Okay, some of this blog is just me noticing things on re-reads, but I’m especially trying to talk about translation, and I haven’t done that recently. Fortunately this chapter provides me with two things to noticed in the Japanese.
There are several lines in this chapter that have become absolutely famous. One of them is verse 5, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” What interesting in Japanese is that “holy” is sei-naru. The character 聖 sei is appended to things to indicate that they’re sacred or particularly great. The verb naru means “to become.” So while the more conventional translation of the NCT’s verse 5 would be “the land you stand on is sacred ground,” it could also be translated as “the land you stand on is sacralized ground” – ground that has become sacred by the presence of God. Now, in practical terms Japanese tends to use sei-naru in a more permanent sense that this implies. But I liked saying “sacred” because, unlike “holy,” it has a verb form in English (sacralize, which Firefox spellcheck is refusing to recognize right now). Things like mountains and temples etc. in the Bible are sacred because of God’s presence. And that presence can move.
The far more famous line, however, is verse 14: “I am who I am.” Or translated another way “I will be who I will be,” since like Japanese, Hebrew doesn’t have a sharp distinction between present-ongoing and future tenses. It’s God’s answer when Moses asks for a name to identify God – basically refusing to give an answer. In the Greek of the Septuangint, it’s Ego eimi ho on, “I am the Being,” or “I am the Existing One.” In this interpretation, it becomes a descriptor of God’s being rather than a name. In the Hebrew it could also be interpreted more as a promise: I don’t need to give you a name, you’ll see soon enough who I am.
The Japanese translates this as two sentences Watashi wa aru. Watashi wa aru to iu mono da. Literally in English, that would be “I am. I am someone who is.”
Admittedly this is a very difficult thing to translate into Japanese because it has a very different grammatical structure from either English or Hebrew. The Hebrew Ehyeh asher ehyeh is “I am/will be – what/who – I am/will be.” You can’t do that in Japanese because Japanese verbs are always terminal and don’t conjugate. Watashi is “I”, wa is a particle that indicates that watashi is the subject of the sentence, and aru is…
Well, it’s “to be,” but that form is usually used for inanimate objects. A person, an animal, an anthropomorphized plan in one of my preschool student’s favorite books, all use iru. Why is God using a verb that’s only for inanimate objects?
But I dug around and was reminded that aru can also be used to emphasize a permanent state. Since the literal “I am what I am” would just be bizarre in Japanese, the translators opted to try to capture some of the same meaning – God’s nature is constant and observable – by choosing aru instead of iru. It compensates for the implications of inanimacy by using the Chinese character for mono that means “person,” rather than the alternate mono that means “thing.”
Translation is difficult work, at least if you’re doing it right and trying hard.
The Japanese: shuuto “father-in-law” (v 1), soreru “to veer off, to stray,” koukei “scene, spectacle,” midodokeru “to see for oneself” (v 3), tsubusa ni “with great care, in detail” (v 7), hirobiro “spacious” (v 8), appaku “pressure, oppression” (v 9), tokoshie “perpetual, eternal,” yoyo ni “in generation after generation” (v 15), tomonau “to accompany,” shutsugen suru “to appear out of nowhere” (v 18), koui “good will, courtesy” (v 21), soushingu “accessories, jewelry, ornaments,” gaitou “overcoat,” bundorimono “plunder” (v 22).