Sunday, October 31, 2010

Blogging the Soulfisher, III

Problems of Transmission

While the most challenging aspect of the Soulfisher that confronts translators is undoubtedly the colloquial nature of its vocabulary, it is also clear that the text has suffered somewhat in its transmission.
aklilẖ lgirita ulqusa
ḏzaqip bedẖ ṣaidilẖ

They will eat the catfish (or eel?) and catch
the spider crab that gets up on its hands.

hbnina esra eniana
agṭar sarkala umušpita

The one who captured his barbel tied
the knot and fixed it to the spit.

The term girita literally means "eel" (and this is in fact how Lidzbarski translated it) but the same name (in the form جري jirrī) is also applied to the Mesopotamian Catfish, Silurus triostegus jirri. In the previous line, the same creature is described as nuna ḏgirita šumẖ "the fish whose name is girita," but this does not necessarily clarify whether the narrator intended to reference a catfish or an actual eel. Its partner, the qusa, is likely another taboo animal, elsewhere paired with sarṭana "crab." Drower and Macuch identify it with Persian كوسج kawsaj or kūsaj "swordfish" but this requires that the following be read as "which leaps up on one's hand" (as they have) rather than "it rises on its hands" (as the preposition b- requires). I suggest the spider crab (Elamenopsis kempi) which is found alongside the Mesopotamian Catfish in the marshes.

Lidzbarski left the following line largely untranslated. This same line apparently also posed some difficulties to the copyists; Lidzbarski's Manuscript B has ḏbunnẖ sqa enina in place of the first three words. All translators of this passage have found the barbel (Barbus sharpeyi, a carp-like fish known locally as the بني bunnī) at the heart of the first word, but the rest of the passage is cryptic. I suggest that the eniana is not to be read as "response" (which does not make sense in the context) but rather as a back-formed singular of the word ainanata "eyes; knots." Likewise, the hapax sarkala appears to me to be a contraction of the verb sarik "he fastened" followed by the object marker elau. In B the initial u- of the following word is omitted. I am not certain that this is much of an improvement upon Lidzbarski's lacuna; although the relationship between the individual components of the line is clear, it unfortunately remains no less cryptic.

aumitinun unisbit razaiun ḏnunia ṭabia lalagṭia

I made them swear and took their secrets, so that they would not take the good fish.

la ganbilun minai uraipilun bqaina umdalilun umpasqilun umahilun kauaria brundia ualuai umitanun ḏlaqaimia ulihia ṣabia upalta biardna

They will not steal my cauves of fish from me, tie them to a cane, hoist them up, cut them up and beat them, and I made them swear to me that they would not start to dip their nets and spear in the Jordan.
A cauf (kauara) is a type of basket or ventilated box which is submerged off the side of the fishing boat and used to transport live fish. Through metonomy, this word has also come to mean fish in general, but it clearly retains its original, literal meaning in this passage. The term brundia refers to fish in both Classical and Neo-Mandaic, although it is not clear whether it refers to a specific type of fish or is merely a synonym for fish in general. The word palta survives among the Marsh Arabs in the form فالة fālah, which refers to a kind of reed pitchfork, roughly 10-12 ft. long and tipped with a head of five iron spikes (see the image to the right). Although these terms caused some consternation to the translators, they were not, in fact, the chief obstacle to translating this portion of the text. That honor belongs to the following phrase, ualuai umitanun.

Lidzbarski translated kauaria brundia ualuai as "fish in bayleaves and aloe" on the authority of Père Anastase-Marie de Saint Elie, who reported to him that fish were sometimes preserved with bayleaves. Drower and Macuch translated these three terms as three types of fish, one big and one small, inferring from context, and appealing to the Persian term وال vāl "whale; large fish" I would prefer to read ualaui as uelauai "and to me" followed by aumitinun "I adjured them" as in the preceding line (and indeed Lidzbarski's manuscript C had umitinun in place of umitanun).

