Willis Barnstone is a renowned poet and translator. His translations range from pre-Socratic Greek philosophers to medieval Cathars, as well as several modern luminaries in the arts. He is also a New Testament and Gnostic scholar, and one of the main forces behind The Gnostic Bible.
The interview originally appeared on Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio, where Barnstone dealt with the challenges and methods of translating ancient texts, as well as the encompassing mysticism of the Gnostics, who he sees as history’s greatest poets.
MC: You’ve had a very illustrious and global career as a poet, literary critic, translator of a vast and varied array of genres from ancient to modern times; you’ve been a distinguished professor and so much more it would take hours to cover with any justice. The question the listener might have is how exactly did you run and become interested in the perennial heretics, the Gnostics?
WB: I’m not exactly sure. I’m a young squirt, still. I’m 83, which I know sounds a little obscene, but I have my marbles and I have my legs. I’ve had time to play with it. Let me first say that I’m a literary person and a spiritual person. I do not make any pitch for any religion. I feel closer to the Gnostics, certainly, than any conventional religious sect. I ran into them, perhaps, when I was doing a study and translation of the poems of Saint John of the Cross—San Juan de la Cruz—which came out with New Directions books many, many years ago, almost 30 years ago, more actually, and is still in print.
Saint John shares a lot with the Gnostics in the sense that his union with God was an internal one of union with light. In the same manner, I was educated in a Quaker boarding school and worked with the Quakers twice in Mexico, in Aztec villages with the American Friends service committee. And if there’s any religion which is like Gnosticism, it surely is Quakerism, which believes in the light and the inner light, and through the inner light one has knowledge and deliverance.
Now that I’ve just gotten over tuberculosis, I especially am fond of Gnosticism. Because in the three levels of being which Gnostics speak of—in body, soul, and breath (penuma)—for someone who has just recovered from tuberculosis, breath is very distinctly my favorite way. I don’t know if that’s helpful. Now, more specifically, I began to work with the Gnostics when I did the book The Other Bible, which I began around 1979. It came out in 1984; Harper did it in San Francisco (now I think it’s called Harperone). About sixty percent of the book is Gnosticism, and it refers to those texts which could have gotten into the Old and the New Testament, or more properly the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Scriptures. It seems 35 years or so that I have been dealing very strongly with Gnosticism.
Also, I’ve always been close to the books, and eventually to the person, of Harold Bloom, whose marvelous afterward to Marvin Meyers’ A Gospel of Thomas may be the most precise, concise and well written summary of the essence of Gnosticism. And also with some knowledge of Kabbalism. I’m very interested in (Gershom) Scholem, who wrote the most interesting books on mysticism and Gnosticism. And he finds, even back in 1926 when he did his dissertation on the Book of Light in Hebrew, he equated Gnosticism and Kabbalism. So the reason it is somewhat easy to find a parallel between diverse sects which call themselves different names, is because though they translate in words the meaning of a somewhat extraordinary ecstatic experience with somewhat sectarian vocabulary, what is valid is not necessarily the vocabulary—but the existence of the experience itself.
So whether you’re secular, as I am, or religious, or of the East or West, the experience endures and therefore, I wrote a book in the 1980s called The Poetics of Ecstasy, which deals with the experience of being elsewhere. In the case of Gnosticism it is being with the breath or the light inside us, which, once found, can give us salvation or deliverance on earth, and we need not worry about death before or afterwards. Now, I must say, with Elaine Pagels and others, I was totally taken by Gnosticism because of the prominence of women, the prominence of Eve, who created Adam.
There’s a wonderful story of Eve creating Adam. Eve, Aeon Sophia, etc. They have their own cosmogony in Gnosticism. So Eve instead of being the villain, becomes the person who gives us Gnosis.
And one last thing before I finish with this diatribe. (Let’s hope I use it in the ancient Greek sense more than in the modern sense.) I’m tremendously taken by the notion of women as our liberators in a Promethean sense, who have suffered the ignominious epithet of villain, of soulless, but who in Gnosticism prevail in so very many ways. I think Paul, that is to say, the historical Paul, not the mythical Paul of Acts, was tremendously influenced by Gnosticism, and obviously Augustine was equally. So, Augustine was a Gnostic missionary, but Paul was one who learned from the Gnostics, whom he was against.
In the letters of Paul you find these constant messages of “Beware the false prophets! Those who come with Gnosis” it says in Greek. Because the Gnostics from Syria and Alexandria were the educated people. From them, and them alone, the early Christian churchmen learned about exegesis, learned about literary criticism.
So, here we are, I’ve spoken too much. If you ask me another question like that I’m afraid we’ll be here till next week.
