Monday, March 23, 2009

I'll Have What She's Having!

"O... O god... Ooo Oh god... Oh... O... O... Oh god... Oh yeah right there Oh! Oh... Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes... O... Oh... Yes Yes Yes.... Oh... Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes... O... Oh... Oh... Oh god Oh... O... Uh...

I'll have what she's having!"
and her eavesdropping onlooker,
in Rob Reiner's "When Harry Met Sally"

"If ever man were moved with woman moans,
Be moved with my tears, my sighs, my groans..."
in William Shakespeare's
"The Rape of Lucrece"

When the men first translating the bible came to Numbers 5 verse 22, they stole a sexy, sexist line from a play or two. They did not (as John Hobbins and Mike Sangrey and Wayne Leman are doing) argue whether either (1) the source language is "Biblish that is worth retaining" or (2) "the meaning of the form of any language should be translated to the same meaning using some form of the receptor language [... and] that meaning should trump concordance if we have to use forms which are not a part of a language."

Another way to say that is this:

The first men translating the bible did not get into that argument between Aristotle and Plato: whether either (1) a logos, or a pure statement, may be inherently beautiful (as in their natural, native statements taught at the Academy) or (2) there must something deeper behind it (i.e., in the writer's or speaker's ideal intention) that trumps concordance with any statement.

Rather, the first men translating the Hebrew scriptures understood what translator Anne Carson observes in the translational intentions...

of the "soldier of God" Joan of Arc (i.e., "to convey the jar on the nerves without translating it into theological cliché");

and of the Irish painter Francis Bacon (i.e., "to create a sensible form that will translate directly to your nervous system the same sensation as the subject");

and of the German lyric poet Friedrich Hölderlin (In other words: "The result was versions of Sophokles that made Goethe and Schiller laugh aloud when they heard them.")

So we don't for a minute think that Carson, Joan of Arc, (painter) Bacon, and Hölderlin would have any disagreement with how philosopher Merold Westphal gets through the debates (like those of Hobbins with Sangrey and Leman or of Aristotle with Plato). Westphal says,
Of course, this does not mean that anything goes [in translation], and it would be seriously misleading to suggest that on the performance model [of translation] matters of correctness and incorrectness are simply replaced by other values, perhaps aesthetic. There are many ways in performance to get it wrong. One can play the wrong notes or say the wrong words, to mention only a couple. But it remains the case that when I've gotten everything right that the text dictates, there remains considerable leeway, indeterminacy, or, if you like, undecidability that I am compelled to decide before I will be able to offer anything that will count as my interpretation. The most recent film version of Romeo and Juliet and the Al Pacino take on Richard III give some idea of how considerable this leeway can be. Or one can compare Pope's translation of the Iliad with Fagles's. There is a gap between text and interpretation that neither the author nor any hermeneutical method can fill in, but only the performer. ("In God We Trust," The Hermeneutics of Charity, page 100)
Next time you watch Leonardo Dicaprio as Romeo or Claire Danes as Juliet, as I did with my daughter recently, you'll get that huge gap in the text of Shakespeare.

A quotation from Shakespeare is how I started this post. Or at least, I heard his Lucrece saying something that reminded me of Sally's shameless performance in that restaurant so public, which is the quotation that started this post. Women's sexuality is on display.

So when the first bible translators come to Numbers 5 verse 22, they see (or hear) a performance of woman's sexuality on display. It jars the nerves without theological cliché, a "sensible" form, that makes men laugh out loud.

Yes, the Hebrew is something like this:
(either quite literal in the biblish English of Robert Alter:)

And this besetting water shall enter your innards to swell the belly and to sag the thigh. And the woman shall say, Amen, amen.

(or ostensibly the Hebrew's deep meaning in the "dynamically equivalent" English of the TNIV:)

May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.
Then the woman is to say, "Amen. So be it."
Now, compare this with what the first bible translators do (translating into Greek):
καὶ εἰσελεύσεται τὸ ὕδωρ τὸ ἐπικαταρώμενον τοῦτο εἰς τὴν κοιλίαν σου πρῆσαι γαστέρα καὶ διαπεσεῖν μηρόν σου
καὶ ἐρεῖ ἡ γυνή γένοιτο, γένοιτο.
I'm drawn first to the fact that the translators refuse to translate their Hebrew אָמֵן אָמֵן as a transliteration. This is what both Alter and the TNIV team do with "amen" (even if the TNIV team goes on with their "dynamically equivalent" phrase "So be it").

The original translators have transliterated plenty of other places in the text up to this point. In an earlier post, I tried to suggest that Egyptian and Hebrew sounds (such as in the name "Moses") were important to the translators, who did transliterate. So there's no point in our figuring they just don't transliterate.

What the translators are doing is playing with both the sounds and the sight of the Greek letters. They may be resisting Aristotle's hope for natural precision in language; they may be resisting Plato's hope for a meaning to be mined ideally from the language.

