Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Proverbs 14 Part V

 In the mouth of the dolt is a rod of pride,

but the lips of the wise will guard them.
--Proverbs 14:3
(trans., Robert Alter)

Aristotle tells us that... 
creatures who are brave or just 
(like lions, bulls, roosters 
and the human male) 
have large deep voices....

The poet Aristophanes put a comic turn 
on this cliché in his Ekklesiazousai: 
as the women of Athens are about to 
infiltrate the Athenian assembly 
and take over political process, 
the feminist leader Praxagora reassures 
her fellow female activists that 
they have precisely the right kind of 
voices for this task.
--Men in the Off Hours 
 (by Anne Carson) 

This Part V of a series could be entitled, "How Aristotle Reads Proverbs 14."  He would want to construct the category that is, above all, the normal one in Nature.  /  And from that he would categorize the other as lesser, perhaps deviant.

But there are those who turn his categories around and upside down.  In this post, I'm hoping that we can see how the proverb we call "Proverbs 14:3" in Hebrew and especially in Greek translation turns the cliché, natural order of hierarchical categories.  Let's come back to that in a while.  First, let's look at how someone recently has categorized translation of the Bible, and other alternatives.  Then, we can read the biblical proverb, and its translation, to see how it goes.


1. How someone recently has categorized translation of the Bible, 

and other alternatives.

Earlier in the week, John Hobbins sharply divided Bible translations into two constructed categories:
 “translations committed above all to reproducing the wording and register of the original, translating metaphors with metaphors, and sounding strange wherever the thought and language of the source text is strange relative to our cultural matrix.”     /
OR “translations committed to clarity and naturalness of expression”
John placed into his latter category (quoted above) only and all the Bible translations that he presumed that Wayne Leman and all the bloggers at BBB must surely favor.  He himself favors his former category.  Unfortunately, John didn't give a single example of any translated text of the Bible to justify his categories.  In reply, Wayne made this plea:  "I hope John can find time to turn his thoughts on translation into a series which will give examples of translation which could be compared with how we might prefer to translate here at BBB."  

Suzanne McCarthy did offer examples.  This is what Wayne was asking for but what John himself did not supply.  And, interestingly, these examples do allow us to begin questioning this binary "EITHER / OR" thinking.  In a helpful comment, she showed how the first translators of the Bible are in the category where John assigns Wayne:
One can also see the odd functional translation in the LXX. Moses was described as saying

ἐγὼ δὲ ἄλογός εἰμι
ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἰσχνόφωνός εἰμι

Is there perhaps a cultural reason why this metaphor was not translated?  Perhaps there are times when strangeness does indicate that the metaphor should be abandoned.
Notice how Suzanne is allowing that that functional clarity in these translation examples may include "strangeness" even when the translators decide that an unusual "metaphor should be abandoned."  There's not the absolute binary that John might force the translation into, either one way or the other.

What her examples show is how the Greek translations of Exodus 6:12 and Exodus 6:30 do not convey (ערל שפתים) -- the strange embodied female-male Hebrew metaphor of "lips"-"un-circumcised."  Instead, the Jewish translators use differently-strange but clear Hellene.  They first use (ἄ - λογός), which is literally something like "lacking"-"word" in 6:12.  And, in 6:30, they use the un-common Greek compound (ἰσχνό - φωνός), which is literally something like "meager"-"sound" for the Hebrew phrase.  The Greek much more clearly represents the problem Moses is trying to convey to God in protest:  he feels he lacks the words to go back into Egypt and to make his political argument; he is concerned that he will sound only meager in the courts of Pharaoh.  Suzanne has translated these Greek phrases as "un wordy (wild and irrational)" and "weakvoiced (stammering)," which give us a bit of the range of metaphorical extensions in the Greek.  The phrases are rare, strange, but clear in the LXX.  (The latter phrase is not in the NT, and that former phrase is only thrice used, uncommonly, in the NT, but not as some sort of Greek biblish; rather as just rather technical Platonic Greek - as in Acts 25:27, Peter 2:12, and Jude 1:10).

