So there's a piyyut (liturgical poem) by Ibn Gabirol (1021-1056) which we use in the Shabbat morning service. I've always liked it, and I'm also fascinated by the structure of it. And some lines came to me while I was doing boring experiments, and I found myself rather liking the idea of trying a verse translation, so I forced the rest. This is the result:
Protecting rock of mine,
Setting out to greet You
Prayers at their proper time.
Before Your awesome greatness
I stand and feel afraid,
For I know Your eye can see
My every secret thought.
What then I ask You may
My heart or tongue achieve?
Even more, I doubt the strength
Of spirit in myself.
And yet I know You love
The song of mortal man,
Therefore I shall praise you while
God's soul yet breathes in me.
For comparison, the first verse of a couple of other verse translations:
|Every day I seek You,|
My fortress refuge, rock and guide,
Set my prayers before You in the morning,
Worship You at eventide.
|Every dawn I seek You|
my refuge and might
set my prayer before You
each morning and night.
|From the Liberal prayer book, The New Service of the Heart. And quoted from memory because I don't have the book to hand, which also means I don't know who wrote this version.||From the Reform prayer book, Forms of Prayer. Probably by R. Magonet (metrical translations and general filking are very much his thing, but he's too modest ever to put his name to any of his work).|
And a literal translation (mine, and not very wonderful):
I keep on seeking You [at daybreak | at the time for the morning prayer]
My rock and my protector.
I arrange [before you | in your presence]
My morning prayer and also my evening prayer.
Before Your greatness
I stand and I tremble,
For Your eye sees
All the thoughts of my [heart | mind].
What is it that
The [heart | mind] or the tongue
Can do? And what is the strength
Of my spirit deep inside my organs?
Behold, You regard as good
The religious song of a mortal, therefore
I shall continue to give thanks to you as long as
the [soul | breathing part] of God is in me.
I was trying to do various things with this. Firstly, to preserve the original metre; the Reform translation I cite is not far off it, and can be sung to the same tune as the Hebrew at a stretch, whereas the Liberal translation, while metrical, has no connection with the original metre (and is sung to an entirely separate tune, since Liberals tend to go in for liturgical singing in English, quite often using tunes borrowed from Christian hymns). The metre is apparently simple, but the more I got into it, the more I realized it isn't. Also, writing this was an exercise in defeating the dactylic demons that beset a lot of the poetry I try to write!
Following on from that, I'm trying to bring out structural elements. So it's quite intentional that the first verse half rhymes and has a very strict metre, while the structure kind of unravels throughout the hymn, with the remaining three verses losing the rhyme, getting looser in metre, and being increasingly disrupted by enjambement. I think a lot of what's wrong with my effort is that I've been too pedantic about this. Anyway, the attempt, if not my poor execution of it, is rather influenced by Hofstadter's views on translation, particularly Le ton beau de Marot.
And then I wanted to put across some of the depth of language, the double meanings of the words, and their liturgical connotations. I'm not sure I've really succeeded in that. And I'm not sure I've succeeded in writing a poem with its own aesthetic merit and that reads well as English, mainly because I prioritized the first couple of goals too much.
Anyway, what is effectively a filk of Ibn Gabirol is really frighteningly hubristic anyway, since he is generally agreed to be the greatest of the payytanim. He's most famous for writing Adon Olam ('Eternal Lord'), the hymn which ends the Shabbat morning service. He has a really amazing sense of language which never degenerates into the kind of self-conscious cleverness you get from a lot of his contemporaries. And what I really love about him is his knack for making liturgy personal; he really gives a sense of the individual's relationship with God, and he does it by slightly changing the context of well-known liturgical phrases. This piece is a good example of that, it grapples with the paradox of trying to relate to, much less worship, an all-powerful and infinite God, and yet it is intensely personal, you really get a sense of the poet's character and emotions.
So obviously, I can't even begin to capture any of this. But I had fun playing with it, and now I'm having fun cluttering up your friends pages with the results.