They are in Alexander the Great's Alexandria. They are Jews back in Egypt, under a king of Egypt again, and under a kind of Egypt that has them laboring over translation.

In their translation, there's the wordplay of ἡ γυνή /he gune/ and the repeated γένοιτο, γένοιτο /genoito genoito/. The first phrase, of course, means ambiguously both "woman" and "wife" - and the second is a literal translation of the Hebrew repeated phrase, meaning something like, "so it is"; in the Hellene version, there is this Greek overtone of "so it is born, so it is generated."

But there's much more here produced, and reproduced. There's a performance, a play on the plays of the day. The translators by choosing not to transliterate אָמֵן אָמֵן (which they do elsewhere, such as in Nehemiah 8:6, and which the New Testament writers and Greek translators do everywhere else) draw readers to other Greek texts that have similar wordplay. They revel in the sexy, sexist funny play of the epics and the dramas of Greece, of the imposing Greek empire.

Here's one Greek text (in which the man Peleus chastises the man Menelaus -- in the play "AndroMache" of Euripides, with an English translation by David Kovacs and a few changes by me):
What? Can you belong with the men, you utter coward? [How do you merit inclusion among the men?] You lost your wife to a Phrygian by leaving your house unguarded, believing you had a chaste wife in your house, when in fact she was an utter whore. Not even if she wanted to could a Spartan girl be born chaste [οὐδ’ ἂν εἰ βούλοιτό τις σώφρων γένοιτο Σπαρτιατίδων κόρη]. They leave their houses in the company of young men, thighs [μηροῖς] showing bare through their revealing garments, and in a manner I cannot endure they share the same running-tracks and wrestling-places. After that should we be surprised if you do not train up women for wives who are chaste [κᾆτα θαυμάζειν χρεὼν εἰ μὴ γυναῖκας σώφρονας παιδεύετε]? You should speak to Helen seeing that she left behind Zeus of the Kindred in your house and went off on a revel with a young man to another country. Was it for her sake, then, that you led such a great throng to Troy? You ought to have spat her away and not moved a single spear once you had discovered her treachery, should have let her stay in Troy and never taken her back into your house, should have payed her a wage to stay away.
Here's another Greek play (in which the king Agamemnon addresses his wife / queen Clytemnestra about their daughter, Iphigenia, whom the priest sacrificed -- the play "Iphi-Genia in Aulis", with an English translation by E. P. Coleridge and a few changes by me):
Queen / Wife [γύναι], we may be counted happy, as far as concerns our daughter; for in truth she has fellowship with gods. But you must take this tender child and start for home, for the army is looking now to sail. Fare you well! it is long before I shall greet you on my return from Troy; and what's birthed to you be well [καὶ γένοιτό σοι καλῶς]!
And another part of the same play (when the king Agamemnon, earlier in "Ihpigenia in Aulis", talks about the same spirit of jealousy in husbands, with bound curses, that God and Moses and the priests deal with in Numbers 5):
Leda, the daughter of Thestius, gave birth to [Ἐγένοντο] three children, maidens / virgins [παρθένοι]: Phoebe, Clytemnestra my wife, and Helen. The foremost of the favored sons of Hellas came to woo Helen; but terrible threats of spilling his rival's blood were uttered by each of them, if he should fail to win the girl. Now the matter filled Tyndareus, her father, with perplexity, whether to give her or not, how he might best succeed. This thought occurred to him: the suitors should swear to each other and join right hands and pour libations with burnt-sacrifice, binding themselves by this curse: whoever wins the child birthed to Tyndareus for a woman/ wife [ὅτου γυνγένοιτο Τυνδαρὶς κόρη], they will assist that man, in case a rival takes her from his house and goes his way, robbing her husband of his rights;
And there's Homer's epic Odyssey (here translated by James Huddleston, with emphases added):
Instead, we dread the talk of men and women,
[husbands and wives, ἀνδρῶν ἠδὲ γυναικῶν,]
Yes, men inferior by far woo a noble man's wife,
lest someday someone, another Achaean, a meaner one, might say:
"And can't in any way string his finely-crafted bow,
but another, some beggar man, came wandering,
and easily strung the bow and shot through iron,"
so they'll say, and what's born would be to our disgrace
[ὣς ἐρέουσ', ἡμῖν δ' ἂν] ἐλέγχεα ταῦτα γένοιτο].
So, we might want to listen again, to look again. Here's the Greek translation of Numbers 5:22b:
καὶ ἐρεῖ ἡ γυνή γένοιτο, γένοιτο.
Why are the women
(Jewish women overheard and read in Egypt),
in the desert outside of Egypt -
why, o why, are they crying out with such repeated consent?
Is it what women like Sally, like Lucrece,
like Spartan wives with their sexy thighs,
like Andromache, like Clytemnestra,
and like Helen
when men
are jealous of one another
over women and their thighs?

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