George Lakoff’s and Eugene Nida’s theories of language and of translation fail to do enough. Their theories, in their efforts at Aristotelian objectivism, would bear Moses’s authority and would keep Onesimus.
(Warning: in this post, there’s a little word play but little child’s play. In other words, this thing is full of high-horse, academic jargon, which is where much power language lives. Dialog is welcome here, because in translation, especially "dynamic equivalence" or DE translation, there's still too much silencing of the marginalized.)
First, then, two true stories about children and words. Call them personal testimonies to the power of parables. Not long ago, a friend of mine told me her grade school daughter came home from school and declared: “Mommy, I know the ‘d-word’ and I know the ‘s-word’ and I know the ‘f-word’ too.” My friend replied, “Oh, Melissa, I’m so sorry you have to learn these words. Who told you what they mean?” But the little girl persisted: “the ‘d-word’ is ‘dumb,’ and the ‘s-word’ is ‘stupid’ and the ‘f-word’ is ‘faker.’” The mother suppressed her smile and her sigh of relief, and proceeded to give her child a lesson in the proper and improper uses of such "four letter words." The second true parable is this: my son when in grade school came home and asked, “Mom, is sex bad?” My wife gave him a long answer, dynamically equivalent to his question. But I’ll explain the problems below.
Linguists and others familiar with the work of George Lakoff may note how my title here plays on one of his: Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Likely, some of you will remember Lakoff’s opener. He begins: “Many readers, I suspect, will take the title of this book as suggesting that women, fire, and dangerous things have something in common—say, that women are fiery and dangerous.” (He confesses that he is “inspired by the Australian aboriginal language Dyirbal, which has a category, balan, that actually includes women, fire, and dangerous things.”) With sure, confident certainty, he recalls the mixed reactions to his word play: “Most feminists I’ve mentioned it to have loved the title for that reason, though some have hated it for the same reason” (page 5).
Lakoff shows the arbitrary-but-common, nevertheless-coherent Dyirbal category of balan and its appositioned members. (Fortunately for his readers, Lakoff translates these members into English as “women,” “fire,” and “dangerous things” ). Unfortunately, in unveiling his title and its unifying term, balan, he can’t help but make a point about divisiveness among readers. Ironically, Lakoff can only assume he stands above them with a more unified, a more objective, approach. And yet you, reading closely (in English only), should be able to see his own arbitrary and coherent category of overlapping but varying members of readers: (1) “many readers,” (2) “most feminists,” and (3) “some [feminists who] have hated.”
That is, Lakoff believes that all of those “many readers” (e.g., those in group 1) can’t help but “take” his title to represent “women, fire, and dangerous things” as having “something in common.” Likewise, he believes that all of those “most feminists” (e.g., those in group 2) hold the same three variants in the title (e.g., “women,” and “fire,” and “dangerous things”) as part of the same single category (e.g., the “something in common. . . for that [same] reason”). And Lakoff believes that each and every one of the “some [feminists who] have hated” the title (e.g., those in group 3) have nonetheless belonged in the category with all of those who will take the three noun phrases of his main title to belong to the same single category (e.g., all readers). In summary, as Dyirbal holds together at least three unlikely terms in a single-word category so Lakoff identifies as dynamically equivalent his three explicitly-named groups of readers.
