Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Plato's Possessions

Many claims stated as absolute desiderata

in the Bible translation debates among evangelicals

would not make sense

if the target language were other than English. . . .,

which shows how Anglo-centric the evangelical debates have been. . .

Surely evangelicals must not mandate

a translation philosophy on theological grounds

that would exclude, even inadvertently,

many of the world’s languages.

--Karen H. Jobes

The theological grounding of the translation philosophy of some evangelicals is a certain foundation. But the linguistic grounding of the translation philosophy of other evangelicals is the same certain foundation. And the anglo-centrism of the evangelical debates over translation has a more focused and equally-shared center. That is, whether the evangelical argues more for formal equivalence or more for dynamic (or “translation”) equivalence, the anglo-centric theology and the anglo-centric linguistics are centered in ancient Greek logic. Such grounds are the same sand; and such a center is, to use a Greek word, σκότος.

So when Wayne Leman at Better Bibles Blog writes his latest installment on “translation equivalence,” he’s escaped neither the methodological philosophy of the ancient Greeks nor the results of their logic. That’s not to say that Leman fails to do anything good. As a matter of fact, he’s friendly, uses personable examples, and invites other people to participate out of their own subjectivities. But we pause to read a linguistic concept as benign as “possession.” Let me just say that after twenty-one years of being paid to teach English as a second language to adults in the U.S. Academy, “possessives” as an English thing is something I’m not unfamiliar with; and we teach it in all its glorious complexities. How would we get around the concept? And why would we? Now, while those are both very interesting questions (I’m so glad you asked), they’re queries really beside the point.

The issue for translators such as Leman is whether there is some universal transcendent category which all languages share (at least English and Greek, and English and Hebrew). If so, then there’s also “translation equivalence.” Do you catch the logic? Desideratum 1: “possession” is a phenomenon of all languages. Desideratum 2: English and Greek and Hebrew are languages. Desideratum 3: English and Greek and Hebrew possess “possession.” And in front and behind all of those Desiderata is this one Desideratum X: If you can come up with the syllogism Desiderata 1 through 3, then X = the ideal we can call “translation equivalence.” (Now, lest you’ve not been paying attention to the series, “translation equivalence” is equivalent to “dynamic equivalence.” But “translation equivalence” is not equal to “literal translation”; for “literal translation” is the translation equivalence of “formal equivalence”; and, therefore, “translation equivalence” is the top dog in the hierarchy.) For the logic junkies, this is both deduction and induction. And for those looking for logical fallacies, you may be hard pressed except to note that we were taught in kindergarten not to mix metaphors, even metaphors we live by, such as both deduction with induction.

I’m being a little silly here. It’s my way of trying to be friendly. Kind of like nervous laughter when playing with dynamite so no one gets any body parts blown off. Okay then, we remember Plato played with shadows. Powerful things that would prove the light. The linguistic desideratum we call in English “possessives” is such a shadow. We really want it to be the real deal. We know our ancestors, for instance, dealt with slavery (the possession of some human beings by others); and that our great great great grandfathers dealt with spousal abuse (thank God that’s over now: the husband possessing his wife, or in the case of many of our biblical patriarchy, his wives). When it comes to language, English and Greek and Hebrew, then, how could we do without “possession”? Which, again, is a really good question. It’s kind of like Kenneth Pike’s questions about those (yes exceptional) languages that do not have many numbers (with which to do logical math, the kind of logic, Pike says people really are over, even when translating). But, for now, that’s just not the question we’re asking. We’re asking How we could even imagine a language that doesn’t have “possession”? Our question is not about “the text”; it’s about us. How could we imagine? Why would we? Are we trying to come up with little obscure counter-examples to enter the debate of the evangelicals on the side of the formal people? Well, no. The formal and the dynamic are stuck on Greek logic which is the translational equivalence of Anglo-centrism. What we’re trying to do is to come down from our high horse for a minute. Or, if we put that in Trojan, we’d say (with our hands over our mouths): “There’s no one hiding inside the gift horse—Please don’t look a gift horse in the mouth!!” Plato fell for that, of course, because he hated the hidden meanings of ambiguous epic poetry, and because he wanted to keep his slaves and have his wives too. Plato never listened to Lydia H. Liu, who refused his proposal for marriage, and who went on to publish these audacious words in English: one does not translate between equivalents; rather, one creates tropes of equivalence in the middle zone of translation between the host and guest languages. This middle zone of hypothetical equivalence, which is occupied by neologistic imagination, becomes the very ground for change.” Oh yeah, I almost forget, Plato didn’t want to change either. His student Aristotle didn’t either, and so he set out (with new logic—the old stuff evangelical Bible translators use) to teach little Alexander to become Great and to teach the world Greek.

Only, Plato and Aristotle never counted on Matthew translating into Greek, hosting another’s Aramaic, and all the while listening very carefully to this very different teacher who actually wanted his students to change their thinking and the way they thought about his words and the ways by which they had to change those words of his by their translation. The strange irony of that is evangelical Bible translators never counted on that either. Matthew gives his sympathies. It’s hard to humble yourself when you’ve got English and logic on your side. It’s hard to change darkness for light, sand for bedrock.


