adjectival construction is foregone in the 1960s rendering, but it’s replaced by a noun that surprises. Either a mistake was made in leaving off a final accent mark, or the intention was to use the noun “compose,” which refers specifically in French to a compound word. Still more surprising, though, is the replacement of “en un” (“in one”) with “en elle-même” (“in itself”). The shift from the plural “all things” being composed “in one” to the singular “every thing” being a compound “in itself” is certainly significant. How on earth is one to make sense of this “in itself”? Is this supposed to have a Hegelian ring? (But isn’t “in itself” in Hegel usually rendered “en soi” in French?) What, at any rate, does it mean to say that a thing is “a compound in itself”? Perhaps it was this sort of question that led to the stripped down rendering of 1998, though: “each thing must necessarily be a compound.” The emphasis has remained on the singular, on “each thing,” but there’s no talk of “in one” or “in itself” here—just of “a compound” (now employing the usual noun, which just mean “a compound”). How does this improve the interpretation? How does it complicate it?
After all that mess, what should be said about the differences among the translations of this sentence?
The various French renderings of Lehi’s statement about all things being a compound in one force a full (always fuller) recognition of the wild ambiguities of the “original” English. Is this statement to be taken as a description of what is or isn’t the case? To what does Lehi refer when he speaks of “all things”? All things taken together? Every single thing out there but taken individually? Or what? What role is necessity playing in Lehi’s claim? What does “a compound in one” mean, particularly “in one”? Here there’s less a history of interpretation than a history of bafflement, and we’d probably do well to embrace that bafflement, recognizing how much work we’ve got ahead of ourselves if we’re hoping to make sense of this sentence.
Of course, things get a little bit easier again with the last part of the verse.
Wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.
Finally, then, the last part of the passage. What have we here? The 1852 and 1952 translations return to identity here: “Car, si cela n’était, un corps resterait nécessairement comme s’il n’était ni vivant ni mort, ni corruptible ni incorruptible, ni heureux ni malheureux ni sensible ni insensible.” The text is changed, of course, in the 1960s: “Car, si elle n’était qu’un seul corps, elle devrait nécessairement rester comme morte, n’ayant ni vie ni mort, ni corruptibilité ni incorruptibilité, ni bonheur ni misère, ni sensibilité ni insensibilité.” And then this is changed again in 1998, unsurprisingly: “c’est pourquoi, si c’était un seul corps, cela devrait nécessairement rester comme mort, n’ayant ni vie ni mort, ni corruption ni incorruptibilité, ni bonheur ni malheur, ni sensibilité ni insensibilité.” What, at last, can we say about these variations?
First, of course, the first bit of this sentence deserves notice: “Wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead.” It’s actually difficult to isolate this whole phrase because of the way the several translations handle it. The first, note, entirely drops the “as dead” bit, moving right on to the “having no life neither death” bit from the “remain as if” bit: “For, if this weren’t the case [that all things are necessarily compound in one], a body would necessarily remain as if it were neither living nor dead.” That’s peculiar enough (and it’s something we’ll see in other translations of the passage, interestingly), but not also the complete transformation in this earliest translation of the way this sentence begins: not “if it should be one body it must needs remain,” etc., but “if this weren’t the case, a body would necessarily remain,” etc. The whole idea of being “one body” has been lost in the translation, being replaced with the idea that, were the preceding statement false, some indefinite body (“a body”) would remain (how?) in a certain way (or non-way, really). All of that is rather complicated, obviously. When the translation is reworked in the 1960s, it moves closer to the English “original”: “For, if it were but a single body, it would necessarily remain as dead.” The last part of this is more less equivalent to the English, but the “were but a” construction of the first part is an interesting twist. Why the “but” business? Is that at all implied in the English? But moving on to the most recent translation, 1998, even more literalism obtains: “Therefore, if it were a single body, it should necessarily remain as dead.”
Next (and last) comes the list of “existential” oppositions, and they’re recognized as oppositions from the very beginning this time. Nonetheless, there are changes, and they’re telling. The earliest translation, having dropped the “as dead” bit, similarly drops the “having” element of the English text (and so sets up a string of opposed adjectives, rather than opposed nouns): the one body would remain “as if it were neither living nor dead, neither corruptible nor incorruptible, neither happy nor unhappy, neither sensible nor insensible.” Perhaps the grammatical shift isn’t so distancing, but the fact that all of these are submitted to the “as if” construction makes of this a bit metaphorical, as it were. In English, of course, it’s only the body’s deadness that is metaphorical; the existential oppositions, in that they aren’t had, explain that metaphor. All that’s lost in the translation. The 1960s translation moves in a more literalist direction by restoring the “as dead” bit and inserting the “having” from the English. Consequently, it also replaces the earlier translation’s adjectives with nouns: “having neither life nor death, nor corruptibility nor incorruptibility, neither happiness nor misery, neither sensibility nor insensibility.” It might be noticed also that “misery” appears here in the place of “unhappiness,” marking a further move in the direction of literalism. Strangely, however, the 1998 translation, while retaining most of what appears in the 1960s translation, reverses this last move toward literalism, returning to the earliest translation’s interest in malheur (over misère). At the same time, it emphasizes literalism when it replaces corruptibilité with corruption (even as it doesn’t seek more literalism in its rendering of incorruptibilité!). There’s thus a kind of muddled shift toward and away from literalism in the most recent rendering of this last part of the verse.
