Sunday, January 13, 2008

Of "Mice" and "Mystery" and Men who don't translate

Richard Rhodes, a UC Berkeley linguist, has posted about how Bible translators have not gotten the “secret” when they “for centuries have happily read Greek μυστριον and translated mystery” in each instance in the New Testament. I am generally most grateful for his observations. But when I point out that LXX translators used the Greek word to translate the Hebrew word meaning “secret,” Dr. Rhodes ignores the point of how problematic a Greek alphabetic transliteration of the Hebrew would have been. Instead, he lists words borrowed into English; and he gives this reply on transliteration:

“That's not the problem. The problem is that once borrowed the word takes on a new life of its own in the new language. Like mystery did in English, because we already had a word for secret, and because our linguistic forebears were so hopelessly influenced by Greek philosophy that they bought into the whole mind/spirit is holy/clean, body is corrupt/dirty thing. So having a word for things that are beyond the comprehension of the human mind was an attractive way to think about the holiness of God.”

What Dr. Rhodes may not see is how influenced he himself is by Aristotle’s philosophy. Intellectuals and Bible scholars generally seem to be unwittingly and subtly persuaded by the thought and method of that most important Greek man. I’ll post again soon on how prone to elitism such Aristotelianism can be. The quick summary by the “either / or” method makes translation prone to transliteration (as it makes “rhetoric” prone to “logic” and the concept of woman prone to sexism).

Now, I want to show here how Aristotle uses μυστήρια in his treatise, the Rhetoric. And I want to show the problems with the Aristotelian method applied to translation of this phrase there. So I’m posting John H. Freese’s 1926 translation, then Huge Lawson-Tanred’s 1991 translation, and then George A. Kennedy’s translation. Next I show Aristotle’s Greek, and finally give a translation (mine) that refuses to transliterate.

But first, let me say that I’m not accusing Dr. Rhodes of sexism, or rhetoric, or elitism. I’m only saying his Aristotelianism doesn’t yet acknowledge the problem of transliteration by focusing on the commonality of loan words or their value. (There is much value to loan words, and much fun with them too: note the link to the Greek words borrowed into English at the bottom of this blog; and note this newest borrowing of English into Chinese.) And Dr. Rhodes’s conception of how “our linguistic forebears were so hopelessly influenced by Greek philosophy” overgeneralizes Aristotle if it doesn’t escape his method.

So now, here is μυστήρια by Aristotle (in English “translation”):

The second kind of fallacy of diction is homonymy. For instance, if one were to say that the mouse is an important animal, since from it is derived the most honoured of all religious festivals, namely, the mysteries.

Another form of false enthymeme is that by homonymy, such as saying that a mouse is a major animal, as from it comes the most respected of rites. For the mysteries are the most respected of all rites.

Another [verbal fallacy] is by use of homonyms, as saying that a mouse [mys] is a worthy creature from which comes the most honored of all festivals; for the [celebration of the Eleusian] Mysteries is the most honored of all.

Here’s how Aristotle writes it:

ἓν δὲ τὸ παρὰ τὴν ὁμωνυμίαν , τὸ φάναι σπουδαι̂ον εἰ̂ναι μυ̂ν, ἀφ' οὑ̂ γ' ἐστὶν ἡ τιμιωτάτη πασω̂ν τελετή : (15) τὰ γὰρ μυστήρια πασω̂ν τιμιωτάτη τελετή.

Here’s a translation into English (which refuses translation as mere transliteration but retains as much word play as the translator can pass along):

Besides that there are the alike names: Declaring that a “seeker rat” is important because it’s derived from the all-honored rite; when, in fact, “the Secret” is the all-honored rite.

What’s the Secret? Do you get it?


Richard A. Rhodes said...

Well, Kurk, we're at it again.

You keep accusing me of always assuming an excluded middle and/or monocausality.

Not true.

Furthermore, you talk as if thinking in terms of an excluded middle were an inferior way of thinking.

A position I will also contest.

But my argument is different.

I believe the evidence is overwhelming that texts are far less ambiguous than you make them out to be -- and far less dependent on intertextuality -- otherwise literature would not be translatable.

Translations are never perfect, of course, but we know that Tolstoy is a great writer, even if we only read him in English and miss all his interesting Russian interetextuality.

