Translating the poetry of Yeshua

The translator of a new version of the Gospels and Revelations visits Reno to read poems and talk about language

Poet and translator Willis Barnstone visits the University of Nevada, Reno.

Poet and translator Willis Barnstone visits the University of Nevada, Reno.

Photo By David Robert

Many of Willis Barnstone’s books, including The New Covenant, are sold at the University of Nevada, Reno’s ASUN Bookstore, 900 N. Virginia St. Call 784-6597.

Willis Barnstone, a poet, translator, professor and literary critic, takes photographs. He mentions this as we lurch across North Virginia Street through busy afternoon traffic, looking for a place on the University of Nevada, Reno, campus to take a picture.

He took pictures for the Saturday Evening Post and shot a book of photos in China during the Cultural Revolution. He was given wide latitude by the government, he says, because he’d translated the poems of Mao Tse-Tung. Barnstone has translated Chinese and Spanish poetry. He’s translated the Greek writings of Sappho.

“I’ve translated everything,” Barnstone says, pausing to unzip a black bag stuffed with books. “Everything including myself.”

Barnstone selects a book from his bag and pages through it to find a few portraits that he shot of his good friend, the Spanish writer Jorge Luís Borges. The book, one of two memoirs written by Barnstone, is titled With Borges on an Ordinary Evening in Buenos Aires. The title comes from the name of a Wallace Stevens poem, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.”

Barnstone leans into the ivy beginning to grow up a corner of a brick porch near Manzanita Lake. He’s wearing a black jacket, tan slacks and Nike tennis shoes. Photos are shot with his dapper gray cap and without. He needs some hair conditioner, he says, and he also has a mid-afternoon hankering for raisins. There’s a convenience store nearby, I note. “Let’s go for a walk to the gas station.”

“Now that would be a good name for a poem,” he responds. “Wouldn’t it?”

When a publisher asked Barnstone if he’d like to do a translation of the New Testament, Barnstone says he about fell over. He says that the folks at Penguin Putnam have been great to work with.

Some editors, he says, will reach a point where they’ll say, “No more changes!”

“But this is the Bible,” Barnstone says, affecting a nasal tone. “You gotta do it right.”

His first chunk of material—the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John and Apocalypse (Revelation)—was published by Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Putnam, this year as The New Covenant: Commonly Called the New Testament Volume 1. The translation includes the familiar Biblical text rendered in lovely poetic language with some unfamiliar names that make Semitic sense. Jesus becomes Yeshua ben Yosef and John the Baptist is Yohanan the Dipper. The words of Yeshua become lines of poetry, much like the Psalms or Song of Songs in the Old Testament.

“I wanted to use Plato’s notion to remember what was forgotten, what we once knew, which was the names,” he says. “And I have a personal interest in restoring the poetry.”

And don’t look now, but the Apocalypse, “that great epic poem of the New Testament,” as Barnstone calls it, is translated into iambic pentameter, like Paradise Lost.

“The Apocalpyse is—what’s the word I’m looking for—Star Trek,” he says, smiling. Then he turns serious. “Here’s where the real anger of the people toward the Roman government comes out.”

Barnstone begins an evening reading at the UNR student union with several of his poems, reading his newer works in French and then in English. He recently spent two years in France and wrote an entire book of poems in the language. When he came back to the United States, a publisher was interested in the book, but only if he’d translate it back into English. He carries the manuscript (with poems now in both languages) in a fat FedEx envelope.

Then Barnstone moves on to read selections from The New Covenant. Many scholars disparage the simple Greek used by Mark as unrefined, he says. This annoys Barnstone.

“They dump on him and say, ‘It’s crude.’ The language is plain, but there’s magnificence in the plainness. … New Testament Greek is fabulous. Fabulous is a good word for it.”

He begins with the last chapter of Mark because he likes the “ending that is a non-ending.”

“When Shabbat was over, Miryam of Magdala and Miryam of Yaakov and Shomit bought aromatic spices so they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb as the sun was rising. They said to each other, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ They looked up and saw that the stone had been rolled away. And it was huge. Then on going into the tomb they saw a young man sitting on the right, dressed in a white robe, and they were utterly astonished. He said to them, ‘Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Yeshua of Natzeret, the one who was crucified. He was raised. He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go tell his students and Kefa, “He is going ahead of you to the Galil. There you will see him, just as he told you.” ’

So they went out and fled from the tomb, seized by trembling and ecstasy. And they said nothing to anyone. They were afraid.”Barnstone goes on to read from Luke, the parable of the prodigal son. The poet becomes so moved by Yeshua’s story of a father’s unconditional love that Barnstone can’t complete the reading. A member of the audience finishes reading the tale.

These days, Barnstone is a distinguished professor of comparative literature and a founding member of the Institute of Biblical and Literary Studies at Indiana University. His history is full of twists and turns. He’s been in Reno once before—in 1943 at the age of 15, when he was traveling with his father to Mexico. At the age of 18, Barnstone was teaching English in the evenings at a university in Mexico. In the late 1940s, he went to France to study philosophy. By 21, he could speak English, French, Spanish and Greek.

“I’m good at languages,” he says offhandedly. “I have a monkey’s ear. … I used to do pretty well in Chinese, but that’s like learning half a dozen languages.”

In 1949, Barnstone taught in Greece, and he taught in Buenos Aires during the Dirty War. Besides being in China during the Cultural Revolution there in the 1970s, he was a Fulbright Professor of American Literature at Beijing Foreign Studies University in 1984-85. The Other Bible, a collection of New Testament-era writings that didn’t make the Biblical “cut,” is among Barnstone’s many books of translation, literary criticism, memoir and poetry. He’s working on Volume 2 of The New Covenant; he’s about halfway through the “Activities of the Messengers,” aka Acts.

For two days last week, Barnstone visited classes and lunched with such UNR folks as associate philosophy professor John Kelly, who’s a member of the Jesus Seminar, a national group that evaluates evidence of a historical Yeshua ben Yosef.

Barnstone says he essentially tries to stay out of “such minefields” as the debate over a historical Jesus. He says his translation is agenda-free in that sense.

“If you have faith, you can find in this book what will support your faith," Barnstone says.