Sunday, December 2, 2007

Listening into Translation

It’s fascinating to hear what is important to Bible translators.

One of our problems, however, is that we academics all too often fail to listen to others outside our own little society of specialists. We feminists of all sorts don’t find particularly interesting what a bunch of Bible blogging men say to one another (especially when those guys diss “gals” using the F-word). We rhetoricians generally do get enjoyment out of contemplating the various lines of argument spewing out of the mouths and flowing down from the pens of religious types who must start and finish with a monolithic text that talks in one language (i.e., English, if they could ever settle on whose Anglo Saxon) despite the fact that what “the Word of God” says are as diverse as Kefa’s Pentecost long after Babel (making it imperative for the religious types to jump all over the “fact” that their singular subject “Word” does not agree with my “are”). We classicists eagerly translating Homer, Hesiod, and Sappho but more (reluctantly) Plato and Aristotle may be amused by the Bible translators’ clashes over their Greek Septuagint, which stands in the room centrally like an awkward rabbi - preacher of an elephant who, trying not to draw attention to himself, must pronounce to the most reluctant Hebrew scriptures of the Jews, “You may now kiss the bride,” when the unveiled turns out to be the Greek New Testament. (The Bible translators must, rightly, accuse me, right here, of mixing metaphors but that’s because they have a very hard time marrying poetry with prose, even though “The Bible” does. And they haven’t been able to see that LXX is the name of Little aleXander of aleXandria, the grandchild of Aristotle. But I digress, a bit).

Listen in. And learn a bit. Here’s Richard A. Rhodes (at Better Bible Blogs) and John F. Hobbins (of Ancient Hebrew Poetry) and David Ker (aka Lingamish) in snippets on just a few verses of Matthew 23. (If you’re patient, and still curious, I’ll link to their full posts below. And more, I’ll clip in what Willis Barnstone says about Matthew 23, inviting these three to get their own copies of his translation and commentary).

Rhodes writes:

In the Greco-Roman world the frame that goes with the piece of furniture we would call a chair includes power, wealth, and authority. In Matt. 23:2, the chair is mentioned as a way to convey the notion of Moses authority. It’s not about the furniture.

Matt. 23:2 "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. (NIV)

To communicate the same idea in English where there is no corresponding frame associated with chairs the passage has to rendered something more like:

Matt. 23:2 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees bear the authority of Moses. 3So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. (NIV modified)
If you fail to make the adjustment, it makes no sense to the English ear. The Koine speaker did the mental calculation from chair (καθέδρα) to authority (ἐξοθσία) as quickly, subconsciously, and wordlessly as you did in the Barbie text. To translate this reference to authority with the use of a Greek frame is utterly misleading to English speakers. It doesn’t matter that you can teach them to understand it. The fact that the connection between the wording and the concept is not instant and subconscious shows that the transparently literal translation is wrong.

Then Hobbins objects:

In settings like the one I spend my days in, in which the imparting of a global religious culture is a pursued goal, it does not make sense to read from a paraphrased Bible. To take Rich’s example (from Matthew 23:2), it makes sense to invite and expect readers to understand a phrase like “the seat of Moses,” rather than paraphrase it by something like “the authority of Moses.”

Too much inner-biblical resonance is lost if the paraphrase is adopted. People sit and teach in the Bible. People, God, sit and judge. People sit and pontificate. “The seat of Moses” connects up with passages which describe those things, such as Psalm 1:1; 9:7; Job 29:7; Luke 5:3; and Rev 4:2.

Rich’s paraphrase severs the one who adopts it from a rich series of associations far beyond the pages of the Bible. A phrase like “the seat of Moses” echoes through western and eastern literature with a biblical substrate. The elimination of what has become a literary topos by paraphrase cuts off the rivers of a tradition from its source.

And Ker maps out the battlefield before he takes his own shot:

But Matthew 23 is not a nursery rhyme. Jesus was speaking to be understood and so we should expect a Bible translation of this passage to be understandable. If he used idioms of his era, they were used to bring impact to his message not mystery. I can imagine that while Jesus was insulting the Pharisees and scribes there was a lot of laughter in the crowd. Jesus uses the same verb tense for “sat” that is used in Little Miss Muffet! And the order of the constituents in Matthew 23:2 is dramatically arranged for comedic effect:

On Moses’ seat sat… [This is the set-up]

…the scribes and Pharisees. [This is the punchline]

In this passage, going back to the end of Matthew 22, the idea of a seat is established information. Jesus has just finished quoting Psalm 110 and applying it to the Christ.

