The incandescent nature of a chant

Before anything else, Job is a great sung poem. In Antiquity, when it was created, the text of Job was not only spoken out loud but sung with musical accompaniment. This is why, more than 2500 years ago, a singer-poet composed it and passed it on to further generations. 

Were we archaeologists or antiquarians, we might attempt a reconstruction of this medium. However, when music would have helped the original audience to listen and versification would have helped them understand and memorise, wouldn’t they now increase the risk of making the text strange and abstruse?

This half-spoken half-sung method was familiar in Antiquity: it was precisely how a piece of work could be spread out and become familiar to everyone. 

The challenge for us is thus to reinvent this, but not to reconstruct it. To do so, we must use a form of expression that is analogous rather than similar. It must be both accessible and intellectual, and move along rhythmical and musical emotions. 

We must sail the high sea, embark with our own interrogations, clean rusty images, reject the prettiness of patina, resist nostalgia, and not stand still in front of the text, without entering it, like one would do in front of a pyramid. This is how we will find its movement again, allow it to take us on a journey across the various horizons and the dizzy heights it contains.

First, we have read through the text and established a sort of cartography, a “visual map”. 

To summarise it with words: the text is composed of 21 discourses. The first one is Job’s, the last one is YHWH’s (God). Ten discourses are Job’s, only one is YHWH’s (God). Each one of Job’s discourse alternates with one of his friends’, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, three times each, in this order. Elihu then replaces Eliphar and YHWH has the last word, when Job spoke first. There is another rule added to these ones that the author imposes: it is the chiasm, one of the main stylistic characteristics of the Bible. 

To understand how a chiasm works, let’s imagine a sheet of paper, horizontally folded in two before one writes on it. This represents the text in its entirety. The first line, written at the very top of the sheet, must find an echo, respond to or rhyme with the last line, written at the very bottom. 

In the same way, the second line reflects the penultimate line, etcetera… Only the line written in the crease is alone, autonomous, without a corresponding line. It is the acme of intensity or meaning at the core of the chiasm. 

The Book of Job starts with a framing story featuring YHWH, Satan, and the celestial court, and ends on a repeat of this framing narrative. It is followed by Job’s first discourse, placed in relation to YHWH’s one. Similarly, each following discourse has a corresponding one, following the same rules as for a mathematical sequence. Job’s discourses only ever echo Job’s discourses, until the end when YHWH finally speaks. 

We have decided to translate something of this structure into the devising of the show. 

We also decided to only focus on Job’s discourses, and to let them be heard in their entirety. Soon, a methodology emerged. We work on one chapter at a time, following the way the discourses unfold and taking into account the chiasmic structure. I read and carefully study the text in Hebrew, chapter after chapter, but, already, there are several uncertainties in this original text, some contested points, late corrections, transcription mistakes that were passed down the ages. There are also several different interpretations for such and such image, such and such idea. The French translations that have been published (La Pléïade, Chouraki, the Traduction Oecuménique de la Bible, the Bible des Écrivains, Segond, Zadoq Kahn, etc) very often disagree with one another. I try to find a way in this jungle and write a first draft translation with an emphasis on moving forward rather than getting bogged down with the mysteries and delights that the ambiguous nature of the material we are working with offers us. The dramaturge’s task is to find the specific, shareable human experience the text refers to. Therefore, in this first translation, I try not to digress from each discourse because of the metaphors it contains, so that its real ruptures and its feverish energy come through. I also decided to convert some of the images, like one would convert currency. I occasionally replace references to the world of agriculture or to the society of the times, not so much because they would be difficult to understand for today’s audiences, but because they wouldn’t touch us in the same visceral way they used to affect those audiences. At this stage in the process, my translation should only be seen as a first draft, as close as possible to the original text and as stimulating as possible, so as to make rewriting it easier. I then send this first translation to both Jean and Dgiz. Dgiz reads it through, familiarises himself with it. We meet up so I can speak to him about the latest portion of the text I have translated. I strive to unfold the text’s meanings, its different resonances. We drink tea, we put music on. Dgiz takes notes, asks questions. 

He then dictates to me, fragment after fragment, a new version of this translation that would be easy to understand for a wide audience. He also works on a scansion. The more we talk about the text, the more the landscape becomes clear. Little by little, Dgiz appropriates Job’s thoughts and sensations but continues to speak his own language. We suggest images and idioms to each other. Chapter after chapter, a second translation emerges. It is a bit like when a musician plays another musician’s piece of music and transposes it to give it their own interpretation. Dgiz uses his own vocabulary, he versifies in a way that is personal; doing so, I think he recalls his own experiences, questions of destiny, innocence, hope, despair and what misfortune is really made of. After re-reading the translation several times, correcting it, rewriting it together, we agree on a second translation which we give to Jean. Jean questions it and suggests some points for editing or new ways of wording things. This new edited text is then sent to Jean-Luc Therminarias and this is when the musical work properly starts. The text is then put to the test and made to shine or modified, in order to create a language that is as much a song as it is a poem. 

Frédéric Révérend, April 2007.