Monday, January 7, 2008

Uppity Denigration by “Translation”

Melvin B. Tolson teaches his students the dark meaning behind the word denigrate. Without the poet-professor’s lesson, of course, we would all know that the English translation of the Latin word denigratus is “To attack the character or reputation of.” Without the African American teacher’s lesson, we’d be stuck with this uppity highfalutin’ “translation.” But, rather eloquently, Tolson reminds his students so long ago (and us today thankfully) that in Latin niger is “black” and that de- + nigrare is “to blacken.”

(Tolson is wonderfully portrayed by Denzel Washington in “The Great Debaters,” a must-see film out in theaters. We went to watch the movie with one of our daughters this weekend here in Texas, where much of the tragic triumphant true story took place. It’s the story of white racism and sexism overcome by black educators and students in the 1930s. It's the story of the feminism of Henrietta Wells aka Samantha Booke, and of the civil rights for her and James L. Farmer, Jr., and of their debate-team classmates who make national headlines because of their ability to speak, which cannot be officially recognized because they are black. So back to Tolson’s lesson.)

Do you see what happens when a technicalized term goes untranslated? Do you notice that if an English word just “sounds like” a word in the original language, it’s an uppity term. This highfalutin’ phenomenon of just keeping the sound (i.e. “denigrate”) without fully translating the personally embodied meaning (i.e. “to make black”) is called transliteration.

Many Bible translators and many academic translators transliterate all the time. We might call them transliter bugs. When they transliterate, they sound good. They sound like they’re speaking Latin or Greek. What they’re actually doing is making a mess of the translation. They’re keeping us from really knowing what’s going on in that original language in the first place. This lets them assume they know what they’re talking about, unchallenged. But then they can trash each other over their ever-refined dogma and publications on their meanings.

Let’s look at some examples, one from the “Bible” and three from “rhetoric.” (I’ve put “Bible” and “rhetoric” in scare quotes here because you may know that these English words are really simply uppity transliterations and not personal or real translations. “Bible” could be translated from the Greek as “book” and “rhetoric” as “speakerism”; but then Bible scholars and rhetoricians couldn’t as easily debate the meaning of the “Bible” and “rhetoric.”) Actually, the theological word (and “theo – logic - al” is another uppity transliteration) I’d like us to look at is “baptize.” And the philosophical (yes, you guessed it “philo – sophic – al” is another uppity transliteration) terms from what they call “rhetoric” are “ethos,” “pathos,” and “logos.” When theologians and philosophers want to make these terms “sound” Greek, and debate the words in highfalutin’ ways, then they won’t translate βαπτίζω, θος, πάθος, or λόγος.

So let’s do two things with “baptism” and “ethos, pathos, logos.” First, let’s look at a good translation of the Greek into English. Second, let’s look at how wildly varied and amazingly technical the uppity transliterated meanings of have become.

First, then, here’s Richmond Lattimore’s English translation of βαπτίζω, θος, πάθος, or λόγος in passages from Homer’s Odyssey:

As when a man who works as a blacksmith plunges a screaming great ax blade or plane into cold water, treating it for temper, since this is the way steel is made strong, even so Cyclops’ eye sizzled about the beam of the olive. (9.391-394)

and they penned the sows for the night inside their accustomed places (14.411)

for her heart is urgent to find out from you about her husband, though she is suffering troubles. (17.554-555)

This is his daughter; she detains the grieving, unhappy man, and ever with soft and flattering words she works to charm him to forget Ithaka; (1.55-57)

Now most Greek texts, from Homer through the New Testament, in personal and embodied contexts, have fairly stable meanings for these four words. In other words, “plunges” is usually a very good translation of βαπτίζω; “accustomed” is a fine translation of θος; “suffering” is not bad for πάθος; and “word” works quite well for λόγος.

But, second, we have to be aware of what academic technicians do otherwise. Some Bible translator blogger friends (Wayne Leman, Peter Kirk, Doug Chaplin, and Henry Neufeld) are reviewing some of the issues with “baptist” and “baptizer.” And more on that in a moment.

For students trying to get a grip on what Aristotle was making of θος, πάθος, and λόγος, there is much confusion. (Scholars still struggle with his central terms in “The Rhetoric” as I’ve noted here). My favorite student web site on the confusion of “ethos, pathos, logos” due to transliteration is this one.

So now even more on the uppity combination of highfalutin’ “baptist, ethos, pathos, logos.” Here are three partial paragraphs published in Rhetoric & Public Affairs 7.4 (2004) 587-601. It’s past-pastor Present Professor Robert Stephen Reid’s article on “Being Baptist.” I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting the highfalutin’ words as you note the ways the words are used so precisely and technically and abstractly.

As one who has been a Baptist pastor and now works as an educator, I have long since made my public peace with “being Baptist.” This identity is somehow core to who I have become, not only as a person of faith, but as a rhetorician and an educator. I do not promise that I will always worship God with fellow Baptists—we can be such a contentious lot—but I could no more deny that who I am has been shaped by Baptist ways of thought than Terry Eagleton would wish to deny his Marxist intellectual commitment or Judith Fetterley would wish to deny being a feminist. I am pleased to join with colleagues in these pages to reflect on the influence of our various denominational rhetorics as a source of intellectual invention. In what follows I provide a personal sketch of becoming and being Baptist and explore the central communicative assumptions of a constitutive Baptist rhetoric in order to describe for non-Baptists the often inchoate impulses that shape what it may mean to think like a Baptist.(587-88)

Note how Dr. Reid makes contrasts between “Baptists” and “Marxist intellectual” and “feminist” and “non-Baptists.” Could Dr. Eagleton read any material influences on the author? Might Dr. Fetterley encourage us to do a resistant reading of his piece here? How do you “non-Baptists” read this otherwise? Reid continues:

Where many traditions are willing to grant a pastor the authority to preach based on such external ethos as recognition of professional preparation, appointed positions, or the symbolic auctoritas of clerical vestments, authority is granted to Baptist preachers based on a single standard of internal ethos—the congregation's perception that the preacher can handle the message of the Bible faithfully in preaching. (588-89)

Say what? Are we talking about θος or something else we’ve become accustomed to, like, ethics or character or culture to prove an argument? Reid goes on:

If Baptist thought remains irrevocably fixed in a bygone era's strategies of persuasive invention, it is inevitable that pathos will be increased to supply the seeming deficit of a failed logos—the homiletic equivalent of the sermon manuscript with the scrawled marginal note "Weak point; pound pulpit." (597)

Don’t we doubt that Dr. Reid’s “fellow Baptists” are suffering if their words may fail them?

So we listen again to professor Tolson’s lesson on looking for the dark side of the uppity highfalutin’ transliteration. We return to our common need for personal, even embodied translation.

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