The Greek or Hellene strangeness was clearer and maybe more acceptable to the Greek readers of the Alexandrian empire.  The Hebrew metaphor was strange among the Greek colonizers.  But it was strange among the religious Jews worldwide only because of the idea of "lips" being "circumcised."  It's one thing for a Jewish male to be circumcised.  But his lips?  Naomi Seidman discusses how normal and natural penis circumcision was but suggests that to extend this to lips is strange and unclear in any context:
In passages like this one [i.e., Genesis Rabbah 46.1], the rabbis expressed their conviction that circumcision is an improvement over nature, the enhancement of an otherwise imperfect human form.  The circumcised body is not mutilated in removing the foreskin....  Circumcision, then has multiple significations beyond its biblical meaning of a covenant connecting the Jewish people with their God; it is a marker of Jewish affiliation for native Jews and proselytes, an act and symbol of resistance to imperial legislation, the final step toward aesthetic perfection, a bodily representation of Hebrew discourse, the access to Torah that constitutes a barrier for non-Jews and non-males, and perhaps also a sign of linguistic talent (remembering the biblical diagnosis of Moses' influent speech as "uncircumcised lips").
The above is from page 89 of Naomi Seidman's book, Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation.  What she is saying that some rabbis have said actually bears repeating:  "circumcision is an improvement over nature," but it's an improvement that inherently separates Jewish males from "non-Jews and non-males."  What she's suggesting that Moses might have said is that "uncircumcised lips" is a personal problem that is to be "diagnosed," an individual affliction that separates him from performing the political discourse that he's been called to as a Jewish male circumcised.  Having lips circumcised, metaphorically, could be a critical improvement for this man of the Hebrews.

It's not too much of a stretch, metaphorically, to see this as a gendered problem.  The "lips" are often in the Hebrew scriptures associated with women.  For example, here is the start of Alter's note for his translation of Proverbs 5:3 (with his italics and his bold font):
the stranger-woman's lips drip honey.  The sensual ripeness of the alliteration in the Hebrew nofet titofna siftey zarah has a nearly identical counterpart in Song of Songs 4:11.  In the translation, "lips drip" is a gesture toward this cluster of sound. 

And here Suzanne calls "the lips" (absent from the Sefer Yetsira, perhaps a "masculinist text") "feminine imagery." She says that Julia Smith's English translation of the "story of the tower" of Babel does bring this imagery across.  However, Suzanne cautions us to note:
While lip in Hebrew is one common way to talk about language, along with tongue, it does not usually appear in English. The lip came to represent the feminine, receptivity and passivity.
In other words, the masculinist way of considering the feminine is to categorize it as a lack, an absence from the necessary message, as having not so much productivity but receptivity and as not engaged in activity but actually devolving into passivity.  Is this why the LXX translators chose not to render the Hebrew metaphor used by Moses of himself in Exodus?  Suzanne asks questions, and adds this:
These are my questions and not my answers. But we do know for sure that the translators of the Septuagint chose to use dynamic equivalence in translation instead of a foreignizing oddness when they felt they needed to. No sign of a circumcision of the lips here.
Naomi Seidman stops short of offering the possibility that the strange Greek is a gendered dynamic equivalent of the strangely-gendered Hebrew metaphor.  However, she does consider one version of the LXX translator motivations:
The [Church] Fathers imagine the Jewish translators as passive channels of God’s [clear] message to the world;
To turn this around, however:
in the [contrastive] talmudic account God works to keep certain things [very clear and clearly] between the Jews and himself [i.e., away from the Greek and the Egyptian worlds], not only sanctioning Jewish conspiracy but taking the role of conspirator-in-chief.  In this regard, the talmudic rewriting of the [Christian] patristic Septuagint legend is a trickster text: the [Jewish] translator is a trickster, who in folklore ‘represents the weak, whose wit can at times achieve ambiguous victories against the powers of the strong.’ Not only does the Talmud present the composition of the Septuagint as an elaborate Jewish trick, it also describes the passages in the Hebrew Bible itself as a ‘hidden transcript,’ the private discourse of a minority culture. [page 63]
Notice how the "Fathers imagine the Jewish translators as passive," and remember how "lip came to represent the feminine, receptivity and passivity."  Could there be something gendered in the Greek translation of Exodus 6?  Or could the act of translation itself be gendered feminin-ish:  clear, and yet foreign and still gendered in a strange way?  Why the lack of the lips for the Greek speaking Moses?  But then again, why "un wordy (wild and irrational)" and "weakvoiced (stammering)"?

Well, pardon me for suggesting that the LXX translators were resisting using Aristotle's Greek.  His masculinist logic was exactly what he taught Alexander to use, for his ruthless ends.  And so, in Alexandria, in Egypt, the Greek-speaking Jews translating their own scriptures from their own Hebrew, might have wanted to turn things a bit.

