Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Whose Natural English?

There’s delicious irony in the leap that some translators make from describing “what is” to demanding “what ought to be. They end up acting like overprotective parents of a prodigal son who, running away in a postmodern age, might catch something awful like AIDS and die young or worse bring it back home with him. Or they act like a possessive lover of a most-cherished beloved who, having changed her epistemological clothes in the bathroom, is sure to get propositioned by someone with a foreign accent and darker skin (and maybe cigarette smoke and alcohol on his breath). Or they just pretend there’s no smoke and mirrors in Plato’s cave.

I could name names, but what purpose would that serve? That might start a snake war. Let’s just hear their would-be natural English to get on with things.

Also John is very much a second language speaker. This really hit me between the eyes as our church has studied I John over the last couple of months. His Greek is wooden and flat. It lacks subtlety. He often can't find the bon mot. He talks in approximations. In translation, in a perfect world, he'd sound that way in English, too.

But I am not interested in translation of a book which is not really recognised as canonical by anyone, but in translation of the New Testament. Paul is clearly not inventing the word, even if he is using a somewhat rare one. . . But actually I intended to exclude quotes from all older documents, not just strictly LXX ones as I specified before.

In English these are both weak rhymes further vitiated further by inviting an unfortunate rhythmic pacing. The device is one entwined in historic usage with light or comic verse, and profoundly inappropriate for the subject matter.

But is this the place for creativity of expression - not in the sense of using language creatively at all, buth rather the sense of creating new idioms that have not necessarily existed in English before this point?

This passage is particularly difficult (I think) among passages in Aristotle in its resisting attempts to render it in ordinary English. . . the translation is less accurate than necessary, or unnecessarily misleading . . . E.g. ‘the ways children go wrong’ suggests Aristotle has in mind different types of going astray (types of bad upbringing), but I don't think such a suggestion is carried by τς παιδικς μαρτας.

The subtitle of this post is “Trying Translational Tyrannies. Our witnesses in this trial are native American Indians using English, the Chinese using English, African Americans or Brits using English, and their women using English. Natural English is what they’re using. All of them. This kind of English, by the non-native speaking and non-Anglo-centric, makes a strong case against all kinds of imperial and colonial westernisms started by Plato, Aristotle, and Alexander, and perpetuated by Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson (not to be confused with Francis Schaeffer, John the Baptist, or William Jefferson Clinton).

(Now this very paragraph you’re reading here is parenthetical. Let’s define our terms carefully. When we say “postmodern,” and when we’re using natural English to say it, we’re following Webster who says it means what Jesus said in transliterated translation as the original Greek-root-form of his first “ought”: meta-noia. Of course, Jesus’s cousin was the original user of this English word when dunking believers and punching out the Pharisees. He called them “bastards” which Matthew translated into natural Greek as “brood of vipers”; and that started a snake war. So we must feel the powerful contrast between this word and another: para-noia. Funny thing is, and who would’ve thunk it, meta-noia is the translation equivalent of para-ble, “not” para-noia. Webster’s second definition (because there’s always more than one) is this: 2. meta-noia – to think afterwards. from pre-postmodern French. See Blaise Pascal’s Pensées and Michel Eyquem de Montaigne’s Essais, not to be confused with Locke’s Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul or Bacon’s Essays. When we say “epistemological,” and when we’re using natural English to say it, we’re acknowledging that Schaeffer named it and that Barack Hussein Obama is calling for it, anew. Amen and amen. When we say “smoke and mirrors,” and when we’re using natural English to say it, we have to answer questions about whether we inhaled and whose face we see—so we Anglo-centric folk may be able legally to “object.”)

