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.

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