Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Does Size Matter, in translation?

“Do you sacrifice cultural context or comprehensibility? Personally I usually prefer a translation to be more careful with context if I can educate myself about what I don't understand…Ideally we want a word that is both comprehensible and keeps more of the context.”
--Daniel, Commenting on a Post

“My concerns are to have a Bible that is as accurate to the intended meaning as possible, with as little doctrinal bias in either text or footnotes, that represents the literary features of the original and is true to the English language. Quite frankly, I think that these are common goals of our bib[l]iosphere and I find the ongoing argument and counter argument delightful.”
--Suzanne, in a Post

“Monetary translations in the Bible are a pet peeve of mine. I prefer the commonly accepted transliterations such as drachma, denarius, etc….The Bible is a historical work and I'd rather see the facts of history correctly retained within it's pages, and my preference there would carry over into any other historical work. I would say this is particularly true when specialists already use English terms for ancient sources.”
--Nathan, Commenting on a Post

Three of my blogger friends have expressed preferences for translation, as quoted above. In this post, let me try to ignore the question of the “Bible” as a special case for Greek language translation into English. I do want to reflect, nonetheless, on what Daniel, Suzanne, and Nathan are saying as it relates generally to problems and solutions in translation.

Daniel brings up the use of the Greek word σταδους (transliterated “stadious”) by Luke and how four translators have translated it. I’m going to talk about that word but will leave the Bible for a bit since I’m looking at rhetorical and feminist and translational things with respect to Aristotle and his Rhetoric. And I’m going to add this: Daniel is really on to something that might help me, and might help those arguing over Bible translation. He says, “I can educate myself about what I don't understand.”

“Personally,” Daniel has started. And what a great start! There’s no mere ideal in “personally.” “Personally,” may include God if you will. But God’s not doing any of the translating.

Suzanne and Nathan echo Daniel with “My concerns are” and “a pet peeve of mine…I prefer.” Hooray for the honest, humble, subjectivity!

Hence, we return to “the Bible’s” σταδους (transliterated “stadious”). But as I warned, we’re going outside the Bible a bit. With this term there are things that are profoundly personal. What we mean is this: Each one of us throughout human history who uses the word, who has ever used it, has some attachment to it. So we start there. And we look at others’ attachments to the word. (I’m tempted here as an English language user, and an ESL teaching specialist, to throw in a few “English” grammar or phonological examples that mark us as outsiders or unmark us as insiders, aka “native speakers of the English language.”) When you read or hear σταδους, you have some degree of relationship to the word. It’s your etic-ness if you’re focused on how foreign, or secondary, the word is to you; it’s your emic-ness if you’re focused on how familiar the word is for you. (So there I go, using English words—i.e., etic and emic —which you may be familiar with. If not double click the words with your mouse to see what happens—your information gap begins to close as you open and scroll down to read the things of curiosity and interest to you and as you ignore the rest.)

Here’s my search for σταδους. I find it in the Illiad a few times. Homer’s characters or his narrator are using it. The contexts? The term’s for “standing” as in a battle, in a very close fight. Then it’s in Nemean by Pindar. There it’s a “foot race.” Elsewhere in Pindar in a Pythian ode of his, another word makes explicit that this time the foot race is a “naked race” or some sort of “bare course.” Now, in Aristotle, it’s used overwhelmingly although never in the Rhetoric, which is the work I’m translating. Aristotle uses the term for his science of “nature” which he divides into the study of first principles (the Physics), the study of bodies and magnitudes (De Caelo and De Generatione), and the study of plants and animals that have bodies and magnitude. For example, Aristotle talks about trying to measure an animal, imagined, “ten thousand stadia in length.” He measures the circumference of the earth at 400,000 stadia. On the Constitution of Athens, he speaks of enumerated “city-wardens…who supervise female performers on the flute or harp or lyre, and see that they do not charge more than two drachmas for an engagement, and, when several persoansl want to engage the same performer, decided by casting lots which is to have the preference. It is also their duty to hinder scavengers from discharging sewage within ten stadia of the city wall.” Aristotle even famously uses “stadia” in paraphrase of Zeno to make his logic, his syllogisms, “against motion,” to say that the earth does not move. Now the Bible: Daniel gives one New Testament use of the term. And, for translation of the Hebrew, there’s the Septuagint use in one of the variants in Daniel 4:9(12) in Ziegler’s edition of the Old Greek. And for novel Greek bible use, there’s five uses of the word in 2 Maccabees.

My questions: Is the logic of Aristotle reigning supreme here? Does he not also imagine even the “nature” of this word? Hence: what English phrase might best allow all these senses immediately? I’m asking about all of Aristotle’s plural connotations and uses, and then the others’ as well? Is it the best choice in English really a transliteration such as “stadia” or “stades”? How is it that σταδους can be so ambiguous in Greek, diachronically and synchronically as linguists say, and still no English word is allowed to do the same? I’ve got an idea for a true English phrase but would like to hear others’ proposals as well. Size may matter in translation.

