Monday, October 20, 2008

The Silence of (Rahab and) the Joshuas

The majority of bible translators today know better than the first authors and initial translators of the texts of the bible. Or they think they do.

Most bible translators today don’t follow the Hebrew authors and translators of the Jewish scriptures. Instead, bible translators now tend to follow the philosopher Greeks: they follow Plato in idealizing and Aristotle in rationalizing. It’s a Western culture coup d'état.

In general, English translators today idealize not only (A) the texts (as The “Holy” Bible) but also (B) their own logical methods of translation (which they see as their obedient “faithfulness” to the “original” texts and authors, whom they idealize as “the Author”). They have been disciples of the semi-platonic Jerome or Martin Luther who tries to protest not only the Pope but also Aristotle. They have been much more recent followers of the platonic, neo-Aristotelian Noam Chomsky or Eugene Nida or Dan Sperber and Deidre Wilson or Wayne Grudem or John Piper or the various theo-logical committees of the big bible publishing houses.

Specifically, they can both (A) silence a woman (Rahab) who speaks in the Hebrew and (B) sacrifice the richness of Jewish history (in Joshua) for Christianized disambiguity.

(Oh, and the vast majority of bible translators today are men. They are not women. Women tend to be more open to different translation methods and necessarily alternative ways of looking at the texts. One woman even looks for evidence that the unnamed authoress of the book of Hebrews is a woman. But perhaps I digress; perhaps.)

Let’s look at two textual examples: Joshua 2:14 and Hebrews 4:8.

Joshua 2:14 goes like this:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ לָהּ הָאֲנָשִׁים נַפְשֵׁנוּ תַחְתֵּיכֶם לָמוּת אִם לֹא תַגִּידוּ אֶת־דְּבָרֵנוּ זֶה וְהָיָה בְּתֵת־יְהוָה לָנוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ וְעָשִׂינוּ עִמָּךְ חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת׃

The very first bible translators were Jews, true insiders to their own texts (unlike bible translators today). And yet, they were “commissioned” to translate by a goyish Egyptian king who was the lackey of a goyish Greek world conqueror. (I’m talking about the legend of king Ptolemy Philadelphus II and Alexander the Great and the translators of what has become known as the Septuagint, or the LXX). So they were more faithful to the Hebrew than to the Greek. And they still translated Joshua 2:14 this way:

καὶ εἶπαν αὐτῇ οἱ ἄνδρες Ἡ ψυχὴ ἡμῶν ἀνθ' ὑμῶν εἰς θάνατον. καὶ αὐτὴ εἶπεν Ὡς ἂν παραδῷ κύριος ὑμῖν τὴν πόλιν, ποιήσετε εἰς ἐμὲ ἔλεος καὶ ἀλήθειαν.

It appears that these original translators “changed” the text. But isn’t that what translators do? Let me step aside that rhetorical question just to explain. In English, the Hebrew was translated the following way by the “commissioning” of British emperor James I, whose translators also had access to the LXX and to Jermone's Vulgate and to Luther's Bibel:

“And the men answered her, Our life for yours, if ye utter not this our business. And it shall be, when the LORD hath given us the land, that we will deal kindly and truly with thee.”

But in English, the Greek LXX alone was translated this way by Sir Lancelot Charles Lee Brenton by himself:

“And the men said to her, Our life for yours [even] to death: and she said, When the Lord shall have delivered the city to you, ye shall deal mercifully and truly with me.”

Do you see the difference? The original Jewish translation of the Hebrew into Greek (or the LXX which Brenton turns to English) is different from the James I English translation. The Jews have “καὶ αὐτὴ εἶπεν” (for which Brenton has “and she said”) for the original, ambiguous Hebrew phrase “אמֶר.”

Now, to be fair to the King James Commission on The Translation of The Holy Bible, they may just be following Saint Jerome or the rogue Martin Luther, who fail to give the prostitute Rahab her say. Who do you think your favorite Bible’s commission is faithful to, which platonic idealist who silences the woman, that is? (Of course, the LXX Commission, and Sir Brenton, let Rahab speak in Joshua 2:14 in the original Hebrew text and in the Greek and in the English translations).

So let’s quickly run back to the New Testament and to the book of Hebrews and to Hebrews 4:8.

To be sure, all the writers of the New Testament (all men, except perhaps for that unnamed authoress of the book of Hebrews)—all of them really like the translators and the translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. The New Testament writers without fail also write in Greek, and when they quote the Old Testament they quote the Greek translation. That’s not to say they don’t like the original Hebrew text; they do. It’s just to say, every single writer of the New Testament chooses to write in Greek, and chooses to read also the Greek translation when quoting from the ancient Hebrew scripture.

Not surprisingly, when recording what first century Jews said in Hebrew or Aramaic, the New Testament writers—every single one of them—translated the Hebrew speech into Greek. And when the speech was ambiguous, which Hebrew and most any language is from time to time, the New Testament writer-translators were good enough to let us readers sort things out.

