Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Better (Feminist) Bible Translators

Feminist is such a loaded term.  But so is Bible.  The two don't mix.  Which is to say, typically Bible translators want to keep feminists out of the process, out of the product.  

Why?  Most Bible translators are men.  And most, whether male or female, tend to participate in and to perpetuate an understanding of language that descends from Greek men, namely Plato and Aristotle.  Ultimately, it's an exclusionary and sexist understanding of language.  (And if you were lured into this post by a title that made you think this is about feminist Bible translators, then please know it's mostly about why there needs to be more feminist Bible translations like Ann Nyland's, an English translating that plays with a playful Greek translating of Hebrew and Aramaic.)

How does Plato's male Greek understanding of language work?  Plato pushed for ideal language as necessary for an ideal republic.  If his Republic doesn't help us see how Plato despised and felt threatened by poetry, sophistry, and Greek cultural literacy in general, then perhaps Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato is a better beginning.  

How does Aristotle's male Greek understanding of language work?  Aristotle pushed for the facts of an elite Greek understanding of language, an understanding that he coined "logic." Logic is the method that could ultimately silence slippery language (i.e., "logos" and "dissoi logoi" and "dialectic" and "rhetoric") of women, Barbarians, parable tellers from Lybia, colonists of Soli, all those Plato his teacher disparaged, and even Plato himself.  If we're not quite ready straight up for Aristotle's logic and what he pushed by it, then a good start is to read Cheryl Glenn's Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity through the Renaissance, Edward Schiappa's Protagoras and Logos: A Study in Greek Philosophy and Rhetoric, and Jeffrey Walker's Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity.

Do Bible translators use Plato's idealism and Aristotle's logic?  I'm hardly the expert to answer this question.  I'm no expert in Greek thinking and logic (although I took logic and philosophy as part of the undergrad degree and have just completed a doctorate in "rhetoric," which included some courses and a dissertation on Greek male language).  But, I have lived among Bible translators all my life (did a master's degree in linguistics among them too) and can say that they actually try to be inclusive rather than exclusive of others' languages.  Their sort of inclusive thinking makes Bible translators very unlike Plato and Aristotle.  Nonetheless, Bible translators still tend to use Plato's and Aristotle's phallogocentrism when they think about language.

What's that look like?  The ultimate Language idealist today is Noam Chomsky.  He looks at Language the way Plato's Philosophers in the Republic looked at ideal reality outside "the cave."  In other words, Chomsky thinks of "Language" as something ideally real (something that he names "competence").  But any given language, such as English or Japanese, is a mere shadow of ideally real Language (a shadow that manifests in any human being as mere "performance.")  The job of the Linguist is to show how speakers and writers are trapped in the cave of their respective languages, and of their imperfect performance of those languages.  The Linguist, the Language-Scientist, is ideally free in Language from the cave of languages.

Chomsky is also a realist who uses logic.  It is the nature of a human being, he says, to have Language.  He would agree with Aristotle that no other species of animal and no plants or rocks or immovable things have Language.  Language, in Nature, separates.  The method of logic, likewise, separates.  What a thing is in itself is separate from What it is not.  The method is binary.  Chomsky uses a separating binary feature system to define and to classify Language in much the way Aristotle proceeded with syllogisms of logic.  The thinking is "either / or" but never paradox or "both / and."  In Aristotle's system, logic is separate from and above all other methods of language.  Likewise, males are separate from and above females in every species.  The central and the moderate are separate from and above the extremes and the hyperbolic.  In Chomsky's system, Language is separate from and above any particular language and especially the performance of any language.

Is Chomsky representative of Bible translators?  Of course not.  I'm saying "of course not" because he revolutionized American Linguistics in opposition to the early structuralism of language students whose work early Bible translators may have looked to.  More than that, contemporary Bible translating linguists and theologians have often distanced themselves from Chomsky.  His abstraction of Language tends to be impractical for the language scientists, and his species-specific notion of Language is an affront to religion universalists.  And yet Bible translators are like Chomsky just as he is like Plato and Aristotle.

