Early on in a series I wrote for this site analyzing and reviewing another translation, a friendly and informed commenter brought up The Memoirs of St. Peter by Michael Pakaluk, a new translation of Mark’s Gospel with rich and ample commentary drawn from the Church Fathers. I’d never heard of it, so I read a few reviews, mainly for that small-minded reason that I wanted to have an opinion on it without having to read it, but the reviews made it seem quite interesting. And so I bought it, and yes, it is interesting. It is literal, but in unexpected ways. More than any other translation I’ve read it reflects the written biblical text’s roots in the spoken and proclaimed word.
On a lark I emailed Professor Pakaluk, who teaches at the Catholic University of America, to ask him a few questions and share his answers with you.
This book isn’t your first time translating from an ancient Greek text. How did translating sections of Aristotle’s Nichomean Ethics compare with translating Mark’s Gospel?
The task of the translator is the same in each. I take the sentence to be the unit of thought, and I ask, as regards the English sentence which is meant to render the Greek sentence: does it include every shade and nuance of the thought I discern in the Greek, and does it contain shades, nuances, or implications which are not in the Greek? I want the answers to be ‘yes’ to the first question and ‘no’ to the second. Of course the English sentence must read like a perfectly natural English sentence too. Anyone who renders Greek into ‘brutally literal’ English sentences–that is, sentences which no English speaker would say– probably does not know what he is doing. I like to say that my translations are highly accurate, not that they are literal.
You can see once I’ve described the task of translation that the real trick is having the skill to see all the shades and nuances of thought that are present, while having enough self-knowledge to see whether one has let alien shades and nuances intrude. Here’s where translating Aristotle has its own peculiar difficulties. I had a Greek professor who used to say about Aristotle, “His Greek is straightforward: it’s just that most of the time one has no idea what he is saying.” It takes a great deal of philosophical skill and insight to grasp what Aristotle is getting at. But this is a philosophical not a linguistic challenge. Mark’s gospel has no corresponding challenges (although sometimes translators or translation committees carry around a lot of theological complexity which trips them up). On the other hand, John’s gospel is in places as challenging theologically or mystically as Aristotle is philosophically.
Catholics have been complaining for over a century about how overspecialization in colleges prevents a holistic view of the world. And yet here we have a professor of Ethics and Philosophy translating a biblical text! Were you at all made to feel like an amateur or an interloper in the world of biblical translation?
I’m a pretty good interloper. People say that I’m a polymath, and I guess that is true. I have done much work that crosses the boundaries of disciplines in the academy. The truth is that since an early age I have always had four or five different interests going at the same time, and philosophy was always just one of them.
But the skepticism I’ve encountered—which has been minimal–has come mainly from traditionalist Catholics who are a little suspicious because they see that my translation does not have a Nihil Obstat or Imprimatur, and that it is not certified as approved by the USCCB. The reason it does not currently carry these recommendations is that the Doctrine Committee of the USCCB found that my translation was not the sort of work that needs these things — I believe, on the grounds that it is intended for private study only (but I don’t know their reason for sure). It certainly is my intent that the translation and commentary in no way diverge from Catholic truth (which I believe will be the case if I simply aim at truth).
You have some very interesting people who wrote blurbs for The Memoirs of St. Peter, including Scott Hahn and the late Sir Roger Scruton. The latter actually wrote that your translation would “most surely be the definitive version of a great book.” How did it feel to have your work commended by such important figures?
I believe my blurb was the last that Scruton wrote! Scott and Roger were both old friends. They knew from past experience that my work is good, and they expected it to be good, so I was not surprised that they said it was. Alas, Sir Roger cannot write a blurb for my next book. But I fully expect he will be advocating for it from a high place.
A distinctive feature of your translation is not smoothing over Mark’s urgent and unvarnished language. Could you tell us about making the decision to keep all those switches in tense and conjunctions?