Another possibility is that ualuai stands for ueluai "and my spirits" and belongs grouped with the preceding "cauves of fish." In the following lines we read laramin silita ukauaria ualuai lalagṭia "they will not cast nets and take fish and my spirits(?)." Admittedly, Persian وال vāl could potentially fit in this context (in the sense of "cauves of large fish;" a proper whale would obviously not fit, in more ways than one). In the absence of further data, conjectures such as these must suffice.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Blogging the Soulfisher, Part II

The Soulfisher begins comprehensibly enough, but it is not very long before we start encountering problematic words:
ṣaida ana
ṣaida ḏmn ṣaidia bhir
ṣaida ana ḏbhir mn ṣaidia
uriša ḏkulhun kalia

A fisher am I,
A fisher, who is chosen from the fishers!
A fisher am I, who is the elect of the fishers
and the chief of all the trawlers!
The final word in this section, kalia, is a cipher. The word kalia usually means "hindrances" or "restraints", does not make any sense within this context, particularly since it appears to be parallel to ṣaidia. Drower and Macuch suggest a derivation from an Arabic word كلاء kallā'- meaning "riverbank" or "harbor," but this does not seem to fit the context either. Strangely, I cannot find this word in any of the dictionaries available to me. The word kiliata below, which is parallel to našbia "nets" and appears to be from the same root, suggests that this word refers to those who fish with nets rather than spears. According to Edward Ochsenschlager, the question of net-fishing vs. spear-fishing still divides the communities of the Iraqi Marshes; while most fishers use nets to catch fish, the Mi'dan reject them as unmanly, and prefer to fish with spears alone.

lhauria mia iadanun
lgiṣia gauaiia utalilia mbašqarnun
lnašbia ulhauria uel kiliata kulhun aiilna
usaiarna agma bhabara
uspintai lagazia ulamistakarna

I know the watery marshes.
I recognize their inner trails and mounds.
I enter all the nets, pools, and pens.
I traverse the lagoon in darkness,
and neither does my ship pierce them nor am I held up.

The word hauria is clearly related to the Arabic word خور khawr-, which is synonymous with "gulf" or "(river-)valley" in the standard language, but in the dialects of southern Iraq refers specifically to the constellation of very shallow lakes that characterize the region.

Given the similarity between the cluster hn and the letter in the Mandaic script, one might surmise that the hapax giṣia actually reflects a form like gihnia from a root meaning "to bend." Drower and Macuch assure us that a word of this root still appears in local usage, referring to the type of path trodden by water-buffalos as they pass through the reeds, which bent down by their feet and bodies. The word talilia is yet another hapax, which Drower and Macuch relate to Arabic تل tall- and Syric ܬܠܠܐ telālā.

The narrator then goes on to explain that he does not "pierce" našbia, hauria, and kiliata, and neither is he held back by them. The first of the three plainly refers to nets or snares; the third is likely derived from the same "restraints" mentioned above, leaving the second, which (as we've seen) also means a kind of marsh lagoon. It is likely that all three refer to different types of trawls and trap nets that might be damaged by a more careless fisher making his rounds.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Blogging the Soulfisher, Part I

The Soulfisher, or ṣaida ana ṣaida ḏmn ṣaidia bhir, nearly caused Mark Lidzbarski, the original translator of the Mandaean Book of John, to throw in the towel on the whole project. His frustration is palpable from the introductory comments to this chapter:
The section includes many expressions from the daily life of fishermen and sailors which are not otherwise attested in either Mandaic or other Semitic languages. For this reason, its interpretation is extremely difficult. I have made every conceivable effort to elucidate its many obscurities, but with few results.
In his frustration, Lidzbarski hit upon a possible solution:
Because technical terms that are typical of a narrow circle remain attached to the ground and pass from one language to another, I assumed that some of these terms survive even with the now Arabic-speaking sailors and fishermen of Iraq, and I was able to figure some out with certainty. Therefore, I made up some questionnaires, the first containing general questions about fishing and sailing in Babylonia, and the second containing a list of eligible words with their possible contemporary forms in Arabic.
Though brilliant and far-sighted, his project floundered when his attempts at securing responses to these questionnaires proved largely unsuccessful. Of course, Lidzbarski composed his translation around the turn of the century; in the intervening eleven decades, numerous advances have been made in the study of Mandaic, Aramaic, and the vernacular dialects of Arabic, as well as daily life in southern Iraq, and these advances have yielded resources such as lexicons and ethnographies that were not available to Lidzbarski. While the Soulfisher may be one of the most challenging of the sections of the Mandaean Book of John, it is also the one most likely to benefit from a reassessment.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Translating the Utras

There are supernatural beings in the Mandaean religious tradition called Utras (sometimes transliterated Uthras). The word 'utra has the root meaning of "wealth" but translating it that way might obscure the fact that this is a technical term for spiritual beings, and certainly would not be intelligible without a footnote and commentary.