How have Bible translators followed Plato and Aristotle?  Bible translators have tended to be idealists in their construction of Language and logical realists in their translation methods. Ironically, they have favored the thinking of two Greek men.  I say "ironically" because the Bible is already translated into much different Greek by much different methods.  I'm talking about methods of parable, hyperbole, apposition, paradox, dialectic, supernature, rhetoric, especially epideictic rhetoric, what Mikhail Epstein calls "interlation," what Martha Cutter calls "translingualism," what Lydia H. Liu describes as "translingual practice," what Karen H. Jobes urges in "simultaneous interpretation," what Kenneth L. Pike did in "monolingual demonstration" and in his spoken poetry after his prose analysis of the demonstration to his expert audiences, and what Nancy Mairs lists as "indirection, associative reasoning, anecdotal development, reliance on folk wisdom and intuition."  Bible translators tend to separate their logical method from these other methods because the methods are outdated and they the translators are progressive.  One progressive method of Bible translators today is "Relevance Theory" from "Pragmatics," which has as its focus answering the question "How does one person communicate Language to another"?  The ultimate and ideal Person speaking Language is God, and the Bible is His word, the Word of God.  There are separations from and hierarchies above humans speaking and writing, merely performing.  The Bible translator who is a Linguist may even separate himself from the Theologian who is merely interpreting.  The goal is Faithfulness, not unfaithfulness, to the Text.  The Text is rigid, and the person must yield herself or himself to It.

What is an example of this rigidity?  When the historian named Matthew uses Greek to translate an idiom from Hebrew, then what matters to the Bible translator today is neither the Greek nor the Hebrew.  What matters is is Language, the Text of the Word of God.  God is Competent, and so is His Word.  The translator, especially Matthew performing in common Greek and strange Hebrew, does not matter.  A Hebrew writer may write this:

אָז תִּפָּקַחְנָה עֵינֵי עִוְרִים וְאָזְנֵי חֵרְשִׁים תִּפָּתַחְנָה׃

And a Hebrew reader may translate that this way into written Greek:

τότε ἀνοιχθήσονται ὀφθαλμοὶ τυφλῶν, καὶ ὦτα κωφῶν ἀκούσονται.

And a Hebrew listener may translate what was seen and heard like this into Greek:

καὶ ἠνεῴχθησαν αὐτῶν οἱ ὀφθαλμοί

But the Greekish Hebrew-Aramaic, especially in English, doesn't count so much to the contemporary Bible translator and his logical scholar.  This kind of performance mere biblish.  It is, logically, not Language and must be separated from the Bible Competence of God.  The Linguist proceeds to Field Test the target-language to separate it, by logic, from impure, merely-performed, un-natural biblish.  The fear is the adulteration of the Message.

What does "feminist" translating (rhetorical instead of logical translating) look like?  Well, it might take a dissertation to begin to answer that.  Or one might listen in on the simultaneous translation of the Egyptian king's daughter as she collaborates with a mother playfully, fearfully naming her son Moses.  Or we might even eavesdrop on the Jewish translators back in Egypt putting Greek words into Esther's "Hidden" Jewish mouth as she interprets messages into Persian for a tyrant king.  Or we might go back to one of the listeners named Kenneth Pike, whom Bible translators today have stopped listening to.  He reminds:

This booklet [Talk, Thought, and Thing: the Emic Road Toward Conscious Knowledge] is written for a small number of people unknown to me, who are disillusioned in a changing world. . . . Where now can they turn?  Looking in directions dictated by their training, they may see no hope. . . . 

'We' cannot start with logic, unless we first have 'ourselves'.  A child is before it is grown.  A child trusts its mother--a person must trust in unproven convictions about life before using them to argue about other things.  Here we come full circle--from person, to language in society, to knowledge, to arguments for validity, and back to the person so arguing.  So here I begin with person--but person as interacting through language with other persons, along with interaction with things and events in that environment.

Why should I be a person who begins with language?  In part because of the inescapable-ness of language (or, for the mute, with gestures replacing spoken language) and in part for reasons of science.  I am a linguist by training and experience in analyzing languages having no written alphabet and, therefore, no written documentation of human experience.  Yet in these languages we find some of the basic components necessary to a foundation of knowledge based upon experience and a readiness to develop broader concepts built on linguistic metaphor and social analogies appropriate to the highly intellectual competence of, albeit preliterate, peoples. (pages vii-ix)

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