Richard A. Rhodes said...

We seem to be back on the old treadmill. If I think there is such a thing as possession, then I'm an Anglo-centric platonist, an imperialist, and woman-hater.


I've spent nearly 40 years trying to get the linguistics establishment to recognize that VP syntax is neither central to syntax or even universal for that matter. (Algonquian syntax has several constructions that have no analog at all in the Indo-European syntax that the most popular theories are tuned for.)

I oppose the war in Iraq, and have from the outset. I've spent too much of my life outside the US not to think the US has too much in the way of imperial interests. And I want no part of it.

I'm first in line to say that women should be paid as much as men for the same work and should have the same opportunities for work and life. (Ditto the poor, BTW. Women have no corner on injustice in our society.) But at the same time I'm not a feminist. Feminism has serious problems of its own, and has done some serious damage to our society. Feminism is as much about shifting power from men to women as it is about redressing injustices. I'm only there for dealing with the injustices.

Now let's get down to the brass tacks on Platonism.

Just because I believe in natural kinds, doesn't mean they are natural kinds that Plato and Aristotle thought they were. The real natural kinds are socially constructed. My natural kinds are not the natural kinds of my Ojibwe friends, nor are they those of Matthew, or those of the Ancient Greeks.

Our societies (and our languages as projections of those societies) categorize the world, each in its own unique way. For many of those categories we have words. When we think we think in those categories. When we speak, we speak in those categories. When we go from language to language we shift categories (to the best of our abilities) to match the worldview of the other language.

Possession is a natural kind in English, Greek, and Hebrew/Aramaic. These natural kinds don't quite match, but they sure overlap a lot. Hence, it's perfectly reasonable of Wayne to talk in these terms.

The missing piece of the larger picture is that when we communicate, we obey Grice, either at the first level or at the second. The result is that the vast, vast majority of communication is not relevantly vague (or ambiguous).

The key mistake is to think that literature, especially poetry, is prototype communication.

Absolutely not.

If you think so, you're falling for the very kind of line that you are so busy excoriating us over.

No, prototype communication is conversation, small talk, anecdotes. Expressions of love and anger. Cries of joy and grief. Literature is based on these. These are not degraded forms of literature.

I see you've just responded to some of this on my BBB post today. I'll get back to you over there, too.

J. K. Gayle said...

As I've confessed before, I know you are busy; so let me say again that I am very grateful for your comment here. It's the best comment you've made at this blog. The best because you keep things personal. And the best because you, in the context of what's subjectively important, explicate well so I can understand what you're saying. And the rhetoric, I'm beginning to believe some of the things you say!

Let me quickly remind you of something you've agreed with me on in a comment a while back:

I think you have a very good point (or actually series of points) about the touchstones between Pike's modernist, but highly contextualized approach to knowledge, and the postmodernist afrafeminists. I had never thought of that, but then I don't think much of feminism, let alone think about it or read it.

It's the last line here too, that I want to tag onto. The thing about feminism, to me, that's very positive (besides the Pikean overlaps with it) is its discourse or its rhetoric, which doesn't always look so much different from Grice I should add. So moving from "it" to feminists: the feminist activists in particular have gotten us actually helping women trapped by sexist men and societies, and the feminist scholars have brought us to different methods of epistemologies once trapped by phallo-logo-centric ancient Greek male stuff. If you have no time to read feminism, then you may just have to take my word for it.

Now, other than our difference over feminism, I think our linguistics is pretty close. I appreciate your four decades working at that linguistics establishment! I'm guessing you've already enjoyed some of the fruits of that good labor. We have the same view of the war in Iraq, maybe for exactly the same experiential reasons (if our lives outside the US haven't been exactly the same). And you agree with me on injustices to women and to the poor.

I've enjoyed your rejoinders here to me. at my positions? You've convinced me that Plato doesn't need our help to expose his views.

So please understand that I'm not saying "possession" does not exist or that it need not exist or that it is the cause or the result of those other awful things you started your comment with. And please know that I laughed out loud, and read it again, and laughed out loud again, when you said: "If you think so, you're falling for the very kind of line that you are so busy excoriating us over." And bravo for saying, "The key mistake is to think that literature, especially poetry, is prototype communication."

Now we come to our main difference, I think. I can't believe that "prototype communication is . . . " and you give some wonderful non-literary examples of absolutely fabulous forms of communication (albeit the bases of literature).

When I heard "prototype" I hear Eleanor Rosch talking. It's not that I don't like her, it's just that she sits Plato on her knee and pulls the little string to move his mouth. (Or is it the other way around?) Prototype, with all of the fuzziness and all of the variation it hopes to allow, is what Plato and Aristotle got started. In contrast, is Heraclitus of Ephesus, whose river Plato cannot step into twice and whose style Aristotle cannot appreciate (and even despises). Plato would have us believe in the ideal, the prototypical river, allowing for the streaming water.

But someone else would say that Plato is dreaming. And that one forces us to hear him through Matthew, and then allows us to hear our own stories of change, by and in and through parables. We linguists and rhetoricians, I think, have a lot more to learn from the human we call Jesus.