One of the challenges translators face is illustrated by this example. Leaving the term untranslated and referring to Utras might capture that this is a technical term, but it also leaves the translator feeling as though they have simply failed to translate. But other options - angels, aeons, spirits, powers - seem either too broad, or too specific, or too loaded with specific connotations from other traditions.

Those of us involved in this project will be having ongoing discussions about this and other similar translation issues, and we'd love input from people who work on Aramaic, ancient religious texts, and other related fields. But we'd also love input from those who read translations of ancient texts, about how you feel when a word is simply left untranslated with a footnote, and conversely, when it is translated and a footnote indicates that there isn't a precise correspondence with the English word used.

For Speaker of Czech Interested in the Mandaeans

This may be relevant to only a small group of people, but if you speak Czech and are interested in the Mandaeans and/or Aramaic language, there is a blog that looks promising: Aramejské střípky.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Mandaean Book of John Project Software

The software/font side of the Mandaean Book of John project is the domain of Steve Caruso, and just today he posted on his blog The Aramaic Blog about where he sees this aspect of the project headed. Pay a visit and find out what he hopes to accomplish!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Butler University Press Release

Butler University issued a press release about the project today, which has already been picked up by Inside Indiana Business:

Butler Religion Professor Awarded Federal Funding

Butler University Associate Professor of Religion James McGrath has been awarded a $130,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant for a project to translate the Mandaean Book of John from Mandaic into English. The Mandaeans are a Gnostic group, the only one to have survived continuously from the ancient world to the present day.

McGrath’s main collaborator will be Charles Häberl of Rutgers University, an expert in ancient and modern Semitic languages, whose first book is on a modern spoken dialect of Mandaic. April DeConick of Rice University, well known for her work on Gnostic texts such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas, will also be involved as a consultant.

“The Mandaeans’ sacred texts are in a dialect of Aramaic,” McGrath said. “Some of them mention John the Baptist and Jesus. John the Baptist gets a positive mention; Jesus, not so much. Two of their most important sacred texts have never been translated into English in their entirety. One, the Ginza Rba, or Great Treasure, several people are working on that. But the second most important text is the Book of John. To my knowledge, no one was working on a translation of the whole thing into English. It caught my interest and I said, ‘Let me see if I can get some funding to remedy this.’”

McGrath and his collaborators plan to spend the next two years on the first stage of this project: producing a typed version of the text in the original language and translating the more than 200 pages of handwritten text. In addition to previously published copies of the Mandaic text and manuscripts in libraries, they will also make use of scans of privately owned copies of the Book of John.

Some such manuscripts have already been identified. McGrath said he hopes the publicity the NEH grant award creates will draw this project to the attention of others who may have manuscripts among their family’s possessions and be willing to allow them to be scanned or photographed.

The long-term goal is to publish the text and translation together with a commentary.

“The discovery, translation, and publication of manuscripts like the Nag Hammadi texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls has certainly helped us understand that period of several centuries in history that gave rise to early Christianity, rabbinic Judaism, and Gnosticism, among other religious movements,” McGrath said. “Yet we have these texts that have been known for far longer and yet have never been translated into English. I’m glad that the time has come to remedy this situation.”

The money from the NEH will cover numerous research expenses and free those involved in the project from certain teaching and other responsibilities, allowing them to devote the necessary time to working on the translation.

“I’m delighted to get this grant,” McGrath said. “I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to be involved in such an important project.”

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

NEH Announces Grant Award To Fund English Translation Of The Mandaean Book Of John

The NEH has announced that it will be funding a grant proposal I wrote for a project to translate the Mandaean Book of John into English. Over the next two years, the focus will be on producing a typed eclectic Mandaic text using the available manuscript evidence, and an English translation. The longer-term goal is to publish the Mandaic text and English translation in a volume that also includes commentary.

My principal collaborator on the project is Dr. Charles Häberl of Rutgers University, an expert in Semitic languages whose doctoral research and first book are on a spoken dialect of Neo-Mandaic. Also involved as a consultant is Dr. April DeConick, well known not only for her contribution to scholarship on the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, Gnosticism and mysticism in antiquity, but also for her blog, Forbidden Gospels. Steve Caruso, whom you may know from The Aramaic Blog, will also be involved.

I'm delighted to be able to announce this project and share our excitement about it with you!