Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Parable" of Translation: Bible puzzler

"Almost all Bibles are a translation of a translation, or a revision of a translation," Suzanne begins her post A translation of a translation.

What if we could acknowledge that all Bible translations are parables?

Parable, of course, in English has come to mean fable or story or comparison. Which is not too far from what it came to mean in Greek. It is what Aesop tells (and so does the "Libyan"), Aristotle notes in his Rhetoric. It is an ineffective or faulty way of knowing, he notes in his Metaphysics and his Politics and his Ethics. Even the parable of the Cave in the Republic of Plato is not logical, Aristotle helps his own students infer. (Aristotle doesn't want his own students to get mixed up by the parable of illogical teachers, even the parable of his own teacher).

Why, then, does Mark translate using the word parable? Why does he put that into the mouth of Jesus as some effective method of teaching?

Why in chapter 4, for example, does he say this:

ἐδίδασκεν αὐτοὺς ἐν παραβολαῖς πολλά

"he taught them in many parables"?


λέγει αὐτοῖς,
"Οὐκ οἴδατε τὴν παραβολὴν ταύτην;
Καὶ πῶς πάσας τὰς παραβολὰς γνώσεσθε;"

"he spoke to them:
'Not getting this parable,
then how are you going to know each of the parables?'"?

Are parables unwise, as Aristotle teaches? Or are they otherwise, as Mark translates Jesus as teaching?

Well, if that's not a puzzler enough, let's get a little closer to Aristotle with the Bible. Let's go to the great city founded by his careful student Alexander the Great. And let's listen in on how the Jews there commissioned by an Egyptian king chose to translate some wise statements from their Hebrew into Greek.

Solomon's קֹהֶלֶת‎, Kohelet, they called Εκκλησιαστής, Ecclesiastes. (Never mind how much this translated title might have reminded listeners and readers of the comic play by Aristophanes called Ἐκκλησιάζουσαι, Ecclesiazusae, or The Assemblywomen. Or maybe we should mind because this is exactly the slippery slope Aristotle warned his students about - and the barbaric Hebrews with their women are sliding down it almost unnoticed).

So readers can't get out of chapter 1 of Ecclesiastes without encountering parable. Solomon originally writes this (verse 17). But these translators tell it originally in Greek like this. So compare:

וָאֶתְּנָה לִבִּי לָדַעַת חָכְמָה וְדַעַת הֹולֵלֹות וְשִׂכְלוּת יָדַעְתִּי שֶׁגַּם־זֶה הוּא רַעְיֹון רוּחַ׃

καὶ ἔδωκα καρδίαν μου τοῦ γνῶναι σοφίαν καὶ γνῶσιν,
παραβολὰς καὶ ἐπιστήμην ἔγνων,
ὅτι καί γε τοῦτ' ἔστιν προαίρεσις πνεύματος·

So a bible translating team, such as the ESV team, will make the Hebrew into English something like this:

"And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind."

And bible translating individuals, such as Lancelot Brenton and Peter Gentry respectively, will render the Hebrew-Greek into English just like this:

"And my heart knew much -
wisdom, and knowledge, parables and understanding:
I perceived that this also is waywardness of spirit."

"And I applied my heart to know wisdom and knowledge; derangements and understanding I understood, that, indeed, this is preference of spirit."

Now then, we fast forward to the end of Solomon's book (12:9). And we hear him saying this:

וְיֹתֵר שֶׁהָיָה קֹהֶלֶת חָכָם עֹוד לִמַּד־דַּעַת אֶת־הָעָם וְאִזֵּן וְחִקֵּר תִּקֵּן מְשָׁלִים הַרְבֵּה׃

And this is how the Jews hearing Solomon in Egypt render that into Greek:

Καὶ περισσὸν ὅτι ἐγένετο Ἑκκλησιαστὴς σοφός, ἔτι ἐδίδαξεν γνῶσιν σὺν τὸν λαόν, καὶ οὖς ἐξιχνιάσεται κόσμιον παραβολῶν.

And now the ESV team (from Solomon to American English):

"Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care."

And then Brenton and Gentry (from Hebrew-Greek to Englishes):

"And because the Preacher was wise above [others, so it was] that he taught man excellent knowledge, and the ear will trace out the parables."

"Beyond the fact that the Ecclesiast was wise, he also taught the people knowledge, and an ear will track out an arrangement of parables."

Aren't we left with some questions?

Are the Jews in Alexandria translating Solomon's משל (mashal) as παραβολῶν (parable)? but his הוללה (howlelah) and / or his סכלות (cikluwth) [madness and / or folly] also as παραβολὰς καὶ ἐπιστήμην [parable and / or knowledge]? Aren't they making Solomon like one of those comic Assemblywomen? Like a Greek sophist? Or does parable do something else for its listeners, for those with ears to hear?

Are Mark and Simon [aka Peter, Rock] in Jerusalem putting much unwise and / or otherwise rhetorical Greek rhetoric into the mouth of Joshua [aka Jesus] and his closest pupils? Isn't the Greek-speaking Joshua in Jerusalem saying and showing that parable is important for understanding and knowledge? Isn't parable a kind of slippery translation of the original?

No comments: