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Zorro & Bathsheba

Translation is an art, and not an easy one. One of the great stories in the Bible is 2 Samuel 11-12, wherein a glimpse of the beautiful Bathsheba leads King David to lust, which leads to adultery, betrayal, and murder, which leads to punishment and repentance, which leads to a royal marriage, which leads to the birth of Solomon, whose mother, of course, is Bathsheba. The writer sets the scene wonderfully: It is springtime, David is just up from a nap, he is enjoying the view from the palace roof, and he sees Bathsheba bathing below in the open air. This delicate moment, fraught with meaning for the whole of Judeo-Christian history, calls for a delicate and self-effacing translation.

The Revised Standard Version (Protestant) has it: “Late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch…” The New English Bible (Protestant) has it: “One evening David got up from his couch….” But the New American Bible (Catholic) has it: “One evening David arose from his siesta….”

Once the reader stops chuckling, weighty cogitations ensue. Does “siesta” perform the task that a good translation must? Does it set us on the royal rooftop, beside King David, who yawns and stretches and gazes out over his domain, his eyes bleary from sleep and still unguarded, his head full of inchoate desires left over from his dreams? Or does it whisk us away from Jerusalem and set us down in old California, amid the Spanish missions of the golden West? Will Zorro come riding in to save the lady from David’s depredations?

And even weightier cogitations follow, for the question of inclusivity must come up. Will “siesta” be inclusive only of those in hot climates who eat a big lunch and then have a nice doze? Will it exclude everyone else? But if we retreat from the piquant “siesta” back to the colorless rendering “his couch,” will we offend the homeless by reminding them of their lack of furniture? We might decide just to translate it as “David got up from a snooze.” That would include all of us, since we all snooze from time to time. Or do we? What about the insomniac community?

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