What, now, should be said about the translation of this last part of 2 Nephi 2:11?
Here, generally speaking, we see the most pronounced progression toward literalism of all so far. But here again the earlier translations say something about the interpretation of the text. The earliest translation suggests that readers weren’t entirely sure what to do with the “remain as dead” metaphor, perhaps being unaware of how to make sense of something being “as dead” because it had “neither life nor death”: how can something be as dead precisely because it lacks death (along with life)? Of course, it’s hard to know what it would mean to leave “as dead” out, replacing it with a string of existential oppositions that are all in some sense metaphorical. Does that metaphorical status have anything to do with the fact that the same early translators entirely failed to recognize the “ethical” oppositions earlier in the verse as a string of oppositions? Is there a strong hint in all this that early readers simply had no idea what to do with the basic claims of this verse, that they saw as most important simply that Lehi wanted to affirm opposition in a certain sense, the necessity of everything being compound?
Also very interesting is the history of translating the various existential terms in the last part of the verse. There’s a marked emphasis on symmetry from the beginning—again confirming the recognition from the very beginning of the fact that there’s a string of oppositions in this last part of the verse (though the similar structure earlier was missed). The original translators produced a series of perfectly symmetrical oppositions, even where this did a bit of violence to the original (there’s no perfect symmetry between “happiness” and “misery,” nor between “sense” and “insensibility”). This was altered to a degree in the 1960s translation (at least malheureux was replaced by misère), but whatever was altered was changed back in 1998. At the same time, however, in 1998, one of the symmetrical oppositions in the “original” English was unbalanced, strangely: not “corruption” and “incorruption,” but “corruption” and “incorruptibility.” It’s hard to know why. An emphasis on literalism (he English reads “corruption”)? But then why not render both elements literally and maintain symmetry? It’s very difficult to sort out the motivations in some of the latest changes.
But it’s time to move from particulars to general conclusions.
How can the foregoing be gathered into a single summary picture?
First, the history of French translation reveals how radically unstable the meaning of this text is. How important is the indefinite article in “an opposition”? How much of a difference is there between “existence” and “being brought to pass”? How necessary is it to see in Lehi’s lists ordered pairs of determinate opposites? What is meant by “all things”? Does the phrase “a compound in one” refer to what is or isn’t the case? How is the metaphor “as dead” to be understood, if it all makes sense? These kinds of instabilities are things we’ll see again and again in the course of looking at the other translations on offer—German, Italian, Spanish.
Second, the fact that there’s a general shift across the translations toward a kind of literalism is of real significance. This slowly developing literalism perhaps mirrors the individual’s engagement with this sort of text: at first a kind of wild approximation that glosses over all kinds of grammatical nuances and sometimes whole phrases; later a more careful recognition of overlooked elements of the text; finally an attempt to take in the text as honestly as possible while nonetheless trying to nuance its meaning to make the best sense of it possible. That the process doesn’t end in unmitigated literalism is interesting. The development of a kind of literalism can be the mark either of a more mature, more honest engagement with the text, or of an attempt to be precise about grammatical structure simply because one comes to see that one’s interpretations are entirely speculative. That literalism—as far as possible, anyway—hasn’t been fully achieved even at the end suggest that there are certain interpretive moves that are still being made.
Third, we have a few suggested interpretations that have emerged along the way—perhaps particularly where there’s agreement across the several translations. All three translations, interestingly, take the “compound in one” business to be a further elaboration of opposition playing its role in the creation, not of what would be the case were opposition not to exist. All three translations also recognize the ordered series of paired existential opposites in the last part of the verse, suggesting that this is more obvious in the English “original” than the ethical opposites earlier in the passage. All three translations agree to render “righteousness” as justice, not as droiture, all pointing in the direction of certain political possibilities inherent in the text. Finally, all three translations agree that a certain balance has to be struck between literalism and symmetry in rendering Lehi’s paired opposites, suggesting that there’s a certain something that’s compromised in the “original” English text.
All this should give us food for thought as we work through the process of interpreting 2 Nephi 2:11 for ourselves, and in the language of the “original.”