MC; No, no. That was wonderful. So you never had a problem with the traditional Gnostic acosmic and dualistic view; you still saw beauty in their work?
WB: I’ve not had problems with any religion. That doesn’t mean I believe it, but I understand it. Very fond of the essential Gnostic intention. Not all of them. I certainly don’t believe the earth is evil, and that living on earth is a mistake and all that kind of thing, but I find that rather secondary to Gnostic belief.
MC: Willis, could you tell us a little about the difficulties you might have encountered or how it’s different translating Coptic versus other languages? And perhaps give us an overview of the different dialects of ancient Coptic? Most listeners probably don’t know there are many different dialects of Coptic in the Nag Hammadi library.
WB: Well, let me tell you something: I can’t read Coptic. That’s why I worked with Marvin Meyer, who is one of the world’s leading Coptic scholars. In the bilingual script of the original Gospel of Thomas, I could pick up about every third or fourth word, because the alphabet that the Copts used is a variation of Greek. They kind of fattened up the Greek alphabet a bit. But you can, without too much problem, read the words. And I say every third or fourth word because every third or fourth word comes from the Greek. The other languages are completely different. One is the spoken language of Egypt; I believe it’s a Semitic language, and I can handle Hebrew, but I certainly can’t handle Coptic.
Now, you asked me about the translation. I could speak to you, I’m afraid, from here to Kingdom Come, because I did a book called The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice, which Yale published back in 1993. By the way, a hundred pages of that book, the paradigm of the book, is translation of Biblical scriptures and translation of Gnostic scriptures.
Let me perhaps go to first base before we strike out, and tell you: the problems of translation of any text remain the same. All original texts, since they’ve survived until now, must have some song. Especially if they’re religious, because prose was invented long after poetry and all scriptures are meant to be chanted, either by oneself or in places of worship. And so, you have to be a poet. It has to sing in the translation. Most translators are dreadful because they’re not poets in the act of translation.
Now, as far as catching the exact meaning of what the Coptic says, it’s a little ridiculous, since the Coptic itself is a translation from Greek scriptures which have disappeared, not completely but largely, including the Gospel of Thomas. We have fragments in Greek, but those fragments in Greek are so different from those in Coptic, when you translate you say whatever you want to say. There’s one passage in the 53 scriptures of the Nag Hammadi text found which is supposed to be Plato. But if you look at the Coptic translation of it you will hardly recognize Plato. So when one tries to spend hours, “What did they really mean in the Coptic?” It’s so arbitrary because what did they really mean in the original Greek? So we’re talking about a shadow of a shadow, which really pleases scholars, but they’re barking up a very stupid tree.
It’s nice to know as much as you can, especially in [the Gospel of] Judas because it’s so very vital, but much of what you have to do is, as I say: it’s like going to the libraries of Copenhagen and studying the literature of the time of Hamlet to find out what Hamlet’s motives were. Shakespeare certainly didn’t have the foggiest idea of the times in Denmark.
There was something rotten about it.
MC: That’s enough to make a story, in itself.
WB: Well, when I was at Yale, I had this wonderful professor, Rene Wellek, who was a Czech, who never lost his beautiful Czech accent though he did claim that he had lost most of his Czech. Wellek was very, very skeptical about over-erudition, of becoming too competent in a small area. He was a dean, you might say, of comparative literature, and it gave us a great deal of insignificant and misleading information, that the great problem of scholarship. As far as translation goes, yes, you want to have a beautiful text, and the best way you can be faithful to the original is to give general understanding, be loyal to it and not create it yourself except in beauty and song. Can you imagine Elizabethan songs into Portuguese if they do not sing? Forget it.
MC: No, no, no.
WB: Why translate the wonderful Cathars, the Troubadours, some of them were women Gnostics, if we’re just going to do a “literal translation.” Literal is a very misleading word; as Borges says: “Literary, not literal.” Literal is unfaithful. Literary can come close, but every translation is at best an approximation.
MC: I agree with you. For example, I read Spanish. When I read Cervantes, it’s not the same as when I read it in English at all. So much is lost.
WB: And when you read Cervantes in the morning, it’s not the same Cervantes that you read in the afternoon. Because you also are one of the instruments, and when you read it at your age, it’s very different from the one you read in Spanish ten years ago, because you contribute to the meaning of the original. So there are all kinds of subjective and objective facts that go into any publication, into the translation of any text. I love the notion of translation, but if you want to read a beautiful translation it must be beautiful. Some of the translation of the Gnostics are beautiful and others are not. No names mentioned.
MC: Is there any Gnostic literature that, Willis, really speaks to you as a poet and an artist? That you found just sublime?
