Translator’s Note,by Simon Bartholomew

Hymn of the Universe
by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Translator’s Note,by Simon Bartholomew

In this book it is almost always Pere Teilhard the man of prayer rather than the man of science who speaks to us. As Sir Julian Huxley wrote of The Mass on the World, it is a ‘truly poetical essay . . . at one and the same time mystical and realistic, religious and philosophical’. This does not mean, of course, that the author ever forgets or betrays his science; what it does mean is: that the reader’s approach, and response, to these pages must of necessity be quite different from those demanded by the scientific works. The mystic, the poet use language in a way essentially different from that of the scientist.

In his study of St John of the Cross in The Degrees of Knowledge M. Maritain defined this difference with clarity and exactitude in terms of the contrast between the (poetical) language of the mystic and the (scientific) language of the theologian, and pointed out the disastrous results of reading the former as though it were the latter. The aim of scientific language is to provide exactly defined and unambiguous statements about reality; that of poetic language is to communicate reality itself, as experienced, by means of imagery, evocation, tone, and the ambiguity — or rather ambivalence — of paradox, of symbol. That is not to say that poetic language is nebulous, vague, uncertain: on the contrary, the cutting edge of great poetry is sharper and digs deeper than that of any prose. But we shall never hear what the mystic (or the poet or the musician) has to tell us if we are listening on the wrong wave-length.

‘God needs man,’ said Angelus Celestas. If this were a scientific-theological statement it would be an absurdity, just as if Christ’s ‘Lazarus our friend is sleeping’ were a scientific — medical statement it would be a falsehood. The theologian has to restate, laboriously and at length, in his own language what is contained in the mystic’s flash of intuition. (The words of Silesius comes to mind because there are lines in this book which both echo them and elucidate them.) Thus there is no need for us to be alarmed at such ideas as that of God ‘animating’ the world of matter, or of the whole world ‘becoming incarnate’: we shall find plenty of parallels in St Paul and in the traditional theological doctrine of the omnipresence of God. And at the same time it should perhaps be said that; while an acquaintance with Pere Teilhard’s scientific works must naturally be helpful in understanding fully this present book, it is by no means necessary to know, still less to be in full agreement with, the author’s scientific theory in order to be profoundly stirred and illumined by these pages.

The special response from the reader invited by a book such as this is paralleled by the special demands put upon the translator. Translation must always of course be a rendering not of word for word but of idea for idea; to be content to transliterate is merely illiterate. But whereas in translating scientific prose the aim is simply to reproduce with complete accuracy the author’s statements, in translating ‘poetic’ language the primary aim is not just to reproduce statements about reality but, as far as may be, to make the same communication of reality — which will mean trying to reproduce something of the author’s ‘tone of voice’, something of the mood and colour of tie original. And, it may be added, a poem (unlike a scientific treatise) may well defy an exact ‘literal’ rendering, even were it the job of the translator to attempt one. (For instance, quite apart from the untimely echoes of Alice, and of Sir Winston Churchill’s first steps with the Latin primer, which the phrase would arouse, you just cannot, in English, say ‘0 Matter!’) In this book, then, and especially in the earlier part, I have sometimes resorted to a slight verbal elaboration, either because there was no alternative if one was to write English at all, or because two words seemed necessary to convey the full ‘poetic’ content of one word in the French, or again because a verbal elaboration seemed more likely to communicate the colour (and colour is of the essence of vision) of the original. But I think it is true to say that nowhere have I made any substantial addition to or alteration of the author’s insights and ideas; and to a great extent, especially in the latter part of the book, it was in fact possible to cling closely not only to the sense but also to the wording of the French.

The translation of the Latin in the footnotes follows the Douai version of the Bible.