I’m currently translating a memra by Narsai, a 5th-century Syriac author known as one of the earliest and most significant proponents of “Nestorian” dyophysite Christology in the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon (for more info, see also here). I’m doing the translation in preparation for a presentation at a workshop dedicated to Narsai that’s coming up soon.
The specific memra that I’m translating, # 66 according to the calvis of Narsai’s memre prepared by Kristian Heal at BYU, is known by the title “On the Soul.” Throughout this memra, Narsai frequently relies on extended metaphors to illustrate his teaching about the soul’s relationship to the body. As I was translating, one particular metaphor caught my attention: the metaphor of a captain of a ship. Here are the lines in question along with a (rough draft!) translation.
ܒܩܲܠܝܼܠܘܼܬܼܵܗ̇ ܥܵܒܲ̇ܪ ܝܲܡܵܐ ܐܲܝܟ ܕܲܒܼܝܲܒܼܫܵܐ:
ܘܠܵܐ ܡܸܬܿܛܲܒܲܥ ܝܘܼܩܪܵܐ ܕܦܲܓܼܪܹܗ ܒܹܝܬܼ ܡܲܚܫܘܼܠܹ̈ܐ ܀
ܐܲܝܟ ܐܹܘܩܝܼܢܵܐ ܬܲܠܝܵܐ ܒܐܸܠܦܵܐ ܕܦܲܓܼܪܵܢܘܼܬܹܗ:
ܘܲܡܢܲܛܪܵܐ ܠܹܗ ܡ̣ܢ ܢܸܟܼܝܵܢܹ̈ܐ ܕܠܵܐ ܢܸܬܼܚܲܒܲܠ ܀
ܠܘܲܥܕܵܗ̇ ܪܵܕܹܐ ܐܲܝܟ ܡܲܠܵܚܵܐ ܒܟܼܵܘܟܿܒܼ ܢܘܼܗܪܵܐ:
ܘܗ̤ܝ ܬܵܪܨܵܐ ܠܹܗ ܫܒܼܝܼܠ ܡܲܪܕܲܝܼܬܵܐ ܠܲܠܡܹܐܝܢ ܫܲܝܢܵܐ ܀
“By her speed it crosses the sea as if upon land,
and the weight of its body does not cause her to sink in the floods.
Like an anchor she clings, the captain of its corporeality,
keeping it from injuries, so that it is not harmed.
Following her direction, it travels like a sailor in the starlight,
and she navigates the path of [its] journey to a safe harbor.”
There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the metaphor itself, but the beauty of Narsai’s poetic imagery is striking. I was especially drawn to the final two lines because of how evocative–and yet elusive–the precise metaphor is. What exactly is the soul in this metaphor? Is it the light? Is it the sailor? Is it the ship’s navigational system? Is it somehow all of the above?
In other words, what makes this metaphor so interesting to me is its playfulness; Narsai refuses, even in metaphor, to commit to a single image to illustrate the soul-body relationship. Instead, he provides a panoply of related images, allowing the hearer/reader to be immersed in a sea (pun intended) of symbols.
In fact, the translator may feel like they are drowning in Narsai’s dense metaphors at times, but ultimately the payoff is worth it.