Czeslaw Milosz: My Biblical Translations
In the sixties I often discussed with my late friend and Roman Catholic priest, Jozef Sadzik, about the need for poets to make new translations of the biblical texts. Canonical versions are often too archaic for modern readers. Such is the case of The King James Bible of 1612 and in Polish The Jakub Wujek Bible of 1595. On the other hand translations done in the 20th century sound flat and uninspiring. My friend prodded me to translate "The Book of Psalms." I answered: "I am willing, but leave me some time so that I learn Hebrew." I didn't want to follow the custom widely spread in Catholic countries of translating The Bible from Latin.
It took me a couple of years to learn Hebrew and be ready to approach "The Psalms of David." My translation in 1978 was then followed by translations of "The Book of Job" and of the shorter Books of The Old Testament, "Song of Songs," "The Book of Ruth," "The Laments of Jeremy," "Kohelet," and "The Book of Esther." My cooperation with my late friend was close. We checked the text with Greek and Latin versions. I profited also from the help of Dr. David Weinfeld of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, himself a translator of Polish modern poetry into Hebrew.
My task as a translator consisted in finding a language not too archaic and yet not contaminated by the speech of mass media. In some modern languages there is no difference between various kinds of speech according to the use it serves. In other words, there is only one common language. There are though, other languages, especially of the Slavic group, which preserve a difference between high and low varieties of speech. "High speech" is used in liturgy and religious poetry. To some extent this is the case in Polish.
Besides translations from Hebrew, I have made Polish translations of two books included in all Orthodox and Catholic Bibles but not Protestant Bibles, "The Book of Wisdom" (sometimes referred to as Sirach or Ecclesiasticus) and the "Wisdom of Solomon" (probably written in Greek by a Jew of Alexandria). I have also translated "The Gospel according to Mark" and "The Revelation of Saint John."
I consider work on the Bible of a basic importance for the modern poet and here the example of Walt Whitman is most valid. The biblical texts keep us from many aberrations of our epoch and provide us with a link to centuries with old traditions.
Citation: Czeslaw Milosz, " Czeslaw Milosz: My Biblical Translations," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=72