A poem on reading the Gospels in Greek

Of my favorite poets Czesław Miłosz is in my top five (others are Yeats, Wordsworth, Heaney, and the fifth fluctuates I suppose).

by Czesław Miłosz
From The Collected Poems 1931-1987 (p. 234)

You asked me what is the good of reading the Gospels in Greek.
I answer that it is proper that we move our finger
Along letters more enduring than those carved in stone,
And that, slowly pronouncing each syllable,
We discover the true dignity of speech.
Compelled to be attentive we shall think of that epoch
No more distant than yesterday, though the heads of caesars
On coins are different today. Yet still it is the same eon.
Fear and desire are the same, oil and wine
And bread mean the same. So does the fickleness of the throng
Avid for miracles as in the past. Even mores,
Wedding festivities, drugs, laments for the dead
Only seem to differ. Then, too, for example,
There were plenty of persons whom the text calls
Daimonizomenoi, that is, the demonized
Or, if you prefer, the bedeviled (as for “the possessed”
It’s no more that the whim of a dictionary).
Convulsions, foam at the mouth, the gnashing of teeth
Were not considered signs of talent.
The demonized had no access to print and screens,
Rarely engaging in arts and literature.
But the Gospel parable remains in force:
That the spirit mastering them may enter swine,
Which, exasperated by such a sudden clash
Between two natures, theirs and the Luciferic,
Jump into water and drown (which occurs repeatedly).
And thus on every page a persistent reader
Sees twenty centuries as twenty days
In a world which one day will come to its end.

Berkeley, 1969
Lech Wałęsa, Czesław Miłosz and O. Mieczysław Albert Krąpiec circa 1981

Ironically, the poem above is about reading the Bible in its original, untranslated purity, yet the poem was written in Polish and then translated into English. Translations of poems suffer much of the same problems as do translations of scripture, though I think this translation reads beautifully.

On translating his poems from Polish into English (from the Preface):

The existence of this body of poetry in a language different from the one in which it was written is for me the occasion of constant wonder. It means many hours throughout the years spent over the texts with my co-translators, and is a reminder of their devotion and friendship.
My gratitude to that team is not only for the amount of time they spent on my verse, but in the first place for their active interest, their warmth, and a feeling that they gave me of artistic and intellectual affinity. Not the least important was our common sense of humor, for toiling we often laughed.

Can we not say, then, that to translate is to befriend the author? And that, by extension, all translations are reflections on friendship and all the vagaries that friendship is subject to?

One thought on “A poem on reading the Gospels in Greek”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s