Friday, February 29, 2008


This particular post is not for my non-feminist friends in the same way Carly Simon’s hit “You’re So Vain” was not for James Taylor. Truth be told, I detest targeting an audience.

So put this post in the genre of the little self help books you find in an airport bookstore on the way to a feminism(s) and rhetoric(s) conference, the sort of book, you know, with an intriguing title like “YUP.” “NOPE.” “MAYBE.” A WOMAN’S GUIDE TO GETTING MORE OUT OF THE LANGUAGE OF A MAN, which hits you like a dart in the bullseye in a dark bar somewhere even though you’re a man (and not the target audience) as you think to yourself (anyway) that the two collaborating authors whose front-matter acknowledgments of others compare their writing process to collaborative pregnancy and to the life changing developments of childbirth, using words like “baffling and humbling” and “translating” and “manspeak”—even though they’re men writing about very different language than they’re writing with—may have something for you (a man and not their target) to hear, although you find you haven’t been able to help yourself with much of anything lately, especially not resisting the buying of such paperback poor sellers on the 50% off discount rack which saves you nearly $6.47.5, minus the sales tax of a city and a state government, not your own, of course.
One of my non-feminist friends has wondered whether I’m not humble. And whether I won’t explain to him more clearly the far-out afrafeminist methods in translation.
When I talk about feminist methodologies, immediately the subject of “positions” comes into play. Yes, I know; Jacques Derrida was the original author of Positions (which is the same word in French if with different meanings in English, depending on whether you are Jacques or, a woman, such as, Hélène Cixous). But when I use the English word positions, I’m intending to mean something from or in Greek. But that original Greek is a translation of Aramaic. And who knows for sure, if it’s not Robert Funk and his group of experts knowing, whether the Aramaic is either original or authored in the first place? So I’m talking about the positions that a certain few learner writer translators find themselves in as they try to put in words a parable spoken by their Rav/Reb/Rabbi (i.e., “Teacher”). It’s a rhetorical feminist parable in the Greek. The men learning, especially the one repositioned by the Reb as “Rock,” want to get their Rabbi in the position of explaining more clearly, off to the side, what the meaning is of the far-out story with multiple meanings. The Rav explains: “What do you think you’re asking? If you are in not in a position to hear this story, what makes you think I’ll be able to explain with singular clarity to you any of the other stories? How are you going to get, for yourself – any one of you, the Greek translation of my first word μετανοετε (rethink everything between your ears and behind your eyes!), if you won’t reposition your ears to hear and your eyes to see? How are you going to translate what I have to hear (and learn) from that mixed-breed Greek (Syro-Phonecian) Woman about her man-possessed and Greek deity-possessed little Girl? How are you going to translate what that loose mixed-breed (Samaritan) Woman says to the men about me in their village long before Billy Graham arrives on the scene? How are you going to translate what all those Women (some half-breeds, familiar with males and with Greek deities) say to you after they’ve poured their best perfumes all over my hair and then my body and have washed me from head to foot until they have some living cause to become my first Apostles? Yes, I know you want that position. How are you going to get that much of what you have to hear and learn from Women and me too is How?”
Proposition: Some Fell By The Wayside
A first position for a translator is not feminist at all. The aim of this position is proposition. Plato and Aristotle found this position most useful, which is why they didn’t find the slippery-slick sophists and the plurally-playful poets very useful at all. Which is why Plato said that a word is a shadow but it’s meaning is light. Which is also why Aristotle taught his students to use good Greek, which is not to be translated into the babble of the barbarians (and not to be taught to feeble females either—and so, of course, Aristotle really wouldn’t have cared for such aliteration). Anyway, the text and the original and the author and his logic and his nature are most important. This λόγος is in danger of falling by the wayside.
Imposition: Some Fell on Stony Ground
A second position for a translator is not feminist at all. The aim of this position is imposition. Alexander the Great, one of Aristotle’s disciples, was an imposer. He took Greek culture and language in a dominant way to all the known world (and the only time that fellow cried was when, he thought, there was no one else to conquer). Here, the focus is still on the originally authored text, but the concern is the audience who must be forced to get the text. Now since the conquerer has to target an audience with text, then translation equivalence is most important. He can rename a great city after himself (i.e., Alexandria) and start translating and teaching every text possible in Greek. Barbarian words can be shadows of deep enlightened meanings. The targeted “hoi polloi” (i.e., the masses) will get real prototypical meaningful Greek. The danger here, of course, is that the λόγος forced in so quickly will prematurely wither (stunted by Roman rock and by Judeo-Christian sunshine).