(So let me be critical now. I don’t see any of the “either / or” binaries as entirely necessary. Daniel asks: “Do you sacrifice cultural context or comprehensibility?” Suzanne wants a translation “that is as accurate to the intended meaning as possible.” Implicit here is another “either / or” choice in the “ongoing argument and counter argument” that she finds “delightful” anyway. Are our translation choices really between “accuracy” and “bias”? Between plus “literary features” or minus such features? Must we choose between either “intended meaning” that’s both “true to the English language” and the original or meanings—anything goes meanings—never meant by some original “the author”? Nathan wants to “see the facts of history correctly retained within” as if “the facts” of “history” are impersonally and objectively recorded and observed. Implicit assumptions of the logic here are this: that “cultural context” and “comprehensibility”; that “accuracy” and “authorial intent”; that “facts” and “history” are fixed or are to be fixed in ways that I, a human being made in God’s image, have no influence over and little involvement in constructing. And when I perceive, rightly or wrongly, that I have no influence or that someone has “bias,” then I’ll just “idealize” God’s Truth in ways that are really more like “idolatry” of ostensible Truth. One of the “ideals” is I can come at the “Scripture” as “fully inspired,” made untouchable to translators by the touch of God.

To suggest otherwise is to be labelled a “postmodernist” or a “feminist” or some other such ostensibly derogatory name. The ad homomen fallacy of such logic aside, it’s tough for many Bible readers and translators not to fall into the rigid logic. As if God is Aristotle, and heaven and earth were birthed from syllogisms. As if God is Plato, transliteratating “syllogism” so that the Greek language is realized, and idealized now into English, as something fixed and accurate and factual, immutable. As if God does not communicate with the people who’s languages don’t have many numbers or formal logic--and I’m not talking about digital amoebas.

Notice what Daniel adds: “I can educate myself about what I don't understand.”

Again, a reference to the personal. It would be no less subjective if Daniel asks God or another person to help him understand personally.)


Daniel said...

Enabling the AnswerTips double-click definition on your blog is pretty cool. I hadn't see that before. Too bad it doesn't show definitions for Greek words.

Nathan Stitt said...

Hmm, I'm not sure how to approach this. I'd say that my stance comes somewhat from my science background. Maybe an example will help.

If the whole world goes metric, will a yard still not be a yard? Will future translations refer to yards as meters since they (roughly) approximate? If σταδίους is being used in context as a measurement of distance, then why not translate it as stadia or whatever English equivalent is currently in use by historians? I recall my previous example of the denarius. It is a historic fact, and my preference would be to preserve facts in translation when we know that they exist.

I guess my preference is for technical English language in translation. I heard recently that English has 500,000 words and a further 500,000 technical words; why not utilize them? Like Daniel said, I'd prefer to educate myself, rather than accept an alternative that is (to me) less accurate. Now I've not read Aristotle so I can't follow your allusions to any of his arguments. So if this term is being used not in relation to distance then I can see trying to find some other equivalent phrase. I know you had other points but this is all the reply I can manage at the moment.

Daniel said...

You said, "I don’t see any of the 'either / or'” binaries as entirely necessary. Daniel asks: 'Do you sacrifice cultural context or comprehensibility?'"

I also generally don't like being forced into an 'either / or' choice. There are too many false dicotomies that are pushed on us. However, when translating, there are choices that have to to be made. These choices often requires a trade off.

In the translations of Luke 24:13 I looked at, σταδίους was translated four ways: stadia, furlongs, miles, kilometers. (The Vulgate, a French translation, a Spanish translation, and an English translation use a form of stadia. The older translations use either stadia or furlongs, while the newer translations use miles or kilometers.) I am not especially happy with any of these choices. Kurk doesn’t see any of the "either / or" binaries as entirely necessary, but 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?

Nathan Stitt said...

I had intended to mention the use of footnotes. If a technical/historical term is used in translation, a modern equivalent could be footnoted for quick comparison.

Kevin Sam said...

My take on this might be a little different from what has been expressed. Words like σταδίους make me feel like an outsider and I think would make most people feel the same way. In this case, I's go with a contemporary word like miles or kilometers. But for words like "Caesar", I'd stick with Caesar because most people know what a Caesar is. I prefer a little flexibility.

J. K. Gayle said...

Welcome Sam!
I appreciate your take here, especially your identifying yourself as an outsider to the terms but sticking with those words that are already familiar. There's something to be said for going with "Caesar" if it's familiar and doesn't have other senses that involve word play, I think.