But neither Lakoff nor any of us reading his title can easily identify a single categorical word in English (such as balan, so superficially foregrounded in Dyirbal) that would name his category and ours (e.g., the category “that actually includes” the variant members (1) “many readers,” (2) “most feminists,” and (3) “some [feminists who] have hated [the title]”). If the common meaning were not so “transparent,” we English readers should perhaps agree on the noun phrase, readers. You see, Lakoff is trying to keep all of his readers (in one big dynamic readership). And he’s telling us all, as if objectively, something about our categories and our minds that we cannot categorize and comprehend either alone or collectively as part of a group of his readers. After more than 580 pages of carefully explicated examples, Lakoff begins his “Afterword,” by writing:
I began work on this book with the knowledge that objectivist views of the mind have a very wide currency in the academic world. Among my principal aims has been to characterize that view, name it, point out that it is an opinion, not a fundamental truth, and raise the question of its validity, so that is can be discussed in the open and no longer be presumed automatically as part of an unquestioned background. (page 586)
Nevertheless, Lakoff’s unnamed assumptions exemplify and enact the very “objectivist views of the mind” he purports to write against. For all the naming he does do, Lakoff fails to “point out [how his] is an opinion, not a fundamental truth”; and, to be sure, his opinion is that as an expert linguist (not a woman, not even a feminist) tenured at Berkeley he is objectively recording the facts, albeit the now-obvious facts about the dubious “objective views.”
To best interpret his argument, then, we readers can only try to “raise the question [of Lakoff’s argument’s] validity, so that it [is] discussed in the open and [is] no longer presupposed automatically as part of an unquestioned background” (page 586). What we have to attempt to do, now, is to show that Lakoff’s book (and our reading and critiquing it) is based on profound, unnamed, and unquestioned categories of belief, from our own subjective perspectives. What we might end up seeing is that his argument-belief contradiction (and even ours) is emblematic of slippery, sloppy language that DE translators want to tidy up. From his title to his closing words, Lakoff counts on all of his readers to believe certain categories, to suspend their disbelief, and to take his categories for granted as theirs. And we do go along, even if we “hate” it. But, oddly, Lakoff is careful to report, as an “objectivist” would, that there are the “some [feminists who] have hated [his title].” Suspiciously, the author himself cannot observe his title to be hateful or hate provoking. It’s “some feminists” who are in that category, and he is not.
So we can go on: neither Lakoff nor we his readers can easily fathom something more profound and problematic. That is this: if Lakoff could ever have written the book in Dyirbal, then how transparent balan would be to the Aboriginal native speakers. Of course, not much considering what deep suppositions they might have about us, we may tend to presume them to be illiterates and not necessarily speakers of English, and not linguists, feminists, or thinking people of any discipline. Yet wouldn’t and shouldn’t they be suspicious that we might read (as Lakoff suggests in English we will) the phrase “women, fire, and dangerous things” as suggesting “that women are fiery and dangerous”? Is it not a stretch to imagine, analogously, that readers (of English or of Dyirbal) would take the title “Womanism, Fascism, and Dynamic Equivalence Translation” to mean that womanism and fascism are dynamically equal? As we interpret, we do prefer not to be interpreted.
Specifically, we desire our vocabularies not to be mixed, our beliefs not to be contradicted, and our categories not to be exposed. Otherwise, when drawing sharp lines of distinction, we might be found sitting on the side of the others we criticize. Such is the case of George Lakoff (e.g., exposing objectivist views by employing the objectivist perspective, that would transcend a feminist and an Aboriginal critique). But he knows that he, and we, and they all do play the dynamic equivalence game.
We might have gone on long enough here. You can get “the meanings” of womanism and fascism and dynamic equivalency translation theory from a dictionary or an encyclopedia.
But I do think we’d do well to see what’s going on. There are positions of power, for any reader, for any translator. And the insider and outsider positions are subjective. Even the most objective scientist will use his or her head and his or her heart and stomach. Even the most artsy translator will find, in a text to be translated and its translation, at least these three alternative perspectives: particle (i.e., a unit), or wave (i.e., dynamism and change), or field (i.e., relativity in context). (Such is the contribution of the late great Kenneth Pike to language and translation). So Lakoff is on to something, wanting to resist objectivity, if he could only acknowledge how he assumes power over, say, feminists who hate his title and the Dyirbal speakers he presumes to speak for. And Nida, by referring to his translation approach as “dynamic equivalence” is on to something. Dynamic seems to be wavy (though it isn’t always in DE). Equivalence assumes a field of relationship (albeit an impossibly ideal one). And Translation (as DE) likes to think of itself as an objective thing, a particle if you will. But.