Good communicators regularly use the particularities of linguistic forms to convey elaborately layered meanings. But I claim that those meanings are not so intertwined that they can't be disentangled to the point that we can make reasonable and defensible decisions about what the author's communicative intentions were.

My complaint is that you focus on the minor problem. This may make for more intellectually stimulating discussion, but in Scripture translation the big problems are not problems of intertextuality.

Your comments about my various posts suggest that you believe such a position is intellectually inferior.

J. K. Gayle said...

First, Rich, thank you very much for the dialog! We may be closer than I or you think, and so I will agree mostly with your description here of our differences.

One thing we agree on: there are better English translations of the Bible, and there are those which are inferior.

Obviously, you have a rather modernistic (and seems to me a Chomskyan, thoroughly dependent on Aristotle's rationalism) view of language. I'm trying to understand, and see hints of George Lakoff in that (the Lakoff who shoots down objectivism with his own brand of it, by along the way taking a shot at ‘some feminists’—wonder who he’s talking about, another Lakoff perhaps?). And I think I can somewhat sympathize with your desired outcome: a bringing across of the precious content of original-language scriptures into our English, at whatever cost and by whatever means.

But we can't reduce the problem of translation to intertexuality. And you are right to look at the consequences. Willis Barnstone does. He asks personally, powerfully: "What are the consequences to me, a Jew, reading 'Jesus' when it's a simple Greek language transliteration of a precious Hebrew name, with all kinds of rich Jewish meanings"? And he answers in a way only a Jew, a Jew persecuted by Christians, can answer: "The consequences are such an English translation, the transliteration, effects antiSemitism. And, wow, all the English 'translations' do that. But when anyone translates other Greek texts into English, they usually are willing not to be so closed about it. Yes, it really must be antiSemitism."

Now, I'm afraid that, like you, Barnstone is so intent on the end (erasing the antiSemitism by translation) that he sacrifices the means. He sacrifices the Greek word play when only going after the Hebrew senses.

So that gets us back to the question of intertexuality. Yes and no it's a huge issue. If we can understand intertextuality as, not just some interesting pedantic exercise for intellectuals, then that's a beginning. If we can see the personal issues and the power plays in refusing intertextuality, then that's closer. If we can view (as the Pikes and Bob Longacre did with all their inhouse disputes about tagmemics) language as N-dimensional, then we're very far along. Let me do this once more: if any language is (rather if both languages are) N-dimensional, then we've got a problem on our hands. We are people, and person is above logic, even the ostensible Aristotelian logic "in" and "of" a language. I’m so glad you mention Tolstoy in English translation: see what you’ve done? It’s not either “his interesting Russian intertextuality” or a less intertextual English translation that may still render him a great writer. But for those who (desire to) read him proficiency in both his Russian and in English there are major issues. Why does Pike use the other’s language in his “monolingual” demonstrations?

So there is a focus on language(s) as rich with very personal, very powerful second meanings. These aren't minor. They really are the difference between "secret" and "mystery" as you conceived it in your last post (which I thought was very good by the way). The problematic transliterations of the Greek—in the English New Testaement as you show, or as in Aristotle as I show—fail both the Greek and the English readers. Why back off from that, Rich?

Richard A. Rhodes said...

Wow, there's a lot in that comment. Let me address a couple of the points.

First, I'd say that Lakoff is very much an Aristotelian, just not a Platonist. (Regardless of the fact that he sees himself as being above both Platonism and Aristotelianism because he understands the metaphorical basis of their reasoning.) When George rails against objectivity, is the notion that there is a knowable, mind-independent reality. His position is that all knowledge is a product of the mind or a product of the mind's interaction with its environment.

And just because he talks about the fuzziness of categories does not mean he has, in fact, given up on the excluded middle. (As Lotfi Zadeh has shown us, you can model any degree of fuzziness you want starting from an excluded middle approach -- so-called fuzzy logic, which is crucial to Lakoff's view.)

In the end he reasons as an Aristotelian, just at a different level, which is where I am.

Chomsky, on the other hand, is a Platonist, but that's a whole nother story, as they say.

