Saturday, October 6, 2007

Icky-ness: (womanly) Word Play in Bible Translation

This post is a nod to the profound posts of Suzanne on “Ambiguity and humility”; of Stefan on traduttore, traditore!; of Doug on “Minimising mistakes in the Bible (or not).” (and, in an update late, this post nods too to two posts Suzanne references which I'd not gotten to until now: Iyov's post on the “Least common denominator,” . . . with my paraphrasing his words “as if the Greeks were to start celebrating,” partying around the Jew's paraphrase we call the Septuagint, “translation” that I hope to show below surely “severs the connection with tradition”; and too there's Lingamish's post out of Africa, “Please be so kind to laugh,” in which he starts in Texas and ends with Paul's mandates to those dirty Corinthians about hair, headcoverings, and women in worship. Worth reading, all!!).

My post here is also part 1 of 2 in a series on icky Greeky word play in the Bible (& its translation history).

As far as I can tell, it’s pretty clear that the earliest Bible translators (and the later writers of what’s been canonized as “the New Testament”) avoided what we call “rhetoric.” They were Jews all too familiar with Greek.

(They, especially Saul/Paul the Hebrew of Hebrews the Roman citizen, divided the world into the Joudahs and the Hellenists, into God’s chosen race and the reasonably-tolerable class of ethnics. Note how Paul writes to non-Joudah “Romans.” Note how he writes in Greek, and how he addresses them as ethnic Hellenes and non-Greek Barbarians, wise and un-intelligent, in Rome beloved of God [1:14 & 1: 13 & 1:7]. And thereafter, still writing in Greek, Paul continues to address them but only as ethnic Hellenes, as certainly distinct from the chosen Joudahs, brought together under the name of the Joudah-ic Joshua over all the ethnics, even all ethnics in Rome. Most English translators of Paul’s text now here translate this as something like “both Jews [first] and [then] Greeks.”)

They were Jews all too familiar with Greek. They knew Socrates’s and Plato’s and Aristotle’s writings on “rhetoric,” and its playful connections with “erotic” and with that god “Eros.” For the Jews, then, the “be-loved” are always “agap-ed” by God but are never “eros-ed” by the goddesses and gods and various other muses and deities.

Between the time when Aristotle’s student, Alexander the Great (Greek), set up Alexandria and the time when this Joshua of Nazareth comes out of the ethnic Egypt, the Jews in this poly-theistic ethnic educational center of the world translated their scriptures from Hebrew into Greek. And the translators avoided like an Egyptian plague the Greek “rhetoric” terms with its “erotic” word plays.


But there’s one little slip. And then another.

When the Jewish translators came to ילשמ in their scriptures, they decided to translate παροιμίαι (and we, of course, have rather barbarically decided to transliterate that “Proverbs,” from the later Romanish Latin proverbium). And these Jewish translators in Egypt read (in the Proverbs) much that is gendered, much that is male-centered, and much that is downright female-marginalizing. The much is all about making sure the Jewish young man, the son, is wise and is not un-intelligent.

When the Joudahic translators come to Proverbs 7 and then Proverbs 30, there is much that is Hellenistic erotic. There is much that is Hellenistic rhetorical. Icky stuff indeed.

What’s a good Hebrew translator to do? There, in the text and in the context of Proverbs 7, is the Joudahic wisdom for the son to avoid a woman, particularly a strange rhetorical woman: הקילחה הירמא הירכנמ הרז השאמ. So they get by with translating this as γυναικὸς ἀλλοτρίας καὶ πονηρᾶς ἐάν σε λόγοις τοῖς πρὸς χάριν ἐμβάληται. So far, so good. The translation is safe enough, so far, from the icky-ness, from the ethnicky eroticky rhetoricky goddess-icky language at least.

But the context is quite erotic, and the erotic woman is especially rhetorical. So the translators begin to reason among themselves. “Hmmm,” they say. “What if putting this male Hebrew disgust into a Greek declamation could bring the lack of Joudahic wisdom across as, well, as icky as it really is? Then the Joudahic son having to read Hellenisms would avoid the woman!! Must we translators really avoid ‘eros’ and ‘erotic’ and ‘rhetoric’?”

And they fall, these Jews, into various translator temptations, and for the first time they slip into low-down poly-womanly-theistic erotic rhetorical Hellenisms. At the climax of the story, here’s how it goes for the first time in Greek:

13 εἶτα ἐπιλαβομένη ἐφίλησεν αὐτόν ἀναιδεῖ δὲ προσώπῳ προσεῖπεν αὐτῷ 14 θυσία εἰρηνική μοί ἐστιν σήμερον ἀποδίδωμι τὰς εὐχάς μου 15 ἕνεκα τούτου ἐξῆλθον εἰς συνάντησίν σοι ποθοῦσα τὸ σὸν πρόσωπον εὕρηκά σε 16 κειρίαις τέτακα τὴν κλίνην μου ἀμφιτάποις δὲ ἔστρωκα τοῖς ἀπ Αἰγύπτου 17 διέρραγκα τὴν κοίτην μου κρόκῳ τὸν δὲ οἶκόν μου κινναμώμῳ 18 ἐλθὲ καὶ ἀπολαύσωμεν φιλίας ἕως ὄρθρου δεῦρο καὶ ἐγκυλισθῶμεν ἔρωτι

(in English, Sir Lancelot Brenton puts this Greek this way:

13 Then she caught him, and kissed him, and with an impudent face said to him, 14 I have a peace-offering; today I pay my vows: 15 therefore I came forth to meet thee, desiring thy face; and I have found thee. 16 I have spread my bed with sheets, and I have covered it with double tapestry from Egypt. 17 I have sprinkled my couch with saffron, and my house with cinnamon. 18 Come, and let us enjoy love until the morning; come, and let us embrace in love.)