We first call to the stand one William Apes (aka William Apess by the literary postmodernists who can’t stand the N-word either because the modernists find it in the texts of MLKjr.). Apess is a Pequot. Lo and behold, he speaks English too. And is a Christian, an evangelical no less. Except his gospel, the same gospel of the Anglo Jesus, is this: I felt convinced that Christ died for all mankind—that age, sect, color, country, or situation make no difference. I felt an assurance that I was included in the plan of redemption with all my brethren. By “situation” Apess clearly also means “sex. He was not able to go to the AA meeting that day because us white folks had not yet admitted anonymously that our lives had become powerless and unmanagable; so Apess lets Aunt Sally George, Mary Apess, Hannah Caleb, and Anne Wampy write and speak their testimony for themselves. They’re all women, lest you missed that. They all use natural English. One of them says: I wish I could talk like white folks, me would tell everybody how I love Jesus. But since us “white folks” use such unnatural English, and because so many of us are “men,” Apess writes for us “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man,” a translational guide. It’s not just for the British either: As the immortal Washington lives endeared and engraven on the hearts of every white in America, never to be forgotten in time - even such is the immortal Philip honored, as held in memory by the degraded but yet graceful descendants who appreciate his character.” It’s not just for the British or the Americans either: I do not arise to spread before you the fame of a noted warrior, whose natural abilities shone like those of the great and mighty Philip of Greece, or of Alexander the Great, of like those of Washington—whose virtues and patriotism are engraven on the hearts of my audience. Neither do I approve of war as being the best method of bowing to the haughty tyrant, Man, and civilizing the world. Now if you’ve forgotten who King Philip is, then read his eulogy in natural English by Apes in the Boston, Massachusetts newspaper of January 8 and January 26, 1836.

Next, we call Elias Boudinot (aka Galagi’na Watie). Boudinot is a Cherokee. Lo and behold, he speaks English too. And is also a Christian who stood on the same stage once with Apess and delivered a speech entitled “Address to the Whites,” because women were in the crowd too. Boudinot also knows Greek, Hebrew, and Latin and translates the Bible from those languages—by passing bypassing English, natural or not—right into Cherokee. Too bad the Cherokee Nation has been on reserve for some time and they have to use natural English only now.

Next, we call to the stand many of Richard A. Rhodes’s friends. (He’s going to say I’ve gone postmodern with this post, to which I must reply Guilty as charged, but then let’s listen to them.) They are Ojibwe (aka original people or “Anishinaabe”). Lo and behold, they speak English too. They tried to tell Eugene Peterson that that’s not what “indefinitely” means, but he used it anyway as his natural English for Eli’s natural Hebrew for God’s natural tongue, in I Samuel 2:27, when he (and he and He) says: Therefore—this is God's word, the God of Israel speaking—I once said that you and your ancestral family would be my priests indefinitely, but now—God's word, remember!—there is no way this can continue.

Next, we call Lydia H. Liu. She is a woman (mark that). And she’s Chinese too. Lo and behold, she speaks English as well. The oddest thing is this, she can’t be postcolonial. (Yes, I know we didn’t define that term. It wouldn’t make sense to us white anglo-centric folk anyway. Except for Hong Kong, or Taiwan, there was no China.) Anyway, she says this (talking about how the Chinese have translated the modernisms of the West): As I have argued elsewhere, 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. Now her natural English “I” is the translation equivalent of “Liu”; so we note that Liu has this wonderful glossary of natural-English-now-natural-Chinese words as guests in the appendix of one of her books for which Liu is the host.

Next, we call Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Equiano is also British or American, depending on which birth or baptism certificate you look at (the real one or the imagined). Lo and behold, likewise, he speaks English. At first a slave, he once had to rely on “those numerous and respectable persons of character who knew me when I first arrived in England, and could speak no language but that of Africa [namely Ibo]. He writes his own story in his own hand with his own natural English also recalling that “From the time I left my own nation I always found somebody that understood me till I came to the sea coast. The languages of different nations did not totally differ, nor were they so copious as those of the Europeans, particularly the English. They were therefore easily learned; and, while I was journeying thus through Africa, I acquired two or three different tongues.” From his English writing, he earned the money to buy his freedom and that of his family members from the English.

Next, we call Ishmael Reed. He’s a literary mulatto. At least that’s what I called him in a paper I wrote, which won an award (and a bit of cash) this month (which means Reed propelled me into the ranks of professional writer). A few other things to note: he really is a postmodernist although he’s an antifeminist. (What must irk him the most about that is this: Gloria Naylor is with him in my paper, and I’ve written another in which Phillis Wheatley, Barbara Christian, Paule Marshall, Gayl Jones are all as translingual as Reed is.) Reed uses natural English to translate natural Yoruba (which he’s studied for fifteen years now with Ade Amoloran).