I would not have kept them in order to be “brutally literal,” as I mentioned. I decided to do this only when I grasped or realized that Mark’s writing has the cadence of spoken language, because he was writing in imitation of what he had heard spoken aloud so many times. It was the thesis that Mark was Peter’s “interpreter” that led me to translate in this way. But then once I made this decision, I came to see that this approach also added to the sense of “immediacy” which readers say distinguishes my translation.
The translation is published by Regnery Gateway, a house that I associate more with conservative political and social works and not an innovative biblical translation. How did this partnership occur?
Regnery has always had a conservative political focus, but along with that, I understand, it originally had a wider scope, and I believe they regarded the publishing of my book as something like a return to their roots. When we were discussing my book, they pointed out that they were the original American publishers of the work of Romano Guardini. They thought, and I agree, that my book is very much in the tradition of Guardini’s The Lord. Of course, at the same time, there is a deep affinity between most streams of conservative thought and the Bible. Speaking of Sir Roger, I once heard him quip in a lecture, that “people mock America’s Bible Belt, but they fail to consider that it’s the Bible Belt which holds up America’s pants.”
Some of your work has been reintroducing a philosophy of friendship. What kind of friendship do you think Peter had with Mark?
I hold up John’s care to defer to Peter and recognize his authority as a model for how Mark would also have dealt with Peter, but even more so. Mark was not even an apostle, whereas Peter was the first of the apostles. It was not a friendship between equals. Aristotle says that when unequals are friends, the lesser party has to ‘equalize’ the relationship by somehow showing greater affection. But then look at what followed upon Mark’s great love for Peter: a gospel, which presumably Peter would not otherwise have committed to writing, and Peter’s fortitude in facing martyrdom.
Besides your book, I’ve been reading a book on Lectio Divina by Fr. Michael Casey, OCSO. Early on he mentions the attitude of an ancient monk, who sometimes had very little access to commentaries when he prayed with scripture and writes, “this meant that the monk reading the Gospels, for example, had to puzzle out for himself why the genealogy of Jesus is different in Matthew and Luke. His faith in the truthfulness of revelation invited him to read actively, to ask questions, to seek solutions–to search for a level of truth that was beneath the surface.” This immediately reminded me of your commentary, which is both thoughtful and finely observed, and quite faithful to the Church’s teaching. What strategies can you offer this blog’s readers for reading scripture with the mind of the Church?
First, I would recommend the use of commentaries, but only very good ones, and few are good. The Catena Aurea of Thomas Aquinas is very fine and a good place to start. Second, I would recommend reading Scripture with a view to truth. Keep asking–what must have been the case for what happened to have been written about and described as it was? Use the device (from Japanese manufacturing and quality control) of asking “five whys”–if you can’t ask and answer five why questions about something in a row, then you do not truly understand it. Third, and finally, I would recommend that people read through the Parochial and Plain Sermons of John Henry Newman, which are deeply scriptural. His manner of reading Scripture is the best model I know for our times.
To pick a passage I enjoyed almost at random, could you tell us about the episode of Jesus calming the storm at sea from 4:35-41?
This passage first of all has an interesting problem in it, in line 36, although many translators it seems don’t recognize the problem. I can get at it by giving the same words with two different punctuations:
(1) they took him along with them, as he was, in the boat, and other boats were with him
(2) they took him along with them, as he was in the boat, and other boats were with him
This mirrors well enough what is in the Greek. (The difference of course is not merely one of punctuation: the word ‘as’ takes a different sense in the two versions.) Most translations opt for version (1). But it makes little sense: what does it mean to say they ‘took him as he was’? Commentators point out that such a phrase and idea would occur only here in Mark, in this verse. But Mark is simple and down to earth with his language. He doesn’t leave things indeterminate like this — ‘they took him as he was.’
