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I am become death, the destroyer of worlds...

 
 
Ashers
 
Reply Mon 24 Oct, 2011 04:42 pm
Is there any significance as to the grammar of this translation from the Bhagavad Gita, famously pondered over by Oppenheimer as the first atomic bomb was detonated?

There seems to be a strong suggestion that it should actually be "time" and not "death" anyway, which would put a different slant on it altogether.

But what of the "am become" rather than, say, "have become"? Is it simply a case of archaic/contemporary english grammar? The latter seems to lack gravitas but I'm not sure if that's because it is simply the common (rather than historically poetic) way of making such a statement or if it's because they present subtly different points.

"I have become" seems to stress some sense of direction. "I am become" seems to stress the being, "in flux" itself. This would also fit better (I think) if it should read, "I am become Time". I can think of other examples such as "The Lord IS come" too, so I guess it is just a case of archaic grammar. Translators have some serious work cut out for them with this stuff!

Anyone have a translation of their own or have any thoughts as to the meaning/structure of this statement? In context or otherwise.
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Setanta
 
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Reply Mon 24 Oct, 2011 05:22 pm
It is neither archaic nor ungrammatical.
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Setanta
 
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Reply Mon 24 Oct, 2011 05:28 pm
By the way, from the translation which Oppenheimer referred to, the text is actually: Now i am become death, the destroyer of worlds. Maybe that will help you deal with the grammar better, although, as i've already pointed out, there is nothing grammatically "wrong" with it.

An alternate translation reads: Doom am I, full-ripe, dealing death to the worlds, engaged in devouring mankind. . . . and renders the next verse: Even without your slaying them not one of the warriors, ranged for battle against thee, shall survive.
Ashers
 
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Reply Mon 24 Oct, 2011 05:39 pm
@Setanta,
Oh OK so is it simply a matter of convention as to what becomes typical usage? With the "now" added, the two do seem very equivalent. Your alternative translation is very interesting, thank you!
Setanta
  Selected Answer
 
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Reply Mon 24 Oct, 2011 06:25 pm
@Ashers,
You're welcome for that. I can't, however, exactly agree with the statement about typical usage. This is not typical usage, but not being typical doesn't make it "ungrammatical" or incorrect. Let me see if i can make my meaning more clear.

John Donne wrote a sonnet which begins: Death, be not proud . . . and which ends: Death, thou shalt die. Donne is not saying that death is proud, he is telling death not to be proud. He is apostrophizing death. Donne was a preacher, a satirist, a poet and a lawyer. This is what is called metaphysical poetry. His reference is to christianity, which holds that the sacrifice of the putative Jesus banished death, that it gave eternal life to everyone. Anyone who cannot grasp that Donne is addressing Death (with the capital "d"), for this artistic purpose, is rather dull-witted.

It's not just the substance of the text which may call for less than common usage, either. A gentleman named Edward Fitzgerald who lived in the 19th century was what was then known as an orientalist. That is to say, he studied the culture and literature of the east, of the Orient. He remains famous to this day for having translated the poetry of a Persian named Omar Khayyam. Khayyam was a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and poet. He wrote extensively on many subjects including climate, theology, mechanics, music and geography. Fitzgerald became famous for translating his poetry into English. Other orientalists, though, objected to the accuracy of his translation. So, he wrote a second edition, which faithfully translates the poetry--and it was as dull as dishwater. He was to write three more edition, in which he returned to translating Khayyam in a manner which made the poetry of the English as glorious as it had been in the original Farsi (the language of the Persians). Here is one of the best examples:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit,
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.


Now, this is not typical usage, but it makes poetry of the message, and makes the message memorable. I, for one, am glad that people do not restrict themselves to typical usage.

*******************************************

There is another lesson in this, too. John Donne was a lawyer, a priest of the Church of England, a satirist and a poet (and a rueful and sometimes bitter lover of women). He wasn't just one thing, he wasn't just a priest, or just a poet, or just a lawyer--he was many men in one. Omar Khayyam was also, obviously, many men in one. Even those whom we might view more prosaicly have been more than one man in a single mind. Winston Churchill was a professional soldier, a professional journalist, a professional historian, a competent if not brilliant watercolorist and a competent bricklayer (the man who taught him bricklaying was able to make him a journeyman of his own account, but when he applied to make Churchill a master mason, the Trades Union Council refused, because of a grudge they had against Churchill). These men, often remembered for a single thing, were in fact many men in one.

So was Robert Oppenheimer. Although he is remembered as a theoretical physicist (who helped to create a horrible practical application of the discipline), he attended Harvard to study chemistry. In addition to his major in chemistry, he was required by the rules of Harvard to study history, literature and math or philosophy. He studied them all. His independent study was so impressive, he was admitted to graduate courses in thermodynamics (and so eventually became a physicist). He finished Harvard in three years. That he could quote the Bhagavad Gita is evidence that his mind did not run in a single, narrow channel. He was many men in one mind.
Cyracuz
 
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Reply Mon 24 Oct, 2011 09:16 pm
Sometimes I see the phrase "I am returned" meaning "I have returned".

I take it to mean the same, only using different means to communicate it. The first refers to the condition or location of the speaker, the second refers to an action the speaker has completed. The first may not be common, but if we look at different words... "I have finished" and "I am finished". There are many times the two are interchangeable.
Ashers
 
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Reply Tue 25 Oct, 2011 01:19 pm
@Setanta,
I don't think I called it incorrect or ungrammatical, or if I implied it, I certainly didn't intend to. I was assuming quite the opposite in fact, since I was aware of Oppenheimer's knowledge of Sanskrit. What I was wondering about is my calling it "archaic" and how typical usage then and now affects such things as translations. As far as what is more or less poetic, I completely agree and prefer "Now I am become" over the alternatives. In terms of Fitzgerald and his multiple translations, this is exactly the kind of thing I had in mind when I suggested the difficult job translators have. As per Cyracuz's post I was also wondering if more is lost besides in terms of meaning too but that's a separate matter I guess. Thanks for your elaboration though, much appreciated. And I like your point on, "many men in one mind". I've long admired such men!
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Ashers
 
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Reply Tue 25 Oct, 2011 01:23 pm
@Cyracuz,
Yes, "the different means to communicate" is a good way of putting it and your explanation of the two and their respective emphasis is the kind of thing I had in mind too. It's just interesting to me, the impact the lines have when altered in this way. At least the impact they have on me anyway.
Cyracuz
 
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Reply Wed 26 Oct, 2011 04:17 am
@Ashers,
I agree. There is a kind of poetic flare to it.
JLNobody
 
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Reply Wed 26 Oct, 2011 09:27 am
@Cyracuz,
Yes, very dramatic.
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High Seas
 
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Reply Wed 26 Oct, 2011 10:08 am
@Setanta,
Donne wrote long after the translation in the King James bible. By chance (my late mom's charitable foundation to benefit dolphins and whales) I know an excerpt from Psalms in that translation (it was on the foundation's letterhead) that would certainly show the same usage of "to be" in lieu of "to have":

Quote:
Deep calleth unto deep at the sound of thy waterspouts
All thy waves and thy billows are gone over me
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Setanta
 
  0  
Reply Wed 26 Oct, 2011 10:26 am
When, in these fora, i quote scripture, i always quote the King James version. Not only is that the version in which i twice read the entire book (despite being raised a Catholic by my Protestant grandmother), but it represents a very intelligent and elegant expression of the language. That i don't subscribe to the beliefs doesn't alter my appreciation of the quality of the writing.
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