Monday, October 4, 2010

Inspired by a catalog

It’s October, so catalog season is well underway. After all, Christmas (or the generic Holiday) is almost here, if you’re on Retail Standard Time. I enjoy perusing catalogs early in catalog season, before the weight of each day’s delivery threatens to topple the mailbox.

Flipping through a particularly promising catalog, I found an item called “A Woman of Valor Bowl,” $19.95. The brightly painted decorative item was inscribed with these words: “A woman of valor, more precious than rubies.” The phrase set a faint bell ringing in the back of my mind, so I read the product description, which said the item was “inspired by Proverbs 31:10.”

Inspired by…that’s a phrase that brings out the caution flag for me. As a one-time historian, I have problems with movies that proclaim themselves “Inspired by a true story.” I admit to being a bit stiff-necked about this issue, having skipped or delayed seeing movies that I knew played fast and loose with historical facts. To pick an example from long ago, I waited many years to see the Oscar-winning “Amadeus” because of its implication that Antonio Salieri, a real person, may have murdered Mozart. I thought that was a terrible thing to do to poor, put-upon Salieri. Silly, I know. Of course, I loved the movie when I finally saw it.

Anyway, seeing the “inspired by” admission was an “aha!” moment. Shouldn’t that bowl say “A woman of virtue”? The Authorized Version, a.k.a. the King James Bible, gives the verse as "Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies." Most other versions have similar translations. The NIV makes it “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth more than rubies.” Some other translations used “excellent” or “worthy.”

The only translation I saw that talked of valor was the Douay-Rheims Bible, actually an English translation of the Latin Vulgate, which is the Catholic equivalent of the King James version. It said “Who shall find a valiant woman? far and from the uttermost coasts is the price of her.”
So I suspect the artist who designed the bowl did a bit of translation shopping, taking the “valor” from one place and the “rubies” from another. The reason seems clear. If the catalog item was “A Woman of Virtue Bowl,” how many bowls would ship in time for Holiday? I imagine the numbers would be disappointing.

It is telling that in our time, no woman or man wants to be known as “virtuous.” Once the highest praise, the word now is redolent of starched collars and pursed lips. What a shame. If we do not value virtue, how can we be dismayed, or even surprised, at malfeasance in public office or betrayal in personal relationships?

I don’t know. Maybe just a bit of starch in our collars might not be a bad thing.


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  2. Very interesting. "Chayil" is open to a number of correct interpretations. Just shows the immense difficulties of translation from one language/culture to another, not to mention vastly different eras. Even just considering one's own community, it is a continuing miracle that one person ever understands another.