Let’s not miss the icky-ness of this scene. First, there’s the icky-suffix: ική. It’s the suffix that Plato found, popularized, and used to coin “rhetor-ike” or “speaker-ly-ness.” Here, in Proverbs 7:14, the Joudahic translators have traded Hebrew word play (i.e., רדנ יתמלש םויה ילע םימלש יחבז ) for a dirtier Greek word play. There’s now no playful “peace” in the adulteress’s offering. Now in Greek, she’s that othered and porned ethnic woman using logois (verse 5); and now (in verse 14) she’s paying vows to some goddesses or gods in a merely peace-ish way (or please allow me: in an “appeasing a-peace-ish” way). This is Plato’s Gorgias’s sophistic (not wise) rhetoric; it’s the trick of the eroticist, the feminist, who would bring down the Hebrew lad with her into the linens of Egypt.

Second, there’s the icky (usually avoided, and to be avoided) “love.” To be quite sure, the translators are moving away from “agape,” the love of the LORD and of parents. In earlier Proverbs, they’ve already reassured Hebrew readers and Judaic fathers and sons that there’s no Greekish love here from God or from father or mother:

υἱέ μὴ ὀλιγώρει παιδείας κυρίου . . . ὃν γὰρ ἀγαπᾷ κύριος παιδεύει μαστιγοῖ δὲ πάντα υἱὸν ὃν παραδέχεται (LXX Proverbs 3:11,12)

υἱὸς γὰρ ἐγενόμην κἀγὼ πατρὶ ὑπήκοος καὶ ἀγαπώμενος ἐν προσώπῳ μητρός (LXX Proverbs 4:3)

So now in Proverbs 7:13-18, the temptress moves from appeasing the goddesses and from pacifying the gods to the would-be wise son. She moves from her rhetorical affectionate kiss (φίλησεν) and her farcical feministic face to her lure with more affection (φιλίας) and finally to her more encompassing encapturing enrapturing dirty god-like eros (ἔρωτι).

In the end, the Proverb becomes a father-to-son discussion (a heart-felt “rhema,” not the woman’s “logical logos” or “rhetorical rhetoric”). It’s a discussion to be heard around the run for the Juodahic son’s soul: περὶ ψυχῆς τρέχει 24 νῦν οὖν υἱέ ἄκουέ μου καὶ πρόσεχε ῥήμασιν στόματός μου.

But the son in the story and the male readers of the παροιμίαι hear “eros.” The males listeners end up just feeling dirty. So do these first Hebrew Bible translators.


Fast forward to Proverbs 30. Here’s the confession of the un-wise son. So fast forward a bit more to verses 15 and 16. Here’s the Hebrew:

-אל עברא הנעבשת אל הנה שולש בה בה תונב יתש הקולעל
:ןוה ורמא

:ןוה הרמא-אל שאו םימ העבש-אל ץרא םחר רצעו לואש

(And here’s some fairly concordant English [NASB] to translate that:

The leech has two daughters,
"Give," "Give."
There are three things that will not be satisfied,
Four that will not say, "Enough":

Sheol, and the barren womb,
Earth that is never satisfied with water,
And fire that never says, "Enough.")

Now here’s what the Joudah-icky translators decided for the Hellenist-icky version of that:

τῇ βδέλλῃ τρεῖς θυγατέρες ἦσαν ἀγαπήσει ἀγαπώμεναι
καὶ αἱ τρεῖς αὗται οὐκ ἐνεπίμπλασαν αὐτήν
καὶ ἡ τετάρτη οὐκ ἠρκέσθη εἰπεῖν ἱκανόν

ᾅδης καὶ ἔρως γυναικὸς καὶ τάρταρος καὶ γῆ οὐκ ἐμπιπλαμένη ὕδατος καὶ ὕδωρ καὶ πῦρ οὐ μὴ εἴπωσιν ἀρκεῖ

Please note how for םחר רצעו (orthe barren womb”) there’s ἔρως γυνα-ικὸς (or “a woman’s eros-love”).

And do see the added, explicit contrast between this feminist rhetorical eros and the Godly, parently, daughterly love: ἀγαπήσει ἀγαπώμεναι.

Where in the original Hebrew text from the un-wise son do the Joudah-icky translators get that? Isn’t it from the original Greek concepts of Helen, Homer, Sappho, Gorgias, Plato, and Aristotle? Who could miss the sophist-ical, erot-ical, rhetor-ical, Hellenist-ical, feminist-ical word play in translation? Icky stuff indeed!


Suzanne McCarthy said...

That is very striking. I had not ever read this passage in Greek, that I remember.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Here is a truly gyn-icky-logical article.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks Suzanne. Isn't it striking how Bible translation can be so motivated by gender?

Not sure I should "thank" you for the gyn-icky-logical article. But it's as objectionable as the translation of Proverbs 7 & 30 in the LXX! Its other flaw is this: Daniel B. Wallace(Th.M., Ph.D.) gives an extreme chart showing an "extreme egalitarian" view that isn't extreme enough--Dr. Wallace with his chart merely assumes "authority = head" and that the extremist of egalitarians will erase one head (i.e., the husband's) but keep the other (Jesus's) as if the head of either has something to do with the highest position in a hierarchy.

J. K. Gayle said...

14 February 2023 - great minds think alike?

One Vladimir Olivero has published

"A Genealogy of Lust: The Use of Hesiod’s Theogony in the LXX Translation of the Book of Proverbs"

in Textus

Online Publication Date: 18 Jan 2021