So here’s what the writer of the book of Hebrews says in Hebrews 4:8:

εἰ γὰρ αὐτοὺς Ἰησοῦς κατέπαυσεν οὐκ ἂν περὶ ἄλλης ἐλάλει μετὰ ταῦτα ἡμέρας

Now, notice bible translators today have tended to split over the ambiguity here. But it seems that Saint Jerome and the protesting Martin Luther parted ways here too. And since, many bible translators follow either the one or the other, we get the split.

Here’s Jerome and then Luther (but go on to check how your favorite Bible translation gives way to the one or the other):

nam si eis Iesus requiem praestitisset numquam de alio loqueretur posthac die

Denn so Josua hätte sie zur Ruhe gebracht, würde er nicht hernach von einem andern Tage gesagt haben.

The quick thing to note is that Jerome makes Ἰησοῦς Iesus but Luther makes him Josua.

Now, of course Jerome can tell the difference between “Jesus” and “Joshua” and so can the writer of the book of Hebrews. But the unnamed, anonymous writer of the book of Hebrews wants to keep the language in Greek as ambiguous as it is in Hebrew. She gives the reader of her Greek and the earlier Hebrew quite a bit of credit. (Okay, I’ll give you that—there’s no rigid evidence that the writer of Hebrews is “she”; and yet “he” sure writes and translates as openly as a “she” might).

But Jerome and Luther have to disambiguate, which is what bible translators today do. They want the ideal text to say one thing and one thing only. And if there’s a choice left to the reader, well the translator gets to decide for her. (In this way, Jerome and Luther are not only Platonists, they are also Aristotelians. They want the ideal Text, and they want it to say One thing and NOT another thing).

So to be clear, Jerome turns Joshua into Jesus, and Luther turns Joshua into Joshua. Most bible translators today follow either the one or the other.

But the writer of the book of Hebrews lets Jesus be Joshua also. She trusts the early translators, you know, the ones who let Rahab speak in Joshua 2:14. She trusts us the readers to see the ambiguity, to interpret for ourselves, and to hear the various voices in the text, not just Jerome’s voice or Luther’s voice.

(Now I do know of two English translation teams who have decided to translate both Joshuas in the Greek text Hebrews as "Joshua." They are Jewish groups, and I'll not name them here because they do have bias that they confess, which may just distract from the point of this post. Their bias is not platonism or neo-aristotelianism, however. And, as mentioned before, the translator and translation theorist Willis Barnstone, who is a Jew, not a Christian, translates the Greek Ἰησοῦς as Yeshua).


Dannii said...

So how exactly do we translate Hebrews 4 feministically?

J. K. Gayle said...

Hi Dannii,
Thanks for the "how" question. I think your "we" is exactly right--"feminist" methods tend to be inclusive and collaborative. And don't they also insist on what Hélène Cixous suggests: "l'écriture féminine" or writing the feminine (not in and under the dominant "phallogocentric" system)?

We know "what" the masculinist translation looks like:
>it transliterates (i.e., makes Ἰησοῦς the abstracted weird impersonal name "Jesus," which robs him of his Hebrew heritage and robs him of the name his mother gives him and her association of him with the Jew who saved her nation from the desert roaming before sending spies to Rahab);
>it disambiguates (i.e., keeps the one Ἰησοῦς different from the other by using different transliterations: "Jesus" is not "Joshua");
>it creates hierarchy (i.e., the one Ἰησοῦς is over the other who does not give sons rest, and over all sons and over the angels, but both men, and all sons, are over the woman, especially the prostitute);
>it insists that English readers today (presumably Christians not Jews without Jesus) are the "target audience" (i.e., contemporary English readers professing "Christ," not necessarily Jews, are the text's "insiders");
>it assumes that there is "no evidence" that the unnamed author is a woman, and allows that the question is unimportant.

Back to your question then. How is Hebrews 4 to be translated by us in a feminist way? Might we imagine an authoress? Will we pretend to be "insiders" and not outsiders? If we can see ourselves outside the text, will we allow ourselves to eavesdrop, to listen in with intent though not necessarily bound by the one author's singular original intent, to do what Richard B Hays calls reading someone else's mail? Might our translating try to upset the ostensible hierarchies in the Greek text? Dare we publish our English side by side to the Greek? Can we leave the ambiguities in the text, granting our readers (and the Greek readers) the right to make meaning with us and with our author(ess)? Won't we use the same English name for both men named Ἰησοῦς? Won't we get our readers thinking of that Ἰησοῦς who benefitted so by that prostitute named in Hebrews 11? Won't we with our readers think that she is a forerunner, a foremother, to all the prostitutes whom that later Ἰησοῦς loves? Won't our readers remember Matthew's different men named Ἰησοῦς: the central figure of course, but the one also named Son of Daddy (Bar-Abbas) whom Pilate tries to offer instead to the crowd? When so many Jewish mothers named their little boys Ἰησοῦς, can't we remember their choice in our translating, their heroic choice in a name?

Thanks again for your question. I'm sure I haven't answered it. Seems there are many questions. My main question is "When Rahab stands, and speaks, and acts, so centrally with belief--between two Joshuas, how can any translation dare to make her sit down, shut up, and be divorced from these two important men?"

