Friday, October 9, 2009

feminist rhetorical translating

Translation is rhetorical. Translators can have many different aims. Some will hope to be more logical in their linguistics than others are. But even the translators who believe in objectivity, who ameliorate ambiguity, and who push for precision will always participate in rhetoric.

Language is rhetorical. No one was more aware of that than the Greeks and writers of the Greek language whose dead-language texts we read today. Aristotle pushed away from rhetorical language, toward logic - as if logic were NOT rhetorical. What feminists in the late twentieth century have seen is the rhetorical in Aristotle's logic. They play with his Greek words to describe it as phallogocentric. Clarice Lispector renders it in her Portuguese and describes it more fully as his "system of inflexible last judgment, which does not permit even a second of incredulity." Of course, that comes to us here on this English language blog in English, thanks to the translator who translated for you Hélène Cixous's French translation of Lispector's Portuguese translation of Aristotle's Greek. What Aristotle would most likely be afraid of in this is distortion and deceit. After all, it is translation, and it is translation into the mother tongues of Bar-Bar-ians, and translation into the mother tongues of Bar-Bar-ians who are fe-males, who are wo-men. And we all think we want Aristotle's logic on his terms. Or when we come to understand that his terms (through a student like Alexander the Great) were for Greek conquest by elite Greek men, then we want to translate logic in our own terms. Then we tolerate translation that will admit to being rhetorical. We become more like Maya Angelou than like Aristotle; because she said we all should understand Aristotle (though not only him) and appropriate all we can. Aristotle was more like the feminist Carol Poster than like Angelou. Poster calls on feminists to reject Aristotle, and especially HIS "Rhetorica." Aristotle used his logic to separate men from wo-men, and his logic from the "non-logical" ill-logic of the language of women. These are concerns long before today's modernism and postmodernisms and contemporary feminisms and efforts at reverse political correctness and such. Language is rhetorical.

Greek historian Bettany Hughes (who wrote Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore) takes us back when she recalls to us:
When, in Ancient Greece, the rhetorician Gorgias stood up and delivered his 'Encomium of Helen' (a defence of Helen of Troy's indefensible character) - this was a great joke. How can you laud the most sluttish femme fatale of all time? But the rhetoric also got people thinking - maybe, just maybe the skilled speaker had a point.
Here's the back story to the story. If we only read what Gorgias wrote trying to follow it logically, then we only come away with ostensible logic. Gorgias was playing with words, and at the end, in his very ending word, he gives away the punch line. He's set up a fair acquittal of Helen (to acquit the men too), but it all rides on a play on words. Readers and listeners wonder if it's a kangaroo court now, a syllogistic stack of cards that comes tumbling down when the bottom is kicked out. And Plato writes "The Gorgias" to get Socrates calling this would-be woman saver a mere "rhetorician." As if Plato (or even Plato's Socrates) now "translating" the real "Gorgias" were not rhetorical.

So we fast forward millenia to the very moment when you are reading this blog, this sentence, these words. We find the Bible of the Jews in Greek, and even where it's in Hebrew and in Hebrew Aramaic, it's mostly in Greek. And we may even want that language not to be rhetorical. But where the Jewish bible is in Greek, it comes to us already translated. Translation is rhetorical, whether we'd like it to be something a-rhetorical or not-too rhetorical if possible.

So we retreat to Aristotle, to logic, hoping it's not as sexist, not as elitist as it is in his Greek. We may presume we can do better. We may presume we can do better since we live in English speaking countries in the west (demo-cratic nation-states, if remotely modelled after Aristotle's democracy of City-States). We may presume that we can do better even if we have divisions in our societies based on race, and on class, and on gender. We may be decades away now from a civil war, our fathers' war over the right to own human beings born with a certain color of skin - past all that, we may be. We are not Aristotle's children, we say to ourselves; not if he really was like that. (He was).

And then if our theologies (yes, Aristotle coined the word theo-logia and saw it as central to his system of logic), then if OUR theologies are Jewish or are, differently, Christian, then we can use logic. Saul / Paul was just a product of his culture, wasn't he? And even if he sets sexism back in the garden of eden, it was a human agent who made her choice, didn't Eve, didn't she? SHE is not our mother. She was rhetorical, and we are logical. Like Aristotle in our freedom from rhetoric, but better, so we think.

We are better because we want to translate. We are better because we can map out the Greek functions with our equivalent English words. Or we are better because we can mirror the forms of the Greek words with our Engl-ish forms. We could not care less about women and men language if the Greek language could care less about it. We are doing theology by our translations. Or we are doing pure linguistics like the Romans. Never mind that the Romans (yes the men) would not let women speak in public, or write. We do not play with words like that.

You think I'm ranting, that I'm using sophistry, that I'm being playful. Perhaps I am. But I promised (sort of) to talk some about the feminist rhetorical motivations for the three earlier posts (namely, "Double Trouble in Greek Bible Translation"; "Xenophon & Paul: Strong Rhetoric, So So Translations (repeat: strong, so so)"; and "Dissoi Logoi and What a Church Father May Have Known"). The posts were mainly about translation. Translation is rhetorical. I'd like more of us to be comfortable with admitting that in public. The public I live in continues to have societies that seem to use the Christian and Jewish bible, especially in English translation that pretends to be a-rhetorical, to put males above fe-males.


B-W said...

This sounds a bit like an argument I often make, not just in translation discussions, but in other areas, emphasizing that it is impossible to be fully "impartial," and that we would do better at being more "impartial" if we were first to recognize that "full impartiality" is impossible.

Or am I misunderstanding you?

J. K. Gayle said...

B-W, You're right: "it is impossible to be fully 'impartial'" --and I like your idea "that we would do better at being more 'impartial' if we were first to recognize that 'full impartiality' is impossible."

Einstein, Heisenberg, Alan Lightman, and Kenneth Pike are a few men who've challenged that Aristotelian notion of pure objectivity. Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault and other postmodernists, of course, have this challenge as their game. Before them was Heraclitus and Aesop - whom Aristotle had real trouble with.

The interesting, important thing about Sappho, Aspasia, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Helene Cixous, Nancy Mairs, and other feminist thinkers is that they actually invite subjectivities, but always with respect to the human body ("sexed" as it is by observing men, and women). So, whereas Pike will insist that the observer always changes the data being observed and is himeself/herself changed in the observing, Mairs will qualify that further by suggesting an observer's (fe-)maleness generates observational outcomes in gendered ways. (I've said too much, and too much of more of that in this post).

Thanks again for encouraging us to move towards impartiality by recognizing our partialities.