WB: Oh, well, you know, if you just look at essential Gnostic scriptures, you’ll find that more than half of it is poetry. The Gospel of Philip and the Manichean Song Book it’s endless, the quantity and quality of Gnostic poetry. They spoke to us through verse. They’re among the great poets, and think of the enormous amount of poetry that does exist in Provence, and of course the hundred times as much that has been lost.
MC: I don’t think this was an accident, that some of the Gnostics were poets, because we know Mani was a painter and the Manicheans painted. Valentinus pretty much wrote poetry himself. It seems they were both artists and theologians at the same time.
WB: Did you say Plotinus?
MC: No, Valentinus. I’m sorry.
WB: Oh, Valentinus. Right. Because Plotinus was wonderful, and he wrote against the Gnostics; but he is about as Gnostic as you can get.
MC: He’s turning in his grave, Willis.
WB: No, no, no. I mean, it’s just like Christians railing against the Jews. They were the Jews. All the early saints were Jews. Well, what the hell were they, Chinese? The things I did in translating The Restored New Testament that Norton published about a year ago, was restore the original Latin, Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew names. I was able to put down the philology of each word, of person and place. And so, we finally understand what it’s all about—names divide. You become a new country and you change the name to disguise the original people there. That’s what happened with the testament. They’re all Jewish scriptures that had been copied and changed as we went along.
Every translation or copying in the past changes the work. One of the problems of the preservation of ancient scriptures is that we have copies of copies of copies of copies; and each translator twisted it his or her way.
MC: Is there an example you can give us of something that you ran into where you said, “I’m stuck, I don’t agree with others, and I’m just going to intuitively come up with something.”
WB: It happens every day. My examples would be mainly from Classical Greek. I did a bilingual edition, back in 1965; it keeps coming out in new editions, of Sappho. Sappho is tremendously fragmented. It is understandable, but you have to have a sense, not only of the language, but of the ways of communicating to put disparate pieces together into works of collage beauty. That’s exactly what happens with someone like Sappho. Yes, one is always making intuitive guesses, but hopefully intelligent guesses, and not just willful ones. I say not just willful ones because I believe in a partnership with the past, but let the original prevail. The original, to repeat myself, must prevail in song. If you translate Homer and don’t make it sing, it’s not Homer.
MC: Now what specifically did you like so much about the Cathars, and what language did they work with?
WB: That’s very complicated, but quickly: the Cathars were Manicheans and they were a good part of the population in Constantinople and Bosnia and places like that, where they were very many. They spoke Slavic languages. They were a pain in the ass to the Orthodox Greeks, who were doing a little bit of slaughtering here and there against this particular heresy. They sent their missionaries to the West, and the language they used was Latin. So when they brought Manicheanism they used Latin.
But in France the surviving scriptures that we have are in the language of the servant French, which is Provincial, which is one of the many dialects. Provincial was spoken by millions of people and it’s still spoken. Catalan, the language of Catalonia, is pure Provincial. It’s not hard to understand. Certainly, there was very little literature by comparison with the south. The Renaissance began not in northern France. It all happened in Provence, and then Sicily.
After the Inquisition and the Albigensian Crusade kind of destroyed much of what was in Provincial, they moved to the next good place, which was Sicily. The language is very beautiful, very musical. If you know French it takes a few weeks to get used to Provincial.
MC: In The Gnostic Bible what were your criteria for what would go in and what would go out?
WB: We have, let’s say, the equivalent of a good 350 page book of scriptures, and that’s including the songs by unknown people. The two books (and I can’t say which I like more, they’re both fantastic) are the Gospel of the Secret Supper and the Book of Two Principles, and I included one wild one called A Nun’s Sermon. Those were all written in Provençal. I wanted to tell you something interesting.
WB: I mentioned Gershom Scholem, but today when you go to Catalonia—I traveled with my wife all over the castles and fortresses where the people were slaughtered, one after another, the last holdout against the coalition of northern French, English, and Spanish warriors who burned them alive—and now wherever you go in southwest France, that is, the Catalonian region, instead of saying Le pays Catalone they call it le pays Cathar, the Cathar country or the Gnostic country. It’s very beautiful to see that. They don’t know a damn thing about Gnosticism but they are so proud of their Gnostic past. Over every restaurant is le pays Cathar, and there are so many books on Gnosticism in French and largely on France’s own fabulous example of Gnosticism, in the most beautiful form, which is that of the Cathars—which means “pure” by the way, like “Catharsis” in Greek
MC: Who would you say influenced the Cathars? It seems there was a big soup around that time—you had the Cathars, the Troubadours, the more liberated noble women, and Kabbalists. Can we ever find out who influenced who, or was it simply everybody influenced everybody?
Part 2 coming soon! (please subscribe, so you don’t miss it)
Transcript kindly provided by Leon Sandler