What these translators presumably don’t see, is that Mark thinks he needs to explain why ‘they took him along with them’ at all! This verb, to take along (paralambano) is what a superior does to an inferior, or what someone in control does to someone who is controlled. In other instances where the verb is used in connection with Jesus, he is taking others along with him, not the reverse. Mark recognizes that it was unusual for the disciples to appear to be as it were ‘directing’ the movements of Jesus, and so he feels he needs to explain it: the reason, then, was that Jesus was in a boat already, and there were other boats that took Jesus’ boat along with them. I would maintain that this is the way fishermen speak: unless a single boat is some kind of lead boat, then, when it goes somewhere with several other boats, one speaks of those boats as taking that single boat along with them, not the reverse. So there is this interesting problem in the passage, and I think my translation gets it right, and many other translations do not.
Most of the sentences in this passage begin with Mark’s usual ‘and’ (Greek: kai). It’s the most primitive way of connecting sentences in Greek. But in English, a similar effect is best attained, typically, by leaving out any ‘and’ and giving instead staccato sentences. This i try to do: But I will render kai when I think it plays a special function, such as giving a causal connection: “And the wind abated” (v. 39). I also render kai as ‘so’ when doing this contributes to the sensed effect of spoken language: “So they wake him up and say to him” (v. 38). These decisions involve judgment and sensitivity, and are a matter of how it sounds.
Mark’s language at 39 is very vivid, where I render it as “The sea became completely still.” What Mark means is that it became “like glass” –that’s our saying. When I was working on this, I had in mind the Titanic. You may not know this, but the evening it struck the iceberg and sank, that portion of the Atlantic was completely still, like a lake. No waves, not even any ripples. It was eerie to the witnesses. That’s the feeling I wanted to convey. Peter was there, and he was conveying what it was like for the sea to change in a moment from a storm to complete calm. I chose the word ‘completely’ because it is a long word, it takes time to say it, and it conveys a kind of flatness. Com-plete-ly … still. The word “still”, then, conveys silence and rest.
I believe Jesus was half-jesting and knew he was being (as we would say) outrageous in chiding them for being cowardly. After all it was a dangerously high wind and some boats were about to sink. They were fishermen after all and knew from experience what was truly dangerous and what was not. My hope was that the language “Why are you so cowardly?” would convey the incongruity better than other formulations.
Another small detail is that Mark wants to convey that Jesus speaks separately to the wind and to the sea. He tells the one to be silent and the other to quiet down. I tried in my phrasing to present this clearly to the reader.
I hope these brief comments give you a sense of the kind of thought which goes into a translation.
After some sleuthing online I found that your commentary and translation on John’s Gospel will be released next year. This time you are working with wife–how is that project coming along?
I sent my John book to the publisher in May, but because of the virus, I think, they are backlogged with book launches, and it will not be released until February!
That Amazon stub which you uncovered was written a long time ago. Back then, I thought maybe I could bring my wife in as a co-author. I wanted to do that, because I had depended on her insights constantly in writing the book. But in the end we both agreed co-authorship did not make sense. She has been writing her own book and could not give the John book the time which would have been necessary. At the same time my own thoughts were becoming crystallized.
I am deeply satisfied by this next book. I think the translation will be found very fresh and direct. But I’m especially excited by the commentary. It’s based on the idea that, if John took Mary into his household, and they lived together for perhaps as many as 30 years, they would have been of one mind about how to represent the life of Jesus to others — and, therefore, it should be possible to discern Mary’s influence and distinctive voice. I found this thesis verified in chapter after chapter as I wrote the book. I am hoping the book will be regarded as a solid contribution to what one might call a genuine Christian feminism.
Having worked on two Gospels, do you feel up to attempting Luke and Matthew?
Having finished John, I’ve started on Matthew. But I’m stymied for now because I don’t know whether I want to do the notes and commentary in the same way. I may just crank out translations of Matthew and Luke without commentaries so that Regnery or another publisher can bring out all four gospels in a single volume.
Thank you to Michael Pakaluk for taking the time to answer these questions in such a thoughtful manner.