Two Clouds of Unknowing

Several months ago I picked up a Modern English translation of The Cloud of Unknowing (an anonymous Middle English work of Christian mysticism) at a used bookstore in Taichung. It sat on my shelf for some time unread, and then suddenly I felt moved to read it. I finished in on April 19.

On May 4 — just fifteen days later — I went to the same used bookstore, and near the checkout counter there was a stack of fliers advertising an upcoming exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum called — Cloud of Unknowing. (This latter Cloud is being promoted on the museum website as “a themed exhibition on the subject of urban spatiality and issues pertaining to space” in commemoration of the 130th anniversary of the founding of Taipei, so the choice of the that particular name would be a bit of a mystery if we didn’t know the synchronicity fairies were behind it.)

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Incidentally, much is lost in Clifton Wolters’s translation of The Cloud of Unknowing. I’ve never read the original, but I was tipped off to its poetic superiority by a page header in the translation.

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Where the original had “a beam of ghostly light” (or, rather, “a beme of goostly liʒt”), Wolters replaces the gentle moonlight of “beam” with the more martial connotations of “shaft” — and then nixes the eerie, numinous “ghostly” in favor of the namby-pamby New-Agey “spiritual.”

The perfection of that one phrase, “a beam of ghostly light,” led me to look up the original text online. It opens with:

Ghostly friend in God, thou shalt well understand that I find, in my boisterous beholding,…

versus Wolters’s

My friend in God, it seems to me, in my rough and ready way,…

Really? “In my rough and ready way”? (“Boisterous beholding,” on the other hand, is so perfect that I decided to appropriate it as a new name for this blog.) And what happened to “ghostly” and “thou shalt well understand”? This is a pretty Zeppo-Marx approach to translation! (“Now, eh, you said a lot of things here that I didn’t think were important, so I just omitted them.”)

While the first word of the book is “just omitted,” elsewhere Wolters generally replaces every instance of ghostly with spiritual. While this is probably a perfectly defensible choice, given the way the meaning of ghostly has changed over time, I find that it annoys me to no end and seriously detracts from the quality of the book.

The truth is that neither ghostly nor spiritual is really an adequate rendition of the Middle English goostly. The Modern English ghostly has acquired unwanted connotations, having become too exclusively associated with apparitions of the dead, as opposed to spirits more generally. But spiritual, too, has suffered; it most often means simply “figurative” these days, or else “half-assedly non-religious.” Spiritual light sounds pedestrian, not at all supernatural, and leaves the reader blasé. Ghostly light has more the ring of authentic revelation, the sort of thing that “often times maketh my bones to quake while it maketh manifest.” It carries the connotation that every angel is terrible (and yet, alas, I invoke you, almost-deadly birds of the soul).* Neither is perfect; each adds or detracts something from the original; but I think ghostly is much to be preferred and comes closer to the spirit in which the Cloud was written. The 21st century is awash in spirituality (I, alas, am no exception), and a strong injection of medieval ghostliness is much wanted.

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*Joseph Smith and Rilke, respectively

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6 Comments

Filed under Anecdotes, Coincidence / Synchronicity, Language, Translation

6 responses to “Two Clouds of Unknowing

  1. Perhaps words themselves have ghostly qualities, being possessed of different meanings from different time periods; the older meanings never fully disappear, they’re just like a palimpsest’s fainter traces, discernible to those who know how to look….

  2. That reads like vandalism.

  3. You’ve stimulated me to download that Evelyn Underhill edited/ translated version (which reads like a – superb! – 17th century pastiche to me) – but I see that my university library seems to have an Early English Text Society edition, which I guess is in the original Middle English – so that will be a summer project.

  4. You can download Underhill’s version here: http://sacred-texts.com/chr/cou/index.htm

    I haven’t read the whole thing, but what I’ve read is excellent — far, far better than Wolters’s crime against poetry. It appears to be essentially the same as the original, but with the spelling modernized.

    • @WmJas- “I haven’t read the whole thing, but what I’ve read is excellent ”

      I agree 100% – it is one of the very best poetic translations I have ever come across, truly inspired.

      “It appears to be essentially the same as the original, but with the spelling modernized.”

      Yes, that PLUS a mind steeped in the Authorized Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.

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