Saturday, April 4, 2009

Infidelity In Translation of the Bible

I wish I didn't know "marital infidelity" so well. And I wish Bible translators, and Koran readers for that matter, wouldn't be so married to the marriage metaphor.

Just today met the lover of the parent of a nine-year-old girl--a broken home after a decade and a half. Just talked last week with a good friend and neighbor who's been cheating on the spouse, with another next door neighbor it turns out, for ten years - with none of the grandkids or the children suspecting at all. It's unnerving - all the secrecy and the revelations and the stuff that sells news (like the Bill and Monica and Hillary story that we all wish never happened and the Ted and Mike and Gayle Haggard story) and the American divorce rate and the expectations for "sham pearl" films such as Fireproof. In other words, infidelity is a stirrer and a shocker.

This is the way Aristotle looked at the reality of good Greek: he seemed stirred and shocked that rhetoricians (such as poets and sophists) were always cheating; and that women just could never be trusted with much, much less words. This may be why so many Bible translators (and those strict Quran readers) get so upset so often: they look at the holy word of God as a husband and suspect the translation of cheating on it somehow.

When I started blogging again, for example, John Hobbins came over and suggested that my posting on Numbers 5 may not be faithful to the culture of the Hebrew Jews in the desert as they fled slavery in Egypt. Robert Alter, in a different way but with a similar "unfaithfulness" concern, writes about the "heresy of explanation," as if the translator will have no fidelity to the linguistic, literary structure and poetry of the Hebrew (so in another post it may be worth showing Alter's own unfaithfulness to his principle of non-explanation by translation). Eugene Nida wants linguists to be faithful to both the source language and the target language, with ultimate faithfulness to the target language audience, which is even more faithfulness to God and his word--despite the problems of great disparity between languages with no equivalences, dynamic or otherwise. Similarly, Wayne Leman wants faithfulness to language that most people normally use, that a field test will best verify, even though he himself will slip into abnormal language from time to time. Likewise, Richard Rhodes wants faithfulness to the text of the Bible and not to the mistress of theology, even though his theology of plenary inspiration over-rides his view of the text. Moreover, many linguist-translators of the Bible in training today want Platonic faithfulness to the "message" carried and delivered and received, despite the fact that their Chomskyan ideal yields an impossible binary between neo-competence and neo-performance; such is the relevance of "relevance theory."

I sort of like it, in contrast, when languages don't have to be viewed as marriage partners, one invariably and shockingly unfaithful to the other. There are good alternatives to this view, even when it comes to Bible translation. Karen Jobes, for instance, suggests the simultaneous interpreter using a language on the fly is a good model. Lydia Liu notes that she (and other Chinese people translating English) consider one language the guest and the other its host. Tony Barnstone, working with a Chinese counterpart, says that
The Chinese poem [translated] in [American] English is like a stolen car sent to a "chop shop" to be stripped, disassembled, fitted with other parts, and presented to the consumer public with a new coat of paint. But despite its glossy American exterior, it's a Chinese engine that makes this vehicle run, and fragments of the poem's old identity can be glimpsed in its lines, the purr of its engine, the serial number, which we may still be able to read.
And feminist rhetoricians have offered a plethora of metaphors for translation that don't put the husband over the wife in historic, traditional patriarchal order. The alternative to the marriage metaphor is not an unfaithfulness metaphor or a divorce metaphor. No, others offer alternatives to this view. (I'm thinking again of Afrafeminist Jacqueline Jones Royster and of womanist Alice Walker and of Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison; of Phyllis Bird and of Mary Daly and of Krista Ratcliffe and of Nancy Mairs who play with language lest it keeps the order. So elsewhere today I blogged about Order and about Numbers 5 and about translation).

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