Richard Rhodes, a UC Berkeley linguist, has posted about how Bible translators have not gotten the “secret” when they “for centuries have happily read Greek μυστήριον and translated mystery” in each instance in the New Testament. I am generally most grateful for his observations. But when I point out that LXX translators used the Greek word to translate the Hebrew word meaning “secret,” Dr. Rhodes ignores the point of how problematic a Greek alphabetic transliteration of the Hebrew would have been. Instead, he lists words borrowed into English; and he gives this reply on transliteration:
“That's not the problem. The problem is that once borrowed the word takes on a new life of its own in the new language. Like mystery did in English, because we already had a word for secret, and because our linguistic forebears were so hopelessly influenced by Greek philosophy that they bought into the whole mind/spirit is holy/clean, body is corrupt/dirty thing. So having a word for things that are beyond the comprehension of the human mind was an attractive way to think about the holiness of God.”
What Dr. Rhodes may not see is how influenced he himself is by Aristotle’s philosophy. Intellectuals and Bible scholars generally seem to be unwittingly and subtly persuaded by the thought and method of that most important Greek man. I’ll post again soon on how prone to elitism such Aristotelianism can be. The quick summary by the “either / or” method makes translation prone to transliteration (as it makes “rhetoric” prone to “logic” and the concept of woman prone to sexism).
Now, I want to show here how Aristotle uses μυστήρια in his treatise, the Rhetoric. And I want to show the problems with the Aristotelian method applied to translation of this phrase there. So I’m posting John H. Freese’s 1926 translation, then Huge Lawson-Tanred’s 1991 translation, and then George A. Kennedy’s translation. Next I show Aristotle’s Greek, and finally give a translation (mine) that refuses to transliterate.
But first, let me say that I’m not accusing Dr. Rhodes of sexism, or rhetoric, or elitism. I’m only saying his Aristotelianism doesn’t yet acknowledge the problem of transliteration by focusing on the commonality of loan words or their value. (There is much value to loan words, and much fun with them too: note the link to the Greek words borrowed into English at the bottom of this blog; and note this newest borrowing of English into Chinese.) And Dr. Rhodes’s conception of how “our linguistic forebears were so hopelessly influenced by Greek philosophy” overgeneralizes Aristotle if it doesn’t escape his method.
So now, here is μυστήρια by Aristotle (in English “translation”):
The second kind of fallacy of diction is homonymy. For instance, if one were to say that the mouse is an important animal, since from it is derived the most honoured of all religious festivals, namely, the mysteries.
Another form of false enthymeme is that by homonymy, such as saying that a mouse is a major animal, as from it comes the most respected of rites. For the mysteries are the most respected of all rites.
Another [verbal fallacy] is by use of homonyms, as saying that a mouse [mys] is a worthy creature from which comes the most honored of all festivals; for the [celebration of the Eleusian] Mysteries is the most honored of all.
Here’s how Aristotle writes it:
ἓν δὲ τὸ παρὰ τὴν ὁμωνυμίαν , τὸ φάναι σπουδαι̂ον εἰ̂ναι μυ̂ν, ἀφ' οὑ̂ γ' ἐστὶν ἡ τιμιωτάτη πασω̂ν τελετή : (15) τὰ γὰρ μυστήρια πασω̂ν τιμιωτάτη τελετή.
Here’s a translation into English (which refuses translation as mere transliteration but retains as much word play as the translator can pass along):
Besides that there are the alike names: Declaring that a “seeker rat” is important because it’s derived from the all-honored rite; when, in fact, “the Secret” is the all-honored rite.
What’s the Secret? Do you get it?