We’ll rest our case (and expect silence in the peanut gallery) with the first three paragraphs of chapter VIII (“Ojola-Ibinu Ti Ise Olori Ejo Aiye Gbogbo” or “Ojola-Ibinu, the King of Snakes everywhere”) of D. O. Fagunwa’s Igbo Olodumare [The Forest of God]. Reed translates the whole chapter into natural English as “Snake War. It’s as precious as non-literary canonized scriptures for the lover. For the natural Yoruba, you have to go elsewhere (and you must find elsewhere those anglo-centric translations):

Snake War

Some hunters are lost in Igbo Olodumare; they find refuge in the home of Baba-onirungbon-yeuke.

Baba-onirungbon-yeuke was a wonderful host to those of us hunters who were stranded in the Igbo Olodumare. He provided us with all of the comforts of forest living.

We would bring wild boar to him and he would cook it for us. He prepared yams for us that were as crispy as those one would find in a Thai restaurant. At night, the forest women would dance for us and perform on their instruments. We swam in pools that had escaped man’s invasion. We avoided coffee and strived on green tea. All of us, who were in our middle age were beginning to feel many years younger. Why, he said, would we want to return to the city and its crime, pollution, noise and other corruptions? Women, who, unlike these forest ones, were only interested in using a man as a pack mule to buy them jewelry, cars, and clothes. He did not have a kind view of city women. Said they were addicted to airport novels and getting their nails done and shopping for weaves.

He invited us to stay there with him in the forest. We could grow our own food, hunt and make our own clothes and provide for our own entertainment, sparing us the music and films of carnality so rife in the urban areas. The forest, he said, not only provides man’s needs but is a great teacher, a great university. But we told him that we had been away from our families for months and that we had to return to the city to meet our responsibilities. He was of course disappointed but said that he would help us find our way back home. With this remark we discovered that he knew more than he had let on. And that in these forests of beautiful women, birds and animals, this hunter was lonely for the company of men. This is why he had done everything possible to prolong our stay. . . .


H.A. Page said...

I had to read your post three times to digest all that you include here. Culture and language is an interesting thing to study, absolutely. I've always wondered what might have happened had Constantine's mother written translations rather than just visit where Jesus trod, brought back the "true cross" piece as a relic and, as an influential mother, convinced her son to make Christianity the national religion. Once men took the idea, women were sunk, at least in Western ideas.

So much is always lost in translation and those in power create the truth in narrative. Your studies must be terrifically interesting.

Language right now is changing at lightening speed, due to the internet. As Jesus might say now: Bls u grrrl in ur studies.

Feminist studies might delve into the cult of the Virgin Mary -- how that was overlaid upon existing societies that had women in more powerful positions and in maternal societies. Unfortunatley Catholicism wrenched the woman in form and structure and position. Why does the Virgin of Guadalupe resound so much in the Hispanic cultures south of us? She is almost important than any in the realms.

Well, enough of a comment...Enjoyed your post and your thinking...Have you thought about cowgirls as feminists?

J. K. Gayle said...

Yes, yes, yes. Sorry, sorry, sorry that you had to read the post thrice!

Thanks, thanks, thanks for your mention of the Virgin Mary, of Jesus, and of the Virgin of Guadalupe. You inspired a post today that says "Jesus was not a Christian." Hope no one has to read it but once.

You are very very very encouraging to me! Yes, my maternal grandmother Gladys was a cowgirl who taught me to round them up (and to hunt, to fish, to pick black berries, and to enjoy cobbler and to play 42). A couple of professors here at TCU have done research on cowgirl rhetoric, and right here in Cowtown there's the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame. Amazing stuff. Yes, I'm still learning. (Thanks for your blog too!)

Wayne Leman said...

Descriptive linguists observe how language is. Prescriptive linguists tell people how they should speak or write.

Translators follow a variety of translation philosophies. I'm most comfortable with the SIL philosophy of translating the Bible into language as it is. All of my training in descriptive linguistics has been well used in my career as a Bible translator.

Nathan Stitt said...

I can agree with the first comment that there is so much to digest here. I really enjoyed the snippet at the end.

J. K. Gayle said...

It's always an honor to have you comment here, especially on your area of expertise and experience. It's when translator's philosophies and methodologies are (sometimes unwittingly) sexist or elitist that there seems to be trouble. With translation of the Bible we see it all, don't we? Not sure I understand the SIL philosophy of "language as it is," but descriptive linguistics sure seems a good goal.

Thanks for reading, and even more for commenting! Glad to hear your reaction to the bit at the end--you confirm I should use Reed's translation in an upcoming academic/community literary discussion.