WHY DID YOU START DOING TRANSLATION WORK? WHAT IS THE CONNECTION, IF ANY, BETWEEN THIS AND THE WORK YOU WERE DOING AS Z’EV OR UNS?
It had to do with the “central point” from which all the work originates. I had started writing in 1963, and in 1973 I began doing a lot of things with ‘transmutation’ and ‘permutation’, very formal systems applied to language;
transmutation: ABC/DEF, A=D, B=E, C=F; permutation: ABC, ACB, BCA, BAC, CAB, CBA.
These are meaningful in the context of a hieroglyphic language, but I was using the Roman alphabet and while it was intriguing to me, it had no apparent meaning to anyone else.
Nevertheless, I sensed that something was there.
I was also writing out of dictionaries: I had a self-pronouncing dictionary that I was given when I graduated from Elementary school, and at some point I chose that to be my work and experience pool, developing formal systems to access that information – writing poems from it. I would come up with a phrase or word such as “book token”; I would then pick a word beginning with the letters b-o-o-k-t-o-k-e-n, and generate sentences. Then I’d edit them, working up various versions of the generated sentences.
That work slowly developed into the “contexts” – context is defined as the weaving together of language, so I took this literally, cutting up the text and weaving visual works. This was the jump from the “Burroughsian” to a “Gysinian” process (so to speak): the desire to get the materials of communication to reveal their hidden truths, a popular concern at that time. There were a few shows of these visual works, but soon music would take up most of my time.
6 years passed, and I got involved with qabalistic studies – so I began to deal with a hieroglyphic alphabet rather than a symbolic one, and all of a sudden I discovered that trans- mutation and permutation are ancient systems of meditation and of mind concentration – a discipline but also an exegesis with which to call meanings from the hieroglyphs. I could jump immediately into it.
It was as if I’d already done the homework. I had already developed the mental muscles, so you could say that this was a giant coincidence, though obviously not a coincidence. Once again I was writing with dictionaries, looking up the meanings that came from the permutations and transmutations.
However, the story of how I came to write again in 1985 is extremely occult, meaning obscured and veiled. I don’t think it’s necessary to get into all the nitty gritty – suffice to say that at the end of 1984 in San Francisco, I began to do translations of liturgical texts – initially Tibetan texts, where I would start with the transliteration of the Sanskrit (how it’s pronounced); I would take this, and because the Babylonian/Hebrew characters from the Old Testament are phonetic, I would then trans- literate the Sanskrit into the biblical scripture. When I did this, it always matched – when checked against the English.
WHAT DICTIONARIES WERE YOU USING IN THIS PROCESS?
A dictionary called The Sepher Malim, the life-work of someone called Mordicai Jastro who lived in Philadelphia at the end of the 1800s. He worked for 50 years on it. It’s a dictionary that’s half Aramaic and half biblical Hebrew, with a large cross section of Greek transliterations. It’s not so much a dictionary of the bible, but of the oral literatures and commentaries on biblical texts. The rabbis used to sit around and discuss what such and such a verse meant, and there would be various schools of interpretation. It wasn’t until the Christian/Roman axis came along that there were fixed meanings ascribed to the Old Testament, when they translated it into Greek. Actually, it was the Jewish community in Greece that did this, but they were the community that most of the Christians came out of: Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians etc. The point is, there are two inter-locking systems – a consonantal system and a vowel system;
so say you have three consonants, F K and T, there are 9 vowel ‘points’, so they could be pronounced ‘fukata’, ‘fikoti’, ‘feketi’ etc., each giving different qualities of meaning.
Now, the biblical texts were set, but the Hebrew scrolls that documented them don’t include vowel points. These were memorized. So various schools then arose – Jesus had his school, and would interpret the bible by giving the words to a particular phrase different pronunciations, changing the meaning by doing so. The same text could become something completely different. The rabbis used to sit around and talk about the various interpretations and decide which ones were canonical and which ones were heretical. These conversations became what is known as oral literature (Mishna, Talmud, etc). There’s a whole written literature of the transcriptions of all these conversations that go back to about 100 B.C. up to about 500 A.D. This dictionary that I use refers to that literature and not the biblical literature, which is like a fixed deck. If you use a biblical dictionary, the only sound/word that you’re going to get will be the same as what you will find in
the Bible itself.
If you use the other dictionary, however, there might be 5, 6, or 7 different versions that come out of one word group. Different pronunciations. So you just figure it out. The number of meanings that can be drawn from one sentence can be pretty large. This has always intrigued me, so for a variety of reasons, in 1985, I decided that I was going to do a translation of The Song of Songs.