The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right until I put your enemies under your feet.”

So when Jesus goes on to say that the scribes and Pharisees have sat on Moses’ seat, the new, and shocking, information is that the scribes and Pharisees have sat down in a seat reserved for the Messiah. Such a transgression in a shame-honor culture is exceedingly embarrassing. He is not acknowledging their authority but rather accusing them of usurping authority that belongs only to God.

Jesus was a rebel. He saw the power structure in place and he sought to overturn it. Don’t let anyone call you teacher. For you have only one teacher. Don’t let anyone call you father. For you have only one father. Don’t let anyone call you leader. For you have only one leader. Jesus was a revolutionary. He was speaking to the common people and utterly rejecting anyone who would try to impose a level of hierarchy between Abraham’s descendants and Abraham’s God.

And it is for this reason that it’s appropriate for a debate about Bible translation to be fought on the battlefield of Matthew 23. For those who would try to impose “formal” translations on the populace are the scribes and Pharisees of our day. Jesus said, “You bar the door to the Kingdom of Heaven to others and you yourself don’t even go in.” This message is as appropriate to the formalists as it was to the religious leaders of 1st century Palestine. Why do scholars and preachers prefer a formal translation? Because then they decide what it should mean1. If the “riches of the original” are inaccessible to the illiterate then they must bow to the authority of those who claim that they understand the original. A nursery rhyme at least sounds nice even when it is incomprehensible. But formal translations are nonsensical without euphony. And so the average Joe votes with the remote. He shuts the Bible and switches on the TV. At least the sitcoms make sense.

In answer to my rhetoric, you might argue that relying on translators is just another form of turning over authority to someone else. But there is a difference between translators whose stated purpose is to be faithful to the original and those who want to communicate in natural language. Look at these versions of Matthew 23:4:

NASB: They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.

NIV: They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

CEV: They pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t lift a finger to help.

NLT: They crush you with impossible religious demands and never lift a finger to help ease the burden.

While the wording of NASB, NIV and CEV is accurate to the form of the original, NLT communicates the meaning of what Jesus was saying. An average reader of Matthew 23 will not assume that it is talking about religious demands. It sounds like the scribes and Pharisees were putting people to forced labor. I think any of these translations is acceptable provided that they have a footnote. If you want to approximate the form of the original you should footnote the meaning. And if like the NLT you give the meaning, I think you should footnote a literal translation2.

But here’s the deal. People don’t read the Bible for a lesson in ancient history and language. They want to hear from God. And in the case of Matthew 23, Jesus is giving a liberating message to the oppressed. But asking people to read a translation full of bizarre vocabulary like “phylacteries” and “tassels” and “Rabbi” is a burden too heavy to bear.

Read the original posts here:

* Rich Rhodes: Do we think in words?
* John Hobbins: Do we think in words? A Reply
* and David Ker: Excuse me, I think you’re in my chair

Now, lest we care to hear more (otherwise), here’s Barnstone (a comparative literature scholar, a Jew, not a Christian translating the Bible but a Bible translator nonetheless). Here’s some of his commentary on Matthew in The New Covenant Commonly Called The New Testament:


There are and always will be many tones and ways, from Milton to Cole Porter, of making poems and writing down words. I prescribe to no single way but hope, in my own attempts, for plainness and lyrical clarity. Despite the dissuasions of missing line breaks, it is clear that one of the world’s major poets is and has been for two millennia Yeshua the Messiah. His pen was in the hands of others who recorded and translated his words into Greek.

We are accustomed to believe that poetry resides in the Hebrew Bible and that the New Covenant is a story and a play, a fabling narration and a drama, but that the only poetry in it are snatches from the Hebrew Bible, unassigned to a specific prophet, which are essentially cited in Greek from the Septuagint translation of the Bible. Yet Matthew, the gospel with the most dialogue, anthologizes the diverse wisdom talk and prayers of Yeshua from the other gospels into the Sermon on the Mount, a string of poems that includes the psalm of the Lord’s Prayer. Matthew is mainly poetry.

