Thursday, April 3, 2008

Anything We Love Can Be Saved

Earlier this week (I learned this morning) a friend of mine hung himself, and another friend (of a friend) stood up at work, had a heart attack, fell hitting his head on the desk, and died.
Their widows and orphans “survive.”

And I’ve just been pondering “false dichotomies” in “translation.”

Last night, Daniel added this:

I also generally don't like being forced into an 'either / or' choice. There are too many false dic[h]otomies that are pushed on us. However, when translating, there are choices that have to to be made. These choices often require...a trade off…a choice has to be made and a trade off appears to be unavoidable. Is there another way to translate this that maintains the cultural and historical context and also makes it easily comprehensible?”

And Nathan suggested something else:

If a technical/historical term is used in translation, a modern equivalent could be footnoted for quick comparison.”

I’m still not stating the obvious. I’m not going to give in just yet by revealing an English word for the Greek word σταδους (one that’s not a Latin, French, or English transliterated variant such as stadia; one that’s not kilomètres, miles, or furlongs, even footnoted). Double click stadia and σταδους – or copy / paste them into; now what questions have the human programmers asked us when we’re all stumped? And which 8 or more options do “you” start with? If “you” did “want to search the web,” then were “you” able to picture anything better than this ancient Greek geek? Now did you click him here and find the word again?

Let’s get back to “false dichotomies.” If we move from imagined science to imaginastic art, then dichotomies (much less false ones) become less important. Alan Lightman (scientist artist writer) says that this way:

“Scientists often wish powerfully for some theory to be true that is later proved wrong by the facts. Aristotle’s idea that the planets move in perfect circles was simple and elegant, but proved wrong by Brahe, Kepler, and Newton.

A novelist's story or characters cannot be proved wrong, but they can ring false and thus lose their power. In this way, the novelist is constantly testing her fiction against the accumulated life experience of her readers.”

If we’re her and not him, then the dichotomies may become just another thing. Nancy Mairs says (“I am not a ‘real writer.’ I am a writer. Without modification.”), going on about scientific labels:
...women, for a variety of reasons, live in a polymorphic rather than a dimorphic world, a world in which the differentiation of self from other may never completely take place, in which multiple selves may engage multiply with the multiple desires of the creatures in it.”

Now, I am neither a woman nor an expert translator of either any scientist or any artist. But any translator, Lightman acknowledges to me, is best both a scientist and an artist at the same time. How polymorphic is that? So I say:

Aristotle depended on dichotomies, clearly false ones, when he characterized females.

And the females around Jesus did a better job of tracking with his polymorphic parables than did the males. The parable that Mark (or was it Peter) tells first is especially polymorphic. Mark writes down into Greek what Jesus says and gives it to us, the world, in his that narrative in which he has the men closest to the Rabbi going to him privately to demand: “Be a little more straightforward with us. We know you’re not running one of Aristotle’s Academies but you should, at least, tell us what you are saying and what you do not mean to say. What we mean is, if you are God, give us the Word from heaven; don’t make us chew on it, for too much will get lost in the translation.” But Mark learns to translate anyway, and we get Jesus asking rhetorically as Aspasia might: “οκ οδατε τν παραβολν τατην κα πς πσας τς παραβολς γνσεσθε”

Now let me translate this logically: If you don’t get the one parable, then you don’t get any of them. If you don’t get any of them, then Isaiah’s already talked about you in Hebrew (Isaiah 6:9,10). If Isaiah’s talked about you, then you weren’t listening with ears to hear in the first place.

Now let me translate this with some English: Binaries (false or otherwise) are not our only choices. In fact, the binary approach can be deadly, forever. (And let me acknowledge, with Richard Rhodes, that Aristotle didn’t invent the Binary although he described it as natural quite well.) The parable or fable or "story thrown alongside yours" speaks of four choices. I’ll use 1) “describe,” 2) “prescribe,” 3) “transcribe,” and 4) “in(ter)scribe” to illustrate this time. (Other times, I’ve tried other words).

1) “Describe” is what most good linguists are after. If the translator loses that, then much is lost by the wayside. By the wayside fall these things: the original author’s intent and the text’s accuracy. Being descriptive employs the “telling strategy” that Robert E. Quinn talks about. A translation that is faithful to the original has taken advantage of the fact that a language scientist has described both languages well and ensures there’s no categorical mismatches. The translation overcomes the “epiphenomenal” or “contingency” difficulties that George Steiner talks about—if you want to know what the original says, then look it up in the faithful translation. EITHER the target language has fidelity to the source language in translation OR there’s absolutely no value in the translation.

