Friday, July 12, 2013

Repetitions in religious texts

illustration of the Egyptian litany of Re
Why do texts contain repetitions? Just because they reproduce oral formulas? If so, there is no need to translate them wholly, since today's readers have the text in a book (or a pdf) and can go back to it whenever they want. If, by contrast, we want to keep repetitions in our translations, this might be a sign of the fact that we are sensing that they might have a deeper meaning.
In an interesting post, which does not allow comments (this is why I am writing my thoughts about it here), Naomi Appleton discusses the problems a translator faces while trying to translate Buddhist Jātakas, since they are full of repetitions.

Repetitions are surely a major challenge, especially for contemporary readers and translators (as Naomi notes here, many Sanskrit texts are already boring enough!). However, besides orality, I would add that repetitions may have a transformative effect: it seems to be not a coincidence that many religions have emphasised the importance of repeating formulas/litanies/etc. I guess that the rationale behind it is the idea that by repeating a sentence you are not merely repeating it, you are allowing the text to work deeper within your psyche, so that you will start to savour all the text's "hidden" meanings. For instance, the first time you read about the glorification of the Buddha you will just savour its literary value, the next time, its narrative role within the plot, but after the third one you might start feeling yourself within the group of kinnaras, gandharvas, etc., who are praising the Buddha… 

Which other purposes may a repetition have in today's world? By the last words I mean to exclude mnemonic and rythmic purposes, which are of minor importance for today's readers.
I hinted at this topic already here.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The reason might be this – words or particular structures of words often reinforce meanings or particular structures of meanings – meanings as are either naively expressive (without being particularly suggestive) or plainly unintelligible at first reading.

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