Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Q&A with Michael Straus

Michael Straus is the translator of Revelation, a new translation of the Book of Revelation. He practiced law in New York and then went to graduate school in classical languages. He lives in Alabama. 

Q: Why did you decide to embark on this new translation of the Book of Revelation? 

A: I had recently completed a graduate degree at Cambridge in Ancient Greek and was considering various writing projects, including a new, “literary” translation of the New Testament that would allow some freedom beyond the strictly literal. 

I happened to attend an “open studios” event at an artist residency program in Brooklyn where artists are given studio space and other facilities for a year. A sculptor I know was one of those artists and the event was a sort of “end of the year” event/celebration/party where visitors can see works done by the various residents (a few dozen artists) during the course of the residency. 

One of the open studios was Jennifer May Reiland’s, someone I didn’t know at all, but on the wall was a large and intricate drawing tracing the course of the Book of Revelation through a modern setting in what I thought was an entirely novel way but that also conveyed the combined sense of terror and elation found in the book itself. 

It seemed to me then and there that if she were interested, her drawings plus a new translation had the makings of a real collaboration. We discussed the idea and both enthusiastically agreed to start work on it. 

Q: How do you think this translation differs from previous translations, and what do you hope readers take away from it? 

A: As I indicated, I view this as a “literary” translation in that I took the Greek text as its baseline, of course, but from there tried to break free from the normal constraints of English grammar and vocabulary in an effort to capture in words what the author of the work – the Apostle John living in exile on an island – himself says cannot be expressed in words. 

So it is the inherent impossibility of seeing things that John says can’t be seen and saying things that John says can’t be said that presented the challenge. 

In distinction from previous translations, I therefore rendered certain phrases not in English but variously in French, Latin, Dutch, Spanish, Greek or Hebrew – not to be showy but because John often indicates that countless different people are present in a given scene speaking a multitude of languages. 

Likewise, I included excerpts from musical scores where song was indicated and, on occasion, links to videos of Handel’s Messiah, where passages from Revelation are also found in that work. 

Taken as a whole, the translation alternates – as does John’s vision itself – from relatively straightforward passages to those where he seems at a loss for words, in which case I have taken poetic license with some of the imagery and references and dispensed with punctuation or other normal structures, all in an effort to sweep the reader along as the vision unfolds.  

Q: What do you think Jennifer May Reiland's art contributes to the book? 

A: Jennifer’s illustrations are key to the book. For one thing, she too has taken what seem to be the literal outlines of the vision as her base but then departed in her own visionary way, thereby complementing the approach I have taken with the words of the text. 

In large part this involves transporting the vision to present day New York, such that (for example) the Twin Towers are aflame as an image of Babylon’s destruction. And where the saints are beheaded for their testimony she has drawn ISIS members decapitating a victim in front of a video camera. 

All in all the “action,” as it were, follows a wandering path along which ride the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse passing by vividly-drawn creatures derived from John’s efforts to put in words the often terrifying things he sees, whether multi-headed beasts or angels whose wings covered with eyes. 

Her illustrations are also in line with a great tradition art historically, inasmuch as the Book of Revelation has been illustrated by masters such as Albrecht Durer, William Blake and others. Simply put, these are illustrations for the 21st century and given the timeless nature of the vision, transposing it to the present day is in perfect harmony with the kind of dislocations ones sees as one reads.  

Q: Who do you see as the likely audience for the book? 

A: I would hope that the audience isn’t a narrow one. 

To be sure, the book should be of interest to anyone who considers herself a Bible reader – my goal is to be respectful and even true to the spiritual nature of the work and its core images of the End Times and the return of Christ should be fully intact, even if rendered more poetically and I hope more vividly then what can often seem like the pedestrian prose of most translations written in the shadow of the majestic English of the King James Version. 

At the same time, the book should appeal to those who simply appreciate seriously written and seriously illustrated books of whatever genre; and I therefore also see the book as of interest to bibliophiles in general. 

Beyond that, Jennifer’s work has recently received very positive critical attention by virtue of some shows in New York (including by way of a review in The New Yorker magazine) and I would guess that the work as illustrated by her will therefore also be of interest to those in the art world.  

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I am in the final proof and editing stages of a translation from Spanish of a long poem by Pablo Neruda, a poem in fact that has never previously been translated into English in whole or in part despite Neruda’s having won the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

The poem concerns his travels in exile from his native Chile because of his membership in the Communist Party and it reflects a deeply leftist perspective. 

Having first been published in Spanish in the mid-1950’s and thus the height of the Cold War and “Red scares” it could be that’s why it was left to the side. Regardless, it was written during Neruda’s mature poetic period and bespeaks the romance and lyricism of his finest works. 

The book is accompanied by a scholarly essay written by a Spanish professor from Columbia University and I am hopeful that it will now reach the English readership of which it has long been deprived. 

Oh yes, it’s also illustrated! This time in elegant and allusive drawings by Anna Pipes. The book is set in a special typeface designed by one of Neruda’s countrymen from Chile and I’m looking forward enthusiastically to its release this Spring.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Next project? Probably translations from certain Greek poetry of the 6th and 7th centuries B.C. And of course I’d love to see those illustrated as well…..

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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