Friday, May 23, 2008

The Biggest Mistake of Bible Translators

The absolute biggest mistake that most Bible translators make is this. When their readers ask for bread they give them a stone. Sometimes, it’s a stoning.

What I mean by that harsh statement is this. Translators of the Bible tend to prefer to ossify the original. The original includes not only the ostensibly original “source” text but also these other things as well: the ostensibly original intention of the author; the ostensibly original “inspiration by God” of the writing; the ostensibly original “canon” of “All Scripture.” (But canon now means, not some long stick to measure by, but something that is closed; which implies All that is Not scripture.)

Another way we might put that is this: Lots of translators believe the Bible is some monolithic, inalterable product. No wonder they like to see translation as some kind of freeze drying method of preservation. Equivalence (whether literal or dynamic) between the ostensibly original “source” text and the “target” language text is the absolute end game. There is much sympathy with those Jews who do not really want their religious texts translated unless one will also spend hours, no a lifetime, studying the Hebrew scriptures. There is much understanding of the Muslims who demand that the Koran not be translated at all. There is unwitting identification with Aristotle who could care less for translation, unless it is made into Greek from the Barbarian languages (as were the Hebrew scriptures when commissioned by the lackeys of Alexander the Great who conquered the world for Greece militarily and set up a city named after himself to conquer the world intellectually for Greece as well). When it came to language, Aristotle, by logic, prescribed a monolithic inalterable product, the elite Greek, at the expense of his teachers such as Socrates and Plato and at the expense of his “language arts” enemies such as Isocrates, Gorgias, Heraclitus, Alcidamas, and the woman Aspasia, whom he silences by refusing even to name her. By logic, Aristotle intends cold objectivity in observing the subjects of “nature,” to define and to classify them on an epistemological map that puts right at the top the natural-born educated free adult male Greek who needs listen to no one else except unless to listen in order to gain more authority by which to speak and to be heard.

What are the problems with that then? There are absolutely no problems. None, that is, until the translator wants a Bible reader who can listen with ears to hear. Or wants himself or herself to have ears to hear.

Quickly now (because my fifteen minutes for this post are nearly gone), there are some notable, remarkable exceptions to the stone-cold tendencies of most Bible translators today.

Let’s remember a few:

First, we say with Jesus and with James K. A. Smith that interpretation is part and parcel of whatever the image of God on humans is. Before the snake and the humans started speaking different languages, the humans were naming and the snake wasn’t. The fall of interpretation comes after “the fall of man.” One story was beside another in the garden—this was a parable like those of Jesus, requiring interpretative personal interaction between a male and a female who were side by side.

Second, after Babel and before Pentecost, there was translation in the Bible. What we call Ezra 4:7 and 4:18 and Nehemiah 8:8 attest to that.

Third, the first translators of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, in Alexandria, were very very conscious (as their choices tell us) that Greek rhetoric could be used rather resistantly in translation, for translation. They were using the words in ambiguous ways, but permissible and personable ways too, like the ways Carolyn Custis James uses her English warrior for Ruth who was not always and only what others might lock down as only and always a mere help meet for the man, Boaz. And these are the ways Mary Sidney takes over the translation project when her brother passes away, making the sin sickness of David also leprosy, which was before AIDS, which the Countess might have made it today if we were still writing Shakespeakean sonnets to shake the womanizing King out of his complacency, and ours. They were comparing the Bible words to Greek poetry, the ways Sappho’s love poem with its co-warrior word speaks to Adam and Boaz and Solomon on Suzanne’s Bookshelf.

Fourth, the post-Pharisee, dual (Roman-Jew) citizen, Paul could use Greek rhetoric and dialectic in the Greek tongue in Athens on Ares’ Rock. He could also shift to spoken Aramaic and could read written Hebrew and likely was as facile in Latin. This was long before the United Nations and the simultaneous translators there whom contemporary Bible translator Karen Jobes is getting some of us to consider as a model.

Fifth, there’s Jesus again, who comes long before Kenneth L. Pike. Pike we mention again because he rightly insisted on putting person above logic. He wasn’t denying any of us that beautiful thing of Aristotle’s creation called “logic”; but he recognized that starting with formalisms, such as abstract logic, and math, and other such mechanizations finally locks down language learning and translation in such a way that almost no learning takes place and the translation that might grow into ears that might hear gets stunted by shallow rocks. So Pike would demonstrate profound listening to the other, in her language (not his) which he’d never heard before. And he would learn masterfully, on and by her terms. Then they’d talk together. And at the end of that “monolingual” demonstration—which was in one language, hers—he’d talk with anyone else who would listen, in their language, usually English. And we who pretend, usually, to speak Academic English (remember Aristotle?) would listen. Pike would usually end with non-academic poetry, not hoping we would all become literary critics, but rather hoping we’d remember to be personable before we were robots of logic.

Sixth, there are those other apprentices of Jesus, the flunkies, the men who abandoned him in his darkest hour. They’re his first translators, and he was insistent on that. They wrote what they heard him say, translated it into Greek, and made it very personal. They translated it into bread.

Seventh, oops. I made a mistake. Worrying about origins, I forget to mention the very beginning translators of Jesus. There was this woman who was once plagued by a Greek deity or two. She’d heard him speaking Greek, this Jewish Rabbi, with a woman no less, an ethnic woman and then another. And she’d watched him melt at her rhetoric, her insistence that she (this ethnic woman and another one too) not be excluded from table scraps falling from the table of the children of the elites. You see, these mothers (the ethnic Greek speakers) had daughters who’d been caught by the Greek deities. And she’d seen him (the original woman I’m talking about); she’d seen him talking with those Greek deities too. The power of personal translation. Logic and target and source and stone cold accuracy of the original wasn’t the issue here. So, after he’d experienced the biggest change and bodily translation and transformation any human being will ever make, he trusted this one woman. He trusted her to translate his experience, and now hers of encounter with him after death, to those men hiding away up in a room. Fortunately, they listened. And learned that translation was personal. That’s how we have our daily bread.

(Update: Bread is what some of us men, and women too, bake in the kitchen.)

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