And how do you answer your question?

Dannii said...

Looking at the ambiguities, how can they be resolved in an English translation? The names Joshua and Jesus have no real connection in English, even though I know they're the same name, it's only an academic knowledge for me, and I'm sure it's the same for most if not all people.

I can imagine a specialist translation that did use the one name for both, consistently throughout the whole NT and not just Hebrews. But it would be a specialist translation, you'd have to know what's going on for it to really be usable.

So what can be done for a translation intended for a wide consumption by the community?

J. K. Gayle said...

Again, great questions!

Looking at the ambiguities, how can they be resolved in an English translation?

Do you mean how can an English translation keep the word play of the Greek ambiguities? Why do only "specialist" translations retain and recreate puns and ambiguities? (I do know of two published NT translations that have the same English name for this single Greek name; and isn't the name in Greek already a translation of the one Hebrew name? So why do English translators have to shy away from what the earliest Greek translators did?)

So what can be done for a translation intended for a wide consumption by the community?

Haven't the big publishing houses of numerous English translations already made changes? I think of the gender-inclusive language that most translations now have adopted. These changes have come with much discussion, much scholarship, much debate. There are the cultural issues that feminists rightly raise, and there are the concerns of the publishers who must make money selling bibles, and there are the concerns of pastors and theologians and laypeople (whether feminist or not).

Right now, it is lone scholars-translators like Ann Nyland and Willis Barnstone and Karen Jobes and Anne Carson, not all part of the Christian publishing house establishment, who are looking at issues of anglo-centrism in bible translation. On the particular issue of transliterated names (without the word play), Barnstone speaks out loudest. He says that Christian bible translations tend to erase the Jewishness of the people in the NT, especially the very odd very singularly-named "Jesus," which/ who has a lost connection to the heritage of the Jews.

Part of my issue, Dannii, is the methodology for translation. Western notions of "language," of "translation," and even of a "canonical text," tend to be Aristotle's notions--and these impact methods, which are logically Aristotelian if not also ideally Platonist. The translation methods and goals of most big-publishing houses are masculinist, rigidly "logical," and have a centrist bias (i.e., a bias toward the small society that produces them). The theologians have a bias (i.e., literal-text equivalence bent by theo-logic). The linguists have a bias (i.e., "dynamic equivalence" of THE singular meaning from the original to THE sole meaning in some Standard English).

This, Dannii, is more than you're asking. And yet, your questions about "specialty" bibles suggest that the big bible translation publishers don't need to think about which groups their translations exclude when their methods are suspect.

Isn't it very important--given that the Hebrew and Greek bible is already translation--to consider not just the static text received but also the processes of translators of the Septuagint and of the translating writers of the histories (i.e., gospels and Acts), epistles, and prophecy (i.e., Revelation) of the NT? In other words, don't The Bible translators today use very different methods from the Greek-language translators who gave us the bible we have today? Today's translators have turned to Aristotle. But LXX translators, in particular, resisted Aristotle and his kind of Greek. NT translators (i.e., authors) resisted Aristotelianism as well. It's not that the sophistication of linguistic science and art (or theology) doesn't advance translation methods--it's rather that the sophisticates are rather exclusive and exclusionary. The sophisticates, even well-meaning bible translators for the various people groups of the world, have abandoned the kind of personal-context parabolic methods of people like Kenneth Pike for idealizing relevance-theory methods of people like Ernst-August Gutt. Again, I've said too much. Have I avoided your questions?

Dannii said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dannii said...

Hi Kurk,

Sometimes your posts leave me lost, but don't take that a bad way, it's just that they're so far past my usual thinking level it takes a lot to process them.

My question is really a very super practical one here: assuming we had all the time and energy, the translation/linguistic skill and experience, a deep knowledge of the Bible and other writings of the time, an insightful understanding of all the past cultures involved and today's culture, and your crazy feministic theories, how exactly would we translate Hewbrews 4 for a normal English-speaking adult, for my friends at uni, my bus driver or even my sister.

Would we use different names for Mr BC and Mr AD?
Would we use Jesus, Joshua, Yehoshua or Yahweh-saves (should we translate Yahweh here too then?)
Would we have wider explanatory notes in the footnotes, or in the text itself?
For each time the name is used, or the first time a person is mentioned?
When do these choices start producing a translation that actually gets in the way of simply reading and understanding the text (for our target audience is one who wants to read the text, think about it and hopefully comprehend it as fully as they can, and not a scholar who wants to critically analyse every aspect of everything)?
We can't have a paragraph explaining all the various names and meanings and translations each time a "Joshua" is mentioned. But would we want some paragraph like that once at the beginning of the chapter (or maybe the book)? Or maybe in the footnotes?

So many questions! I guess I can see how thinking these issues over could help you make a better translation, but I wonder if it would open up so many options you'd never be able to decide which to choose! ;)

Thanks for your time!

J. K. Gayle said...

I thank you for your time. You inspired my two posts today. I'll be thinking about your questions for a long time, I'm sure! Maybe we'll soon enough find some answers with more questions.