Friday, February 5, 2010

What's in a Name? Liberation or...


Many students of the biblical languages are shocked to find that the names of biblical characters with which they are most familiar are not the characters' names at all.  English readers of the Bible, in particular, are surprised to find that names they have cherished and after which they have named their children have been translated through a number of languages, including Latin, German, and occasionally Arabic, sometimes randomly, and are frequently only slightly recognizable.
     Here are a few examples.  The prophet Isaiah is originally "Yeshayahu" in Hebrew, "Isaiae" in Latin, and "Jesaja" in German.  The prophet Jeremiah is originally "Yirmeyahu" in Hebrew, "Hieremiae" in Latin, and "Jeremias" in German.  Note that the English "Isaiah" is derived from Latin, while the English "Jeremiah" is derived from German, yet both begin with a "Y" [sound] in Hebrew.  The English "Solomon" is more closely related to the Arabic "Suleiman" than to the Hebrew "Shlomo."  When biblical translators translate [by transliteration] the names of biblical characters into their own languages, they are subjugating and colonizing the scriptures, their language, and their culture.  The translator substitutes his [or less frequently her] language and culture and re-creates the identity of the biblical characters in his [or her] own image.  In the African Diaspora, the work of biblical translation has largely been done by white men who not only translate the text in their own image but also then impose their Anglo-Germanic name-calling on subject African peoples.
     The original Hebrew idiom of the text is regularly suppressed in gentilic translations of the scriptures of Israel and in their Christian trajectory.  It has long been the anti-Semitic and anti-Judaistic practice of translators to Europeanize the names of New Testament characters, eradicating the Semitic forms preserved in the Greek and Aramaic texts of the New Testament.  This is particularly striking when the names of those characters are preserved in Semitic form in the Hebrew scriptures.  For example, the Hebrew "Yaakov" and the Greek "Iakob" are translated "Jacob" in the Torah and "James" in the Epistles[;] in the same way "Miryam" becomes "Mary."  Nor are place names immune to anti-Semitic and anti-Judaistic linguistic colonization.  For example, "K'far Nachum," the "Town of Nahum," is nearly unrecognizable as "Capernaum."  What's in a name?  Liberation or oppression.  Responsible exegesis of the scriptures of Israel requires respect for and fidelity toward the Semitic languages, peoples, and cultures of the scriptures of Israel.  This means putting an end to the mediation of the scriptures through gentilic languages, especially German, in this post-Holocaust world.


above, the section in the chapter "Reading the Hebrew Bible Responsibly," by Wil Gafney, in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel's Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora


Anonymous said...

The prophet Isaiah is originally "Yeshayahu" in Hebrew, "Isaiae" in Latin, and "Jesaja" in German. The prophet Jeremiah is originally "Yirmeyahu" in Hebrew, "Hieremiae" in Latin, and "Jeremias" in German.

I understand the point, but I think it's a little more complicated than that, because even "Yeshayahu" is a post-Biblical interpretation of the prophet's name.

The names as we have them in Hebrew now only go back as far as the Masoretes at the end of the first millennium AD, and even in the past 1,000 or so years the pronunciations have changed.

In some cases, I think the (3rd-century BC) LXX representations may be closer to the original pronunciations than the (10th-century AD) Masoretic ones.


J. K. Gayle said...

Very important distinctions, Joel! Thanks for clarifying. Is "Yirmeyahu" also post-biblical? Are "Shlomo," "Yaakov," "Miryam," and / or perhaps even "K'far Nchum"?

I like your observation that the Greek transliterations of the LXX may be closer to the original pronunciations. I'd never really thought about that very important point. What Robert Alter confesses, in a more general LXX view, does seem to corroborate what you're saying; Alter notes (in The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel):

"In my own translation, I have resorted to alternative readings from the Septuagint a little more often than I would have liked simply because careful consideration in many instances compelled me to conclude that the wording in the Masoretic Text was unintelligible or self-contradictory. Nevertheless, as a matter of methodological principle I strenuously disagree with the practice of those biblical scholars who put the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint on an equal footing and choose variants between the two strictly on the basis of what seems to them the more attractive reading. The Greek translators obviously had before them an older version of the book than appears in the Masoretic Bible, but there is no reason to assume that it was invariably a better version. And the fact remains that the Greeks were translators, obliged as translators to clarify obscure points, resolve contradictions, and otherwise make the Hebrew text with which they labored intelligible to their Greek readers." (page xv)

J. K. Gayle said...

Gafney, an African American woman, is making the same point that Willis Barnstone, a Jewish American man, is making in his works. Barnstone is most concerned over the shifts in biblical Jewish names [that are made in "translation"] from their Hebrew roots (however recent) to merely Euro-Anglo-Christianized forms that mask the Semitic heritage and rob Judaism of some of its later rhetors and writers. "Yeshua in his Greek guise [i.e., from the LXX]," says Barnstone, "is one possible "form of the Hebrew name Yehoshua, normally translated into English as Joshua." But, Barnstone adds, as the anglicized Christianized "Jesus" he "and his followers somehow come through as non-Jews, as disinfranchised gentiles, who in the popular mind escape their Jewish identity and culture.... Yeshua should not appear as Jesus, his [anglicized] Hellenized name, any more than the Greek Zeus should appear as the Roman Jupiter." (page 65 of To Touch the Sky)

Hebrew Scholar said...

I agree totally with the main point of your blog, which is that the Hebrew, Semitic and Aramaic background of the New Testament has been largely culturally whitewashed out of history. The roots of Christianity are lost without understanding the Hebrew/Semitic background. It has become a western religion, not a wild olive grafted on to the root stock of Israel.

J. K. Gayle said...

Hebrew Scholar, Thanks for your very important comment. "It has become a western religion, not a wild olive grafted on to the root stock of Israel." Indeed!

David Ker said...

I think using an unexpected transliteration of Bible names can shake our assumptions and give us a new perspective on Scripture. That's a good thing.

The author's comment about "especially German, in this post-Holocaust world" is unfortunate.

Joseph for example in this part of the world is José, Yosefi, Zuze, and more. As long as the name provides a recognizable link to a known person it has done it's job.

Just some disjointed thoughts.

Michael said...

I tend to agree with Joel re the Masoretic vs older/ancient versions of biblical texts. In many respects it can be regarded as a translation (or fixing) of ancient Hebrew forms as much as the LXX/Old Greek and a more recent one too.

At the same time, I also agree that translations have largely washed out the Semitic flavour of the text/s, masking their alienness. I like the notion of translating the names of the characters. My friend and colleague Ed Conrad has often said that "Isaiah means the LORD saves which is also the theme of the book"

J. K. Gayle said...

David, Thanks for the comments. Linking "german" in general with the specific, unfortunate "holocaust" is unfortunate, indeed. There's a charge of rhetoric, of hyperbole, here. The context may help. I'm just excerpting.

You say: "As long as the name provides a recognizable link to a known person it has done it's job." But I remember growing up in Vietnam hearing (and reading some) the very very very odd names of the Bible. Though the transliterations did the job of the "recognizable link," there was hardly any suggestion that these were real normal people, even real normal Jewish people. And the disjuncture between Gioâ-sueâ and Đức Chúa Jêsus Christ was as big as it is in (Christian, non-Jewish) English.

Michael, Thank you for sharing your comments, especially what your friend and colleague Ed Conrad has said. Why can't what a name means, especially book-thematic meanings, be translated?