There is nothing about the way I argue (or reason) that prevents me from saying that texts, like people are multidimensional. In fact, that's exactly what I meant when I said that good communicators use the forms of their language to layer their communication.

Second, you're absolutely right that there's a bigger issue in translation than intertextuality. It's category mismatch. The challenge of translation is to get a wording in the target language that doesn't do too much violence to the meaning hacked out by the categories implicit in the wording of the original.

This problem is compounded by something else that almost always flies under the radar and that is normativity. English speakers normatively say: He ran into the house., Spanish speakers normatively say: Entró a la casa, corriendo. to label the same event. Of course you can say He entered the house running. but it sounds a little odd. We tend to tolerate that oddness in translation, when I argue we shouldn't. A translation should be referentially accurate (when reference is the point of the communication) and appropriately phrased with respect to what I'm calling normativity here.

What Pike bought by doing a monolingual (which, BTW, I have done myself), is largely to sidestep both the category and normativity problems. (It's worth noting that when he did a monolingual, it wasn't really monolingual. He always spoke Mixtec until he got enough of the target language to start speaking it.) And his point was that language is always sufficiently contextualized that it can be figured out when cooperative speakers do not share a common language. It was a kind of in-your-face-Prof.-Chomsky act, which Chomsky has never appreciated.

J. K. Gayle said...

Well, that does clarify for me several of the things you’ve said elsewhere, and often. Thanks for talking about the two issues: logic in linguistics, and categorical mismatch.

Yes, of course, Chomsky is the Platonist. And Lakoff, like Aristotle, is reworking that whole ideal. And I can see you’re out of the Cave too, even allowing multidimensionality.

Here’s the bridge I think I see between where you are and where I am. But I’m not sure. Seems to me Jesus brings in an epistemology, a linguistics, and translation theory that is not at all Aristotelian. Jesus uses parable and hyperbole and dependency on his followers to get across what he brings down from the sky, so to speak. It’s much closer to Pike’s monolingual demonstration. I can call the methods of both “feminism.” They are, I believe, a kind of incarnation, an embodying of someone else’s categories. A kind of risky conception, a pregnancy of unpredictable results. A kind of self-sacrifice for multiple returns. Ambiguous, humble, inclusive, otherly, wholistic, dynamic, relational. All very different from Aristotle. Very different in method and in observation and in outcome. (So I would love to hear how your monolingual demonstrations have gone; what languages? Pike, I noticed, not only used Mixtec but would also use IPA and English alphabet cursive shorthand and vertical visual columns and the x-ray points of articulation on a mouth drawing. I’m bringing that up because he asked to his seminar group whether we thought IPA was the phonetician-phonemicist’s emics. Seemed worried to know the answer. And I do think it matters.)

Anyway, I totally get your notion of false-friends mismatches (and saw a lot of that as a bilingual missionary kid). Yes, Entró a la casa, corriendo is weird odd as He entered the house running. But I want you to see this (beyond the question of excluded middle OR of intertexuality): there is, for lack of a better term now, “rhetoric” in translation. Doesn’t Dell Hymes call this “speech act”? In translation, the word play (i.e., the wiggle room and the playfulness) allows for people meanings above logic. I mean, who can laugh at the joke you tell about the Pope and Moishe? Neither the Pope nor Moishe very well because what’s funny is the mismatch. But wiggle room is what James Murphy depends on (in English and in German) to make successful propaganda out of his translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. My point: if there were faithfulness between the Pope and Moishe, then you wouldn’t have a joke that would make us insiders—pretending to be outsiders—laugh. And Murphy wouldn’t be able to convince one other American that the third reich was somehow akin the new united states. Most English Bible translation pretends that all there is must be the faithful categorical matches, no?

(Now I can’t resist a joke. Actually, one of my daughters brought it home from her Christian private school, of all places. “How did the turtle cross the freeway?” ((when the responder can’t guess right you say)) “Take the F out of ‘free’ and the F out of ‘way.’” ((Invariably, the response is: “There’s no F in way” which said aloud is not allowed in Christian private school anyway.)) But my wife’s co-worker from El Salvador spoiled the whole thing by saying: “’Way’ has no F in it.” Now that’s funny on a whole nother level, which does beg that question of the excluded middle, doesn’t it?)