Wisdom: Where shall we find Her?

John Deehan continues to explore the teaching of the Book of Proverbs, exploring how the use of irony and paradox leads to profound truths which are often lost in translation.

In a previous article, I proposed that the different sections of the book of Proverbs could be compared to notes for a series of masterclasses by the sages of Israel. The content of the masterclasses was everyday life as lived in a family, a neighbourhood or even the royal court. Its methodology was founded not on speculation but reflection on human experience in all its complexity. For the seeker of wisdom to attain their goal required first motivation, the desire to be wise, and secondly hard work, in the way of reflection. The proverbs themselves were the tools through which the teacher could enable their pupils to grow in wisdom. They are training materials to aid the pupil’s perception, insight and good judgement. But something more is required, what Proverbs calls the ‘fear of the Lord’. If the pupil’s knowledge is not accompanied by moral endeavour and fails to recognise that wisdom is the Lord’s gift, their knowledge will remain at the level of sophistry.

The proverb then is the starting point for reflection. While it may well be the product of wisdom, it is not just a simple receptacle of information which the pupil can receive whole and entire, with no more to be said. It is an invitation to the pupil to think, to struggle with its meaning and relate it to experience of everyday life. This becomes more evident when the proverbs are read in the Hebrew language. They reveal but also conceal. They are written not as prose but as poetry; often nouns and phrases are juxtaposed without any verb, giving them a succinctness which is rarely replicated in translation. For example, a literal translation of the Hebrew of Proverbs 14.2a would be, ‘walking in his uprightness afraid (of) the Lord’. The NRSV translates ‘Those who walk uprightly fear the Lord’ turning the adjective ‘fearing’ (in the construct state – thus linking it with ‘the Lord’) into the main verb and making ‘those walking uprightly’ the subject. But it is not clear in the Hebrew text that ‘fearing (afraid of) the Lord’ is not the subject. Roland Murphy’s translation acknowledges the ambiguity of the Hebrew: ‘Whoever walks uprightly: one who fears the Lord’.1 One might ask if the whole point of the Hebrew is to express the notion that fear of the Lord leads to righteous conduct, but righteous conduct points to fear of the Lord. What to an English translator looks like a stylistic asperity is actually drawing the pupil’s attention to a profound but mysterious truth. Translators, in their desire to make the original text meaningful for their audience, can end up flattening the original text and suggesting clarity where the original is deliberately ambiguous.

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