Tough Translations

Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970) is considered one of Italy’s great modern poets. Like other Futurists, he supported WWI believing a bit of aggressive agitation could help regenerate and energize Italy. So he enrolled in the infantry serving in the trenches. But war was not as poetic as he thought. While in the trenches he reflected on the existential aspects of the war and began keeping a piece of paper and pencil stub in his pocket and started writing verses. But the trenches are not the easiest place in the world in which to write.  You never knew when you’d have to pick up your gun and shoot or be shot at. So Ungaretti developed a style that was minimal and to the point.

One of Ungaretti’s most famous poems is “Mattina”, that is, “Morning”:


These four words are a translator’s nightmare thus many variations exist of this one simple phrase. Examples include:

I illuminate (myself)
with immensity


Immensity fills

Me with light

The above are two variations but there are others as well. However, the best way to understand this poem is to understand its context.

Imagine yourself, a young man stuffed with radical ideas, forced to live in a trench. Suddenly the big ideas seem so small and the small things so big. After a day of skirmishes, you fall asleep exhausted in the trench in total darkness. Your ideals are losing their glitter but you wake up and above you is this immense sky. The sun is rising and covers you with its light.

Fontana del Mosè

Around 1585, Roman citizens complained that there was a need for more drinking water. So Pope Sixtus had several of Rome’s ancient aqueducts restored including the Acqua Felice aqueduct. Once the latter was finished, to publicize what he’d done for the citizens, the Pope commissioned the fountain known as Fontana del Mosè. Located just around the corner from Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, the fountain’s sculptural iconography blends many biblical and political motifs. But the focus is on the large central statue of Moses added in 1588.

foto by By Jörg Bittner Unna

If you look closely at Moses, you’ll notice a pair of horns growing out from his head. We can find the same horns on Michelangelo’s Moses found at the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains (so named because it houses the chains used to imprison Peter in Jerusalem).

So why were these horns placed on Moses’ head? Most scholars agree that the horns are a product of a bad translation. In Exodus 34:29 we’re told that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, he was so happy that his face actually shone. In fact, he was so radiant that two rays of light came out from his forehead.

The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic. In Hebrew “karan” or “karnaim” meaning “rays” could have been confused with “keren” meaning “horn”. In other words, Moses has horns thanks to a bad translation.

According to the Wycliffe Global Alliance with its mission of translating the Bible into every possible language, as 2022 the Bible has been translated into 724 languages. Just in English alone the Bible has been translated into over 100 versions. Same language, same book yet, nevertheless, translated in a variety of ways resulting in a variety of meanings.

Catholics have their own version of the Bible whereas Protestants have traditionally used the King James Version. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic whereas the New Testament was written in Greek that was later translated into Latin. Now imagine all these various translations, which existed before the printing press and word processors, being recopied by scribes.  It generally took a scribe 15 months to copy just one Bible.

There’s even a New International Version (revised in 2011). And in Britain another version of the Bible came out in 1996 with an “inclusive language” edition but its publication in the U.S. was opposed by conservative evangelical groups who resented the gender-neutral language.

As with the poetry of Ungaretti and the Horns of Moses, translations can be misleading. And wrong.

Now why would anyone want to base their code of ethics on a bad translation?


Related:  Trench Warfare and World War One: 400 Miles of Hell + Life in the Trenches + Ungaretti’s grave at Verano Cemetery in Rome

Moses’ Horns + Shiny or Horned + Moses’ Horns: The Perils of Mistranslation + Language of the New Testament + Reps. Greene and Santos would censor the bible, FFRF warns + Marjorie Taylor Greene tried to force Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib to retake their oaths on a Bible in a resurfaced video +

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