Let’s listen to a womanist, then a fascist. And let’s see how dynamically equivalent we may be to them. (I haven’t forgotten the children in the true parables above. We’ll hear them out too).
Now Alice Walker, the afrafeminist who coined “womanism,” didn’t write the Bible. She did write a book called The Temple of My Familiar. Let’s listen in on some of the characters’ conversations:
“‘You are saying,’ I asked her, ‘that all evil, like racism or sexism, is a result of sickness?’
“‘Not only that,’ she whispered, ‘the child will always, as an adult, do to someone else whatever was done to him when he was a child. It is how we, as human beings, are made. I shudder to think what Hitler’s childhood was like,’ she said. (page 310)
“ . . . I told her bluntly that I was in therapy, trying to get to the roots of my anger against white people. I didn’t tell her it was particularly against whites who were blond. I guess I was afraid she’d say, like so many people do: Well, everybody hates Nazis. That’s what they think I mean. They think of Hitler’s Aryan race as played by bleached-blond actors on TV. That image is, I know, only a small part of it. (page 326)
Now Lakoff and Nida might protest here. This is literature. The categories in non-literary works are not equal to others. Apples and oranges. We ought to know better.
So let’s all keep moving, then. To something more familiar. To translation of a didactic text or an epistolary one. How about these:
“Es ist immer der gleiche Jude. Daß diese Selbstverständlichkeit von einem normalen heutigen Ministerialrat oder höheren Polizeibeamten nicht begriffen wird, ist freilich auch selbstverständlich”
Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
“He is always the same Jew. That so obvious a fact is not recognized by the average head-clerk in a German government department, or by an officer in the police administration, is also a self-evident and natural fact”
Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (DE translator James Murphy)
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence
So let’s start with the most familiar (since, fortunately, more of us read the Bible and the Declaration of Independence it’s based on more than we do Mein Kampf).
Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration may name some (e.g., “the merciless Indian Savages”) while it unnames others (e.g., black males and women, regardless of color but especially black women). But it excludes all of them equally from the category of “all men created equal.” Moreover, the liberating document—invoking the names of God and of Nature—binds together, in an unintended dynamic equivalence, the revolutionary colonizers and their abusive King into one elite group: property owners, who are white men. These truths, if they are “to be self-evident,” we must hold; and we hold them to a certain advantage: our own. To read the Declaration of Independence otherwise is to see the inequalities in its explicit and implicit “natural” classes of ownership, race, and gender.
But “we” might be outsiders to a Nazi’s experience, and more to Alice Walker’s characters’ experiences. Neither we nor Adolf Hitler or Walker will interpret as equal both (A) his Übermensch and (B) the reality of her whispering black women. And only few of us (namely translator James Murphy) might see the phrase “self-evident” as a good translation of freilich; not many of us could believe or should want to imply that Hitler follows some method of Jefferson and is thereby less sinister. However, we all know that human beings have the power to call disparate things equal. Likewise, “we” in community can “hold these truths” in our collective subjectivity “to be self evident.” And we acknowledge our Creator, depending on our perspective of outsider or insider, as creating all men and women equal.
So back to the parables. My friend and her daughter were in learning conversation. Each was learning from the other. What the girl meant by “the s- word” was not anything “stupid” at all. And when calling it a “four-letter word,” the mother could take the context, and the power issues on the playground, and discover that the demeaning-term category often includes five letters.
And my son? After awkwardly listening to his mother discuss good sex and bad, he replied. “No Mom; not sex. Sucks. Is sucks a bad word?”
(No, DE translators; not authority, rather “Moses’s seat.” And not Onesimus the slave; rather “Handy” the handy name of a human being “above a slave in the flesh and in the Master.”)