2) “Prescribe” is what most good linguists loathe. If a translation is prescribed (as the KJV still is for many English Bible readers four centuries later), then there’s some initial reader joy but afterwards the reader actually has to read the thing. The roots of motivation are stunted by the shallow rocks of weird language, and the sunshine of the outdoors kills off any desire to live in the unfamiliar. Being prescriptive employs the “forcing strategy” that Robert E. Quinn talks about. A translation that is prescribed by a private Christian school, such as my daughter’s, has taken advantage of a powerful church tradition. The translation overcomes the “tactical” difficulties that George Steiner talks about—if you have a KJV Bible placed by the Gideons in the drawer of your hotel room (and if the tv is broken, the repair person is on vacation, the Inn is full, and you left your magazine on the counter at Starbucks), then you read it. EITHER you find it to be good literature OR when you get to the next wifi station you blog that the KJV has absolutely no literary value.

3) “Transcribe” is what most good linguists tolerate. If there’s a translation, then there’s been a transcription. Sure it raises all kinds of questions about authority, about originality, about orality, about forbidden gospels, about imaginary Q and JDEP, about the film versions especially “The Passion of the Christ” even before anyone could say “I told you so” after Mel Gibson’s drunken anti-Jew tirades, about literary translation, about dynamic equivalence (See “Describe” above), about formal equivalence, about Mohammed’s and Moses’s and Aristotle’s audacity to presume that copyists are better than translators (See “Prescribe” above). The thorns and weeds of liberals and postmodernists and feminists and tv preachers and atheists and agnostics choke out the word. Being transcriptive employs the “negotiating” or “win-win strategy” that Robert E. Quinn talks about. A transcription is a bunch of seeds on a photocopy machine. The translation overcomes the “modal” difficulties that George Steiner talks about—if your translator has been hesistant, then you get everything in transliteration. EITHER you go to graduate school, preferably divinity school, to learn the new vocabulary that sounds just like Latin, Greek, a bit of Aramaic, and Hebrew OR you download your favorite songs from last night’s American Idol on your iPod.

4) “In(ter)scribe” is what Kenneth Pike was talking about. Larry Wall has translated that into PERL, which means, following the motto “There’s More Than One Way To Do It,” the binary has become not the only thing, even with computers. The original dies. and gets resurrected. and is fruitful that way. and multiplies multiply. Mikhail Epstein calls it interlation (See “Transcribe” for “translation” above), in which something is not just lost but is found, in which the original and the new original are side by side so that any reader of the one can see the other and the reader of both sees more. It’s kind of like being emic and etic at the same time. Being in(ter)scriptive employs the “transformation strategy” that Robert E. Quinn talks about. An in(ter)scription is what Lydia He Liu says gets born after a guest language visits a host language and the two make a lifelong commitment and have babies together. The translation overcomes the “ontological” difficulties that George Steiner talks about—if your translation tells a story, then you get ears to hear and it sinks way down inside you and you change. Kind of like our mothers changed when they conceived us. Kind of like Jesus changed when his palms got inscribed.

So I think I’ll end this typically long post the way Pike ended his monolingual demonstrations: with poetry. Except my poems today aren’t originally mine. They’re Alice Walker’s, from her book Anything We Love Can Be Saved. My prayer is for ears to hear today.


When they torture your mother
plant a tree
When they torture your father
plant a tree
When they torture your brother
and your sister
plant a tree
When they assassinate
your leaders
and lovers
plant a tree
When they torture you
too bad
to talk
plant a tree.

When they begin to torture
the trees
and cut down the forest
they have made,
start another.

(Thereby bringing the spirits of my parents, Willie Lee and Minnie Lee Tallulah Walker, into the ceremony of your special day)

Looking down into my father's
dead face
for the last time
my mother said without
tears, without smiles
without regrets
but with civility
"Good night, Willie Lee, I'll see you
in the morning."
And it was then I knew that the healing
of all our wounds
is forgiveness
that permits a promise
of our return
at the end.


A woman is not
a potted plant
her roots bound
to the confines
of her house

a woman is not
a potted plant
her leaves trimmed
to the contours
of her sex

a woman is not
a potted plant
her branches
against the fences
of her race
her country
her mother
her man

her trained blossom
this way
& that
to follow
the sun
of whoever
and waters

a woman
is wilderness
holding the future
between each breath
walking the earth
only because
she is free
and not creepervine
or tree.

Nor even honeysuckle
or bee.


We have a beautiful
Her hills
are buffaloes
Her buffaloes

We have a beautiful
Her oceans
are wombs
Her wombs

We have a beautiful
Her teeth
the white stones
at the edge
of the water
the summer grasses
her plentiful

We have a beautiful
Her green lap
Her brown embrace
Her blue body
we know.

(this final poem in my post comprises Walker’s final words in her book. I’m dedicating it to two widows and five orphaned daughters and sons this week. It appears in Walker’s book under a photo of her parents with this caption: Minnie Tallulah Grant Walker and Willie Lee Walker / PHOTO BY ITINERANT PHOTOGRAPHER / IN THE THIRTIES, EATONTON, GEORGIA)

For your bravery,
and love,
your daughter
thanks you.

Your belief in the love
of the world,
against all odds
and evidence,
is the fire that lights
my path.


*We shall overcome.

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