The poet of the New Covenant is invisible, obscured in prose. And we do not know the voice and identity of the recorder or recorders. Yet hear that voice and hear a poet. Few have recognized the poet, because they were not led, by the shape of the print of the page, to use their ears, although Yeshua’s voice (except in brief dialogue) came uniformly and sonorously in verse sayings. The poems remained confined to lucent and fluent English prose of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but no matter. So were Job and the Song of Songs until their release into verse in the English Revised Version (1885). Once released, the tradition of verse was settled. Now there is a sound of poetry in the air for the Greek scriptures. It has been slow and irregular in coming, but with new versions the sound will prevail. It is time to hear the poet.

The concentration of poetry in the New Covenant is commonly called “Jesus’ sayings,” a phrase that ignores or fails to recognize the poetry. The Jerusalem Bible, a Catholic translation, translates much of John and most of Yeshua into verse. Curiously, it does not render Apocalypse into verse, which is the single long, indisputable poem of the New Covenant. Where the Jerusalem version found poetry, however, is not astonishing. And yet, the translators failed to make it sing. By contrast, the Tyndale and King James prose renditions of the passages are charged with poetry. Other standard modern versions of the poetic speech in the New Covenant, with the marked exception of the Lattimore, are largely without brightness of word.

The poems in the gospels are clean and incomplete and their endings elusively open. Even the most gnomic couplets are concentrated wisdom sayings, which, though proverbial, do not limit by finality. They are not conclusions but a hint for further meditation. Some longer ones ramble magnificently in the form of parable narrations. Some aphoristically take a moment of nature, using only images and shunning abstraction, to give the metaphysics of life on earth and of eternity. . . (pages 29 – 30)

Barnstone cites particular examples of Matthew translating Yeshua and compares instances with Sappho’s poetic texts. But let’s hear Barnstone’s blank verse translation of the first of Matthew 23:

Then Yeshua spoke to the crowds and to his students, 2 saying,

On the seat of Mosheh sit the scholars and Prushim.
3 Do and observe all that they tell you,
But do not do as they do. They speak and do nothing.
4 They tie up heavy bundles
and lay them on the shoulders of other men,
but will not lift a finger to move them.
5 All they do is for show.
They spread their tephillin and lengthen their tassels
6 and love the foremost couch at the dinners,
the front seats in the synagogues,
7 to be greeted in the market places
and to be called rabbi by the people.

8 But you must not be called rabbi,
for you have one teacher and are all students.
9 On earth call no one father. You have one father
in heaven.
10 and do not call yourselves instructors.
You have one instructor, the mashaiah.
11 The greatest among you will be your servant.

12 Whoever raises himself high will be brought low
and whoever is brought low will be raised high.

Here, I’m inviting Rhodes and Hobbins and Ker to get their own copies of Barnstone’s translation. And I am inviting them to compare their own particular views on Matthew 23 with his.

(I do hope one of them will say the Barnstone needs footnotes. In fact, it does; and thankfully Barnstone provides a helpful note, in this passage, on Mosheh, on Prushim, and on tephillin.

I also want them to suggest that the Barnstone would best be published side by side with the Greek. In fact, it would be. Barnstone is refreshingly intent on bringing the poetic Hebrew voice of Yeshua back into the Christian text. Unfortunately, he looses the Greek voice of Matthew, a voice akin to that of the Septuagint translators, who speak both Hebrew and Greek, the Hellene of the poets who have been disparaged by Plato and Aristotle. A diglot would cure the ailment of the monotonish Hebrew-English. But let's all admit that monotonishness is the ill of most English versions of the Bible today: there’s no immediate interlation provided by translations side by side.

But, then, that would require our listening across our own small and special domains. And none of us is liable, at least not very readily so, to do that kind of very kind listening that makes a difference.)


Anonymous said...

Barnstone's theories on the poetry of Jesus' words and the NT Greek as a whole are very intriguing. I'd like to see some data. One of the reasons I'm attracted to Hebrew and considering abandoning Greek is the poetic aspect. Barnstone's translation leaves me flat. Other than a few Jewishy words I don't see what it adds that NRSV, NIV etc haven't already got. You call it blank verse but I just looks like monotonish prose like all the others.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks for the comment, David; even more thanks for your own post! I love your serious fun!

