Lattimore on Translation

For Mark 7.1–5 I have written:

“Then the Pharisees gathered to him, and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, seeing that some of the disciples were eating their bread with profane, that is, unwashed, hands: for the Pharisees, and all the Jews, will not eat unless they have washed hand against first, thus keeping the tradition of their elders; and when they come from the marketplace they will not eat unless they have purified themselves, and there are many other observances that are traditional with them, the washing of cups and vessels both wooden and bronze: the Pharisees and the scribes asked him: Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of our elders, but eat their bread with profane hands?”

Let me try to put this into what is more like a contemporary idiom:

“The Pharisees, with some of the scribes, went out from Jerusalem to visit him. They noticed that some of his disciples ate without first washing their hands, which made their hands profane. The Pharisees and the Jews in general observe a tradition handed down from their ancestors not to eat without first washing their hands thoroughly. When they come in from the marketplace they will not eat until they have purified themselves. They have many other traditions, like washing their cups, whether these are made of wood or bronze. Because of all this the Pharisees and the scribes asked Jesus: Why do your disciples disobey our ancestral tradition by eating with profane hands?”

Now, other modern translators have modernized this passage much  more successfully than I have. My heart is not in this kind of rearrangement of the syntax. Still, all the essential meaning is there. But to me it reads much less like Mark than the version which stands in my translation.

—Richmond Lattimore, The Four Gospels and The Revelation

I’m with Dr. Lattimore. And the Pharisees. Wash your hands or you may be forced to commit the idolatry of worshipping the porcelain goddess!


6 comments on “Lattimore on Translation

  1. Dorothy W. says:

    The rhythms of the first translation feel more authentic to me — I'm sure it's because I grew up reading the Bible, and reading translations that stayed closer to the text. I think there are purposes for all kinds of translations, including looser ones, but I would turn to one that sticks closer to the original.

  2. Stefanie says:

    This is really interesting to me since I am reading Lattimore's translation of Hesiod. I posted about it yesterday. He curiously uses a high formal almost Biblical language in the poem's text but then gives a sort of explanatory gloss to some of the lines on the facing page in modern English. I was thinking it was really weird, but your quoted passage just clarified for me why he did what he did. Thanks!

  3. Sylvia says:

    Yes, I saw your post and it reminded me of this passage. I imagine the original was high and formal, and he just translated it into the English equivalent.

  4. Antony says:

    Geez, I really started you on something with this hand-washing thing!
    By the way, I like Lattimore a lot. I have his Four Gospels and Revelation translation.

  5. Sylvia says:

    You and also Imani, who was relieved of her cinnamon buns a few days ago.
    If only Lattimore had translated the Acts and Epistles as well… Sigh.

  6. Imani says:

    Fagles should sue Lattimore copyright infringement–his lack of imagination is stamped all over that “rearrangement of syntax”.
    Now that I got that off my chest I'll have to look into more Lattimore translations. I wasn't aware that he had done anything outside of the Greeks.
    — Imani who gobbled another cinnamon bun a minute ago

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