In January 1928, Franz Rosenzweig wrote an article for Martin Buber's fiftieth birthday, entitled "The Secret of the Biblical Narrative Form." Its four appearances in print had been confined to German language editions until the welcome collection of writings by Buber and Rosenzweig in English translation, Scripture and Translation.(1) At the time of writing (henceforth referred to as the "Secret") Rosenzweig had been working with Buber on the Bible translation for almost three years. Rosenzweig attributes the discovery of the secret of the biblical narrative form to Buber, who, significantly, himself discovered it in the process of translating.
Rosenzweig's title underscores his objection to the view that privileges content over form. He argues that content and form are mutually dependent, and, moreover, that form discloses content. In translating any great work, therefore, to alter the form is to alter the content, and thus inevitably, on some important and sometimes crucial levels, also the meaning. Rosenzweig notes, although he takes exception to Goethe's view, that Goethe "touches...on a seminal question in the speaking and hearing of the biblical word."(2) For translations of poetry Goethe insisted undeviatingly upon content, so that the translated text would reach the widest possible audience.(3) "It is striking," Rosenzweig says, "that for Goethe as for anyone who takes the question seriously, the answer seems at first to have to be either one side of a dichotomy or the other. It seems, that is, that since there can be no truce between the claims of religious content and the claims of aesthetic form, the translator must choose between the claims of poetry and the claims of prose."(4) By contrast with Goethe, Rosenzweig stands in the company of those few translators and translation theorists who contend that poetry not only can be translated as poetry but indeed must be.
Where Rosenzweig perhaps stands alone is in his polar view of language. He argues that already in germ from the beginning of speech, there is only one language. From a biblical standpoint and as a believer he claims there is only one. In his translation of ninety-two poems by Yehuda Halevi, which renders every detail of form, Rosenzweig claims:
There is only one language. There is no language trait of one language that
not evidence itself, at least in germ, in every other language, be it in
nurseries, pecularities of trades. Upon this essential oneness of all
and upon the dependent commandment, namely that of universal human
mutual understanding [Verstandigung], is based the possibility as well as
of translating, its Can, May, and Shall. One can translate because in every
language is contained the possibility of every other language; one may
if one can realize this possibility through cultivation of such linguistic
land; and one should translate so that the day of that harmony [Eintracht] of
languages, which can grow only in each individual language, not in the empty
space `between' them, may come.(5)
With regard to translating poetic content into a matching or corresponding poetic form, Rosenzweig forcibly writes in the "Secret": "I genuinely believe that the individual structure of every hexameter in the Odyssey has a felt and sometimes perceptible relation with the individual words of that line; to translate is in fact to translate this relation, to make it once again felt and sometimes discernible."(6)
And, in the form of a bold challenge written in the afterword, Rosenzweig stresses his contention that form and content must not be dualistically opposed"(7) "If finally I may express a wish, then it is the double one that the level established here in this small selection will soon be flooded, but that not one of my successors in this territory may have again the daring of laziness to fall behind the measure of exactitude reached here. …