For the evidence you ask for, I'd encourage you to get the Barnstone translation. Just after the commentary excerpt I give here, Barnstone runs through notes on Matthew 5:13, 5:14-15, 6:22-23, 6:26-30, 7:6, 7:13-14, and Sappho 168. He then gets to the different voices of John and Jesus in the NT. For a fuller Barstonian self description of his project, you have to go outside the few introductory chapters of his New Convanant translation, and look at his quite explicit Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice (Yale, 1993). It's not just blank verse and Jewishy names or prose he's after. He thinks that "that NRSV, NIV etc" are an affront to translation and, in many ways, (unwittingly complicit in things) anti-Semitic. It is really worth a read to see what, on the whole, translation projects might do to readers (from any one particular, and subjective, tradition).

J. K. Gayle said...

With all their wondering about the seat of Moses, and Jesus's statement about it, and Matthew's translation of that into Greek,

I wonder what the Bible translators think about Aristotle's question ostensibly about Socrates (in the Meta-Physics) :

[1004b][1] εἰ γὰρ μὴ τοῦ φιλοσόφου, τίς ἔσται ὁ ἐπισκεψόμενος εἰ ταὐτὸ Σωκράτης καὶ Σωκράτης καθήμενος, ἢ εἰ ἓν ἑνὶ ἐναντίον, ἢ τί ἐστι τὸ ἐναντίον ἢ ποσαχῶς λέγεται; ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ περὶ τῶν ἄλλων τῶν τοιούτων. ...

[1004b][1] If this is not so, who is it who in will investigate whether "Socrates " and "Socrates seated" are the same thing; or whether one thing has one contrary, or what the contrary is, or how many meanings it has? and similarly with all other such questions.

Anders Branderud said...

Regarding the “Matthew 23”

A logical analysis (found here: (the only legitimate Netzarim-website)) of the earliest manusscripts (including the logical implications of the research by Ben-Gurion Univ. Prof. of Linguistics Elisha Qimron of Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT)) of “the gospel of Matthew”, implies that Ribi Yehoshua was a Perushi (Pharisee). Ribi Yehoshua ha-Mashiakh (the Messiah) from Nazareth was called a Ribi and only the Perushim had Ribis.

The current earliest manusscripts of “the gospel of Matthew” contains words a first century Ribi would never have said, and thus a reconstruction is needed.
[Even according to the most authoritative Christian scholars, e.g., The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, what Christians call “NT” contains redactions (see quote from that book in the below website; click on "Glossaries"; click on "NT")]
Ribi Yehoshua taught this in NHM 23:1-3:
”Then Yehoshua spoke to the qehilot and to his talmidim saying, ”The Sophrim and those of the Rabbinic-Perushim sect of Judaism who advocate that Halakhah must be exclusively oral sit upon the bench of Mosheh. So now, keep shomeir and do concering everything – as much as they shall tell you! Just don’t imitate their maaseh because they say but they don’t do.”
The Rabbinic-Perushim taught that one should follow the mitzwot (directive or military-style orders), and Ribi Yehoshua taught that one should listen to that. The Rabbinic-Perushim advocated Halakhah (oral Torah).

Anders Branderud

J. K. Gayle said...

Anders Branderud, Welcome. Please know that I believe if you're making spurious "implications" from unsubstantiated superlative presuppositions (such as "only the Perushim had Ribis" and "current earliest manusscripts" and "words a first century Ribi would never have said"), then I can hardly take you seriously. It's not that I haven't looked through your website very carefully because I have. It's just that what you're using very Western Aristotelian methods very unlike the Jewish methods of the one you're calling "Yehoshua." You're separating and closing down meanings (as if you were one of the Rabbinic-Perushim). To pretend to find meaning in Torah only has to be, for you, to ignore the Yehoshua who was the assistant of Moses, whom Moses entrusted everything to. You also must ignore the midrashim, whom Albert Einstein considers, the Einstein that Michael Skobac quotes. Hmmm. And one of my very best friends is also a Baptist and a graduate of Skobac's Hampden DuBose Academy. She would, rightly, think that he's gotten himself out in thin ice. Yes, the gospels and their various manuscripts have many different influences; but to suggest that they are displacements of Judaism by "Hellenist Christians" is to ignore history and the Jewish Septuagint's shadow on the Jesus Christians appropriate. Paul is much much closer to the Jesus of the Jewish gospels than Skobac is.