Is this so unlike what Anne Carson reminds us that Aristophanes's women do?  Here's the fuller context of this post's epigraph above:
     It is in large part according to the sounds people make that we judge them sane or insane, male or female, good, evil, trustworthy, depressive, marriageable, moribund, likely or unlikely to make war on us, little better than animals, inspired by God. These judgments happen fast and can be brutal. Aristotle tells us that the highpitched voice of the female is one evidence of her evil disposition, for creatures who are brave or just (like lions, bulls, roosters and the human male) have large deep voices. If you hear a man talking in a gentle or high-pitched voice you know he is a kinaidos (“catamite”).  [See how Aristotle puts this in one of his biological treatises, History of Animals 582a, and in Physiognomics 807a, where he himself has to vocalize nothing, since Aristotle there is a writer to readers, male to other males.]
     The poet Aristophanes put a comic turn on this cliché in his Ekklesiazousai: as the women of Athens are about to infiltrate the Athenian assembly and take over political process, the feminist leader Praxagora reassures her fellow female activists that they have precisely the right kind of voices for this task. Because, as she says, “You know that among the young men the ones who turn out to be terrific talkers are the ones who get fucked a lot.”
     This joke depends on a collapsing together of two different aspects of sound production, quality of voice and use of voice. We will find the ancients continually at pains to associate these two aspects under a general rubric of gender. High vocal pitch goes together with talkativeness to characterize a person who is deviant from or deficient in the masculine ideal of self-control. Women, catamites, eunuchs and androgynes fall into this category. Their sounds are bad to hear and make men uncomfortable. Just how uncomfortable may be measured by the lengths to which Aristotle [writing On the Generation of Animals 787b-788] is willing to go in accounting for the gender of sound physiognomically; he ends up ascribing the lower pitch of the male voice to the tension placed on a man’s vocal chords by his testicles functioning as loom weights.
Is it better to translate strange metaphor for the same strange metaphor (maintaining "un-circumcised lips") in both the Hebrew and the Greek?  Or is there an-other purpose behind translating one strange gendered metaphor for a different one?  In the world of Aristotle's masculinist binary logic, rhetoric for males only, doesn't "un wordy (wild and irrational)" and "weakvoiced (stammering)" turn his cliché?


2.  reading the biblical proverb, and its translation

Now we turn to Proverbs 14:3.

בְּֽפִי־֭אֱוִיל חֹ֣טֶר גַּאֲוָ֑ה וְשִׂפְתֵ֥י חֲ֝כָמִ֗ים תִּשְׁמוּרֵֽם׃

ἐκ στόματος ἀφρόνων βακτηρία ὕβρεως χείλη δὲ σοφῶν φυλάσσει αὐτούς

"In the mouth of the dolt is a rod of pride, but the lips of the wise will guard them." - Robert Alter (from the Hebrew and Greek)

"In the mouth of the foolish one a rod of pride; and the lips of the wise shall watch them." - Julia Smith (from only the Hebrew)

"Out of the mouth of fools comes a rod of pride; but the lips of the wise preserve them." - Lancelot Brenton (from only the Greek)

It's striking here is how seemingly literal the Greek translation of the Hebrew is.  Are the Hebrew metaphors strange?  Gendered?  Are the Greek metaphors also both equally strange and gendered?


but do note how Aristotle would read this.  He would get the allusions to women although he'd not want to concede that they may be either rhetorically saavy or politically wise.  Maybe females could be sophistic.  But as speakers, especially as political speakers, they'd be useless.

In his Athenian Constitution, he prohibits women from the judicial and the legislative processes.  Only the men can have rods, which some English translators have rendered "canes," "staff," or "staves."  The word he chooses is the one the LXX translators have chosen for the "dolt" in Proverbs 14:3; in the Athenian Constitution, Aristotle describes the male-only instrument for procedures:
The courts [in Athens are to] have ten entrances, one for each tribe, twenty rooms, two for each tribe, in which courts are allotted to jurors [who are men, not women], a hundred small boxes, ten for each tribe, and other boxes into which the tickets of the jurymen drawn by lot are thrown, and two urns. Staves [βακτηρίαι] are placed at each entrance, as many as there are jurymen, and acorns to the same number as the staves [βακτηρίαις] are thrown into the urn, and on the acorns are written the letters of the alphabet, starting with the eleventh, lambda, as many as the courts that are going to be filled. [63.2, trans. by H. Rackham]
Aristotle would not have thought of Aristophanes's play as funny in the least.  Here's a bit where the lead woman is encouraging another woman to pretend to be a man of the court, to trick the court's audience, while the audience of the play is in on the trick:
Praxagora:  Quick then [disguised woman], take the chaplet; the time's running short. Try to speak worthily, let your language be truly manly, and lean on your staff [βακτηρίᾳ] with dignity. [line 150, trans. Eugene O'Neill]
So Aristotle would only allow only men who speak in politics to have the "rod," the staff, βακτηρίᾳ.  But he would think in terms of lips [χείλη] and open mouths [στόματος] when he categorized women, who were to be wives, to bear babies.  Here's from his gynecological writings:
It is a sign of conception in women when the place is dry immediately after intercourse. If the lips of the orifice [τὰ χείλη ᾖ τοῦ στόματος, literatlly "the lips of the mouth"] be smooth conception is difficult, for the matter slips off; and if they be thick it is also difficult. But if on digital examination the lips feel somewhat rough and adherent, and if they be likewise thin, then the chances are in favour of conception. Accordingly, if conception be desired, we must bring the parts into such a condition as we have just described; but if on the contrary we want to avoid conception then we must bring about a contrary disposition. [Hist. of An., 583a, trans., D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson]
If Aristotle or Alexander or any Athenian male trained in good Greek were to read the LXX Proverbs 14:3, then immediately they would read (or mis-read) it as strange, as gendered, but as a reversal of the Aristotelian logical belief that females are inherently lesser than males, that women are not to engage in rhetoric or politics, and that women are just tricky like the sophists but not at all wise.  The Hebrew proverb in Hebraic Hellene actually mirrors the Hebrew feminine metaphors, but it takes them forward into political dimensions as well.

