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Re: TRANSLATIONS

From: Peter McGuinness
email: peterjmcguinness@yahoo.com
Category: Spiritual
Date: 21 Aug 1999
Time: 10:28:03

Comments

In regard to translations, while I would agree with Ronald that there are significant shortcomings with current translations of the Gathas - to the point that some sections appear to be translations of different documents rather than separate translations of the same passage - I do not think that a group translation is the way to go. The Gathas have been translated over and over, but always with little regard to the accompanying Zand. I feel this is where the translators err, and err seriously. The Zand (a word which may be translated as “explanation”) represents generations of Zarathustrian understanding of their own texts. Although it is not a literal translation, it does convey an understanding of what the text means; and I would say that this traditional understanding is often MORE important than the literal translation of the words of the Gathas. If I may suggest an analogy, the Christian Parable of the Prodigal Son is probably one of the most important Christian teachings. But if you read a good translation of this passage closely you quickly realize that the literal meaning of the words is light-years away from the interpretation of them that is repeated year-by-year in various Christian churches. (In point of fact the prodigal is scheming, not repentant.) What should one be most concerned with if one wishes to understand the message? A pedantic reading of the TEXT, or the MEANING which people try and live by? The route of textual criticism, which has been followed by Christian scholars since the Reformation, is an arid one, which does little to increase one’s understanding of that faith and much to promote doubt and foolish speculation. Unfortunately, this route has been followed by nearly all Gathic scholars as well. My second point would be that although, occasionally, group efforts produce masterpieces most often they produce horrible and inconsistent pastiches. As the old jest goes, a giraffe is a horse designed by committee. While, by repute, various Bibles which are considered masterpieces of translation were produced by committee, in fact, few actually were; there are far more giraffes of translation than thoroughbreds. Furthermore another translation would be precisely that, another translation among many. Why should anyone prefer one to another? A far more fruitful course would be to produce a concordance of the various existing translations, and, amplifying this with reference to the Zand, produce a recension which is faithful to the spirit of Mazdayasna. (This is a project which I am, haltingly, attempting myself.) The difficulty for any translator, no matter how they approach the Gathas, is that this truly ancient hymnody is poetic by nature. To paraphrase Mary Boyce, the qualities of Zarathustra’s poems obviously represent the terminus of a long tradition. But, unfortunately, this tradition is lost to us. We cannot resurrect the resonance of Zarathustra’s more allusive verses, because we do not know the subject of the allusions. Any reader of ancient hymns and religious poetry has confronted this problem. Hymns from the Orphic Mysteries, the Mithraic cult etc are known, but are impenetrable. Only the Zand, to my mind, preserves an interpretation of what is said in the Gathas and makes it understandable. Ronald’s final point is well taken. The Gathas should be more readily to hand for Zarathustri and non-Zarathstri alike to make reference to. But, as a religion teacher of many years I realize this is not going to happen without a strong will within the Zoroastrian community; a will which transcends divisions over calendars, conversions, and purely parochial matters. (I do not deny that these are important matters, I merely state that too much energy can be spent over controversy which cannot be resolved without a greater degree of dogmatic organization than the Zoroastrian community appears to possess) It is sad that in Western societies (particularly in North America) more is known about the Shakers than the Zoroastrians; the one religion has, at last count, 9 believers while the other has hundreds of thousands. Such a situation can only be remedied by persistent and vocal proclamation of what one is about. But, in that regard, I think far too much emphasis is laid on the Gathas, to the exclusion of all other parts of the Avesta. More effort should be made to produce accurate and accessible translations of the Yasts, and the Yasna Haptanhati in particular. A living religion is the summation of all its sources. To ignore many of those sources in favour of one is ignorant and foolish. No one stands at the mouth of a great river and says “Ah this drop comes from a tributary stream and is not truly part of the river. Likewise this one. But this is a true drop from the river.”


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