Monday, May 4, 2009

Marrying Foreignness and Naturalness: As If That's NOT Translation

"Marrying Foreignness and Naturalness:
As If That's NOT Translation
(And I, the Christian Bible Translator,
Am Only Natural But Never Foreign)"

This is my second post, responding now to Rich Rhodes' linguistic commentary on his attempt to sound like Willis Barnstone, who rather instead attempts to sound less like what Rhodes wants Jews in the Bible to sound like.

(In the initial post, my response was to a second meaning in Rhodes' attempt; his unintended meaning was this: that there can be no unmarked position for the translator. Rhodes, of course, first assumes for himself the unmarked, default position as expert linguist and objective Bible translator. Rhodes does not question whether he, Rhodes himself, is being rhetorical. He wants to be the logical one, the a-rhetorical one. In marked contrast, Barnstone, the Jew, is the rhetorical one when he tries to make the Jew in the bible sound, well, foreign and Jewish and not naturally Christian.)

Maybe in a third post, we can see how Barnstone actually translates what Rhodes mimics - the way, perhaps, that Plato mimics Gorgias (by putting words in his mouth while talking with Socrates) . Listen to Plato mimicking the slimy slick sophist Gorgias, who is made to say of his craft and of himself: "I practice rhetor-ic, Socrates; I am a rhetor-i-shun." What Plato never admits (nor does his Socrates) is that he himself by his very mocking mimicking of the real Gorgias is actually as subjective as his ideal Gorgias. Plato, by his act of standing in the position of the expert knower, actually unintentionally takes the position of the slippery sophist: Plato here invents, he coins, the Greek neologism, rhetoric. (This is all very well documented in, and by, the Platonic dialogue, "The Gorgias," by the way. And several historians of rhetoric have noted that Plato's word is never used by anyone, not even by Gorgias, before Plato's writing of "The Gorgias.")

Notice what Rhodes does as he rushes to judgment:

"This is [i.e., where Barnstone goes in translation is] beyond where I’m willing to go at this point, but it does illustrate that if you are willing to think outside the box you can marry foreignness and naturalness in a single passage — something that much of the argument about how to translate has not admitted is possible."

My response, as the title of this post suggests, is that (even if you are unwilling) you do marry foreignness and naturalness in translation (whether you are willing to admit going there or not). And whose foreignness and whose naturalness can you bring yourself to acknowledge?

Here now, I'd like us to listen to Barnstone in his own words, as he writes the words of others in his (auto)biographical book, We Jews and Blacks: Memoir with Poems. As you read page vii, ask yourself whether you know who Pierre Grange and Velvel Bornstein must be:
God created the world and us and the others. And he commanded us to believe in him and to punish the others. And when necessary to kill the others. But everywhere in the world, God changed appearance and ideas and to many even he has been the infidel. Jews and Blacks understand God's problems of appearance and identity, for they've been uniquely plagued by the same dilemma. But they're lucky too, as God is, for their otherness. Who wants to be all the same? Years ago God was a woman and in the Hebrew Bible he even began as several gods. Genesis 1:1 reads "In the beginning the gods (elohim) created heaven and earth."* So God started out as a team. But we Jews and Blacks have often been seen as a strange species, as if no god had remembered to make us, or had done so in an alien land under a wrong name. And with our difference came divine punishment: slavery, demonization, and murder. But that distinction of otherness has also given Jews and Black a knowledge of affection and play, and a habit of compassion.
--PIERRE GRANGE, On God and the Other

God cooked up birth and billed us with death, leaving us in a global soup bowl filled with every different plant under the sun. And then abandoned us to stew in tasty mystery!
--VELVEL BORNSTEIN, Laughter of the Stoics

*Although el is God and elohim gods (as in Psalms), in Genesis 1.1 elohim is called a "plural of majesty," whose meaning is singular.


Rich Rhodes said...

(I'm leaving this comment on both here and on BBB.)

The work of the translator is to take that which is outside and make it inside. The question is: how far inside to you take it? Barnstone (the way I read him) is surprised to find how Jewish the NT is. He wants to express that. Names are a really good place to work with. I wasn't intending to poke fun at Barnstone, but some 30 years ago I was at a big charismatic conference in Kansas City and one of the speakers from Jews for Jesus gave a talk on how Jewish Christianity is. He spoke in plain English -- in the sense we at BBB mean -- but by the judicious use of Yiddishisms and Hebrew borrowings, made his point perfectly and cogently clear. He had none of the awkward/archaic wordings of the English of Barnstone's translation.

BTW, I am very conscious of the rhetoric stance I am taking. Assuming that we share no assumptions (and hence logic is impossible) is a dead end street, as deconstruction shows. NB, this is not a Platonist position. If I were arguing to an Ojibwe audience, my rhetoric would be quite different, but logical argumentation sells to this audience.

J. K. Gayle said...

Rich, As I mentioned in reply to you at BBB (and thanks for cross-posting your comment there), I do sincerely appreciate your acknowledgment of Barnstone's work and your confession of your own rhetorics in trying to do what he does.

Notice I haven't replied at BBB to parts of what you've said to me there - Wayne would catch me violating the blog guidelines. But you say:

"The fact that feminist theory problematizes everything for the dominant group makes you think the problem is in our translations. I’m not willing to go there. If I were translating for a minority group, I’d be making the same moves nativizing (i.e., foreignizing) the Scripture as I make in English."

The fact is that you were translating for Jews (in a sort of mock experiment to show how it must fail by your dominant standards). Sigh. At least you recognize how feminisms must trouble that.