Is it just either one sort of translation or the other?
 one of those “translations committed above all to reproducing the wording and register of the original, translating metaphors with metaphors, and sounding strange wherever the thought and language of the source text is strange relative to our cultural matrix.”     /  ?
OR one of those “translations committed to clarity and naturalness of expression”?
Well, not exactly.  Doesn't Proverbs 14:3 in Greek turn the constructs of the imperial Greek males and the royal Egyptian men all around?  Is it the ones with the rods who are wise?  The rods for males only?  Or are the rods jammed in their proud mouths?  Hasn't protection, rather, come from the lips that are wise?  What a funny wise turn, resisting the binary, from the feminine Hebrew to the feminine Hellene.


Katherine said...

I'm mostly just watching and reading along during this series, since I don't think I have much of substance to contribute, but I have to say I'm enjoying it, and this post in particular I find very thought-provoking. Thanks.

J. K. Gayle said...

Katherine, Glad to know you're enjoying the series and especially this post. It's so very convoluted I was afraid nobody would follow it. Your kind comment is a great contribution!

Kristen said...

How interesting! I notice that some of the more popular translations say something along the lines of "the fool's talk bring a rod to his back," which seems to miss the point entirely, doesn't it? Why has this idea of corporal punishment been added in here? Very curious.

The Hebrew online interlinear tells me that the word "rod" there actually refers to a very small rod; twig-sized, in fact. I find this humorous. If the word "rod" traditionally means authority, this verse is saying that what the fool thinks is his power is actually very small indeed. (Certain very irreverent ideas are coming into my mind at this point with regards to other connotations of that word "rod" and its size. . . Aristotle, again, would not be amused.)

Kristen said...

But with regard to the either-or of translation, it seems to me that we need both; one that actually shows us the word-for-word strangeness of the metaphors, and one that gives us some sense of dynamic equivalence in our own language. And then we need a third aid-- a set of impertinent observations like yours, Kurt, and Sue's, that point out things that both the others have missed. *grin*

J. K. Gayle said...

Why has this idea of corporal punishment been added in here?

Kristen, This is an excellent question. The Hebrew word for "rod" here in Proverbs 14:3 is only used one other time in the whole of the Bible. It's also in Isaiah 11:1 - "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots."

But with regard to the either-or of translation, it seems to me that we need both; one that actually shows us the word-for-word strangeness of the metaphors, and one that gives us some sense of dynamic equivalence in our own language.

In Proverbs 14 LXX, there's actually one proverb that is a very clear case (at least to me) of the Greek translation doing exactly what you are proposing. Hopefully another post in this series can get to that. Thanks for your thoughts!

Kristen said...

The Hebrew word for "rod" here in Proverbs 14:3 is only used one other time in the whole of the Bible. It's also in Isaiah 11:1 - "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots."

Oh! In that case, "rod" here might not have anything to do with authority at all. It more likely means something along the lines of "new germinated twig which will become a tree," and the meaning might have a lot more to do with the growth of pride from this "twig" of it that starts in a fool's mouth.

Translators who add in ideas of corporal punishment really ought to be more careful.

J. K. Gayle said...

In that case, "rod" here might not have anything to do with authority at all.

What opens the meanings of this rare Hebrew word is the much more common Greek word for "rod" that's used to translate it. The same Greek word is used to translate different Hebrew rod words. For example, in the 23rd Psalm, "Thy rod and thy staff," that rod is translated from the Hebrew into the Greek with the Greek word in Proverbs 14:3 here. In 1 Samuel 17:40, the Greek word is used for young David's staff as he chooses the five smooth stones to sling at Goliath. A couple of places in Jeremiah, the Greek rod word is used to translate "tree branch." In 2 Kings 4, for the staff of Gehazi, the Greek word is used.

And the Greek "rod" word is also used earlier for a different Hebrew "staff" word in Exodus 12:11 - "And thus shall ye eat it; [with] your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it [is] the LORD'S passover."

But the corporeal punishment idea comes directly from the use of the same Greek "rod" word for a different Hebrew "rod" word in Proverbs 13:24 - "He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes." None of that discounts how Aristophanes and Aristotle would use the word for a male's political functions in Athens.