The first one I did I wasn’t really thrilled with, but by the second one I was really into it and I realized the magic of this system – how complex and subtle it was. The intellects that used to exist back then! People who could not only memorize a vast body of literature, but memorize its different versions. It makes computers puny; and they didn’t need printing when they had such incredible memories. In the context of all the other things I’m doing, I’m very interested in memory.
These stories (groups of hieroglyphs) are like repositories of memory, and like a matrix. The combinations of letters literally form a code. They have specific potentials for memory. And when you’re translating, it is like you are remembering the story – complete with visuals and the whole thing. It’s as if a voice were talking to you, this whole receptor/receiver process, the interlocking disciplines all coalesce. You’re listening, “skipping” around, then all of a sudden you pick up this signal that you follow. The thread you pick up weaves a story – you check the dictionary, and lo and behold that word is there, this word is there and that word is there. The letters point themselves before your eyes. To make a demonstration of this, I decided to do 3 translations, all different, but all consistent in their flow.
They don’t jump context from verse to verse. If you look at the canonical translations, they jump all over the place and include words that are redundant in their definition – they have no meaning beyond the fact that they appear in The Song of Songs. Like ‘the Shulamite’ is this “character” – but they have no idea whether it’s a person, a place or a thing, animal / vegetable / mineral. They just say ‘the Shulamite’. It could be a flower for all they know… “They” being the canonical authorities of the last 400 years. Definitions just reference ‘the Shulamite’.
Another thing that complicates the issue is that there are no spacings in very traditional scripturessincethelettersjust allrunintooneanother. Which means you can break them up in any way you want. The only thing that need influence your choice of breaks is whether or not you’re getting semantic material out of it or not. It’s much like computer hacking – tracing a current, following the flow of this massive amount of information, holding hundreds of combinations before your mind’s eye before making a selection. And because you’re dealing with these memories, you also start getting into the time travel aspect of it, following this voice as it becomes louder and louder, clearer and closer, until you reach the actual time and see the events taking place. you’re there, witnessing the story. It’s incredible.
So the translations also function as a form of travel.
They’re stories out of time – no different to a Grimm fairy-tale. They deal with these archetypal images.
One of the stories, Verse from out of the Cauldron, tells of the “mythical”/archetypal time when women were developing magic, and how that came about.
Songs of the Jackal is basically a book of the dead – it has a lot of similarities to The Egyptian / Tibetan Books of the Dead, witness the jackal, who you follow down into the hall of judgement.
And when I reached the end of Songs of the Jackal I found that it didn’t actually have an ending – which I couldn’t understand, seeing as the translation was going so well.
It took me a while to realize that I had to loop it back to the beginning for the last sentence to make sense. A cyclical thing: and every time you re-read it, you go through another bardo, to use a word from the Tibetan.
The Scales of Formation is basically a description of the cult of the snake that existed in the Middle East and the fertility ritual that took place under the dark of the moon after the Spring equinox.
The night of the snake, very similar to the maypole ritual where everybody would run out into the fields in the dark and freely procreate to spread the gene pool.
It’s also like a tantric manual for the fertility cult, both the outer and the inner. This story is so dense, describing all the rituals; I could see the mystery school that all the kids would go into, and I saw the dormitories where they stayed, where they ate, and so on.
BUT WHAT USE IS THIS?
Information. It’s a bit like being an ethnomusicologist – you go out into the field and you find this music that exists, you document it in the best way possible, and bring it back so that other people can share it.
As in Formations where it says “the flowing of pure movement is memory, the reproduction of an image of an action in another phase of manifestation…”
So you have these tracks – everyone who ever lived who ever had a story – it’s there.
It’s a conglomerate, a specific point, potentials, these points in space between the so-called prophetic texts (The Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Matthew, etc.) which exist on parallel realities.
It’s as if they were radio stations playing the blood music (as Greg Bear extrapolates so well in the book of the same name).
They might tell the same news, but with different slants – or even completely different reference points. They’re just like centers, nodes where consciousness is made avail-able. You go to the door, you knock, it opens up and you keep walking. You listen, looking for the signal to pick up, then you might have to backtrack. The voices don’t come immediately, and again it’s like hacking – you have to work. You might be up for a week solid without sleep to get all the way through a story; and at the time, that’s no great hardship because time stops. You just follow your senses to the sense that is there to be found.