Transposition: Some Fell among Thorns
A third position for a translator is closer to feminist positioning. The aim of this position is transposition. Apostle Paul became a transposer: a cultural relativist and a theological pluralist, all things to all, to win some to Christ. Here’s Paul/Saul: a Roman citizen, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee inquisitioner blinded for sight, a member of the “true” circumcision who require a half-Greek man to undergo male Jewish circumcision for his other half (“the Jew first, and the Greek”), an instructor of women to be silent when in Greece (though himself silent to the women in Rome where the law kept them silent), a rhetorical opponent of Greek deities in Athens (while a radical proponent of a trinitarian God in Jerusalem), a scholar in Hebrew and presumably Latin who reads and writes copiously in Greek, a prisoner who would ransom and free the slave in the cell with him. The danger with transposition is . . . ; the dangers of transposition are observed by C. S. Lewis in his sermon “Transposition,” about which he writes that “A different version of ‘Transposition,’ written expressly for that purpose and then translated into Italian, has appeared in the Rivista of Milan” and in which he advises us his readers “Let us construct a fable. Let us picture a woman thrown into a dungeon.” The dangers is that a λόγος may miss out on some ἀγάπη because it mixes unrecognizably and inaudibly with such thorns and weeds as these: καὶ πάντες λαλῶσιν γλώσσαις εἰσέλθωσιν δὲ ἰδιῶται ἢ ἄπιστοι οὐκ ἐροῦσιν ὅτι μαίνεσθε.
Yep. Yep. Here’s a statement for you all,
ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν
Should a grain of wheat not fall into the ground to die, it stays single.
ἐὰν μὁ κόκκος τοῦ σίτου πεσὼν εἰς τὴν γῆν ἀποθάνῃ αὐτὸς μόνος μένει
Should it fall to die, it delivers many children and many cornucopias.
ἐὰν δἀποθάνῃ πολὺν καρπὸν φέρει
A fourth position for a translator is afrafeminist. The means and the aims of this position are a(p)position. It’s a lowly position, an uncertain one, with ambiguities. An apposition in English is “A placing side by side or next to each other.” A similar Greek word we transliterate into English as parable: my own subjective story is drawn out by another’s story alongside mine. An a-position is death. End of story.
In English, we can read an x-rated novel by Gayl Jones, an African American, a woman. But much is silent, like the untranslatable “white spaces” Anne Carson speaks of as she translates the fragments of Sappho.
If we’re a white male English scholar, such as Casey Clabough is, reviewing Jones’ book for tenure, then we may astutely observe how other scholars have already had “a whole range of critical reactions” which “constitute a diverse body of critical readings” that have spoken of the “unique sexual episodes and memorable gender characterizations through conscious and specialized political lenses,” which may make us want to focus more specifically on Jones’ own “theoretical standard, the ambitious ‘all-inclusive structure’” by which to judge “various applications of the specific components—psychology, eroticism, history, linguistic play, [and] music.” But if we’re Toni Morrison, we’re likely to say something more like this (which is something Morrison really has said about the text Jones wrote): “What was uppermost in my mind while I read her manuscript was that no novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this. This girl had changed the terms, the definitions of the whole enterprise.” Now, to be sure, Morrison has written more novels about black women, but no one is the same. Not the readers, and not the writers. There is something side by side, there is death, there is life like it’s never been known before. As explicit and as illicit as Jones’ erotic language is, her novel Corregidora must hide the secret of a woman (or several women, or black women in general) while it whispers the secret, the unspeakable. The novel is a story beside your own, whoever you are with eyes to see and ears to hear. If it’s a hiding and a revealing, then it’s also a renewing, and a very personal one.
The reader knows that Corregidora is the male protagonist, the slave owner, and the reader knows this by virtue of his being revealed. Here’s Erica Baumeister’s synopsis of the book: “When Ursa Corregidora is five years old and questions the truth of her great-grandmother's stories, her great-grandmother tells her, ‘I'm leaving evidence. And you got to leave evidence too. And your children got to leave evidence. And when it come time to hold up the evidence, we got to have evidence to hold up. That's why they burned all the papers, so there wouldn't be no evidence to hold up against them.’ Ursa's great-grandmother was raped and then used as a whore by her white slave owner, Corregidora, as was her daughter after her. Ursa had a black father, but her skin more closely resembles the color of Corregidora, the man who is both her grandfather and great-grandfather. Ostracized by darker-skinned women who resent the added value her light skin gives her among black men, and unable to trust any man, black or white, because of the stories she was raised on, Ursa Corregidora sings the blues and fights both the past and the present to maintain mental and physical autonomy. Internal monologues, dreams and remembered stories intermingle with present-day reality until it becomes difficult for the reader or Ursa to draw the lines between them, a task made doubly difficult when black men echo the proprietary attitudes (and sometimes words) of dead slave owners.” Such stories must die. They must end.
But Jones keeps, as if whispered secrets, all the backstory of the Portuguese and Spanish “corrigedore” (masculine gendered form) and “corrigedora” (and feminine gendered form). If it's not part of your grandmother’s story, you don’t get it. Black women (not only the characters but also Jones herself) possess “her” secret and tell it. It’s part of the story of translation that writer historian Jim Tuck tells us: “The term ‘corregidor’ is normally associated with an island in the Philippines that witnessed one of the most dramatic and tragic episodes of the Second World War -- when a starving, outgunned, and outnumbered band of American and Filipino soldiers finally surrendered to a Japanese invasion force after heroic but futile resistance. But how did it come to acquire such a name, which -- quite literally -- means ‘corrector’ in Spanish? The term, it should be noted, referred less to someone who teaches wayward people to cultivate the paths of rectitude than it did to a magistrate in colonial Spain. . . Corregidores were scattered throughout the Spanish domains including, of course, Mexico. One such official was Miguel Domínguez, who exercised that function in Querétaro. But the focus here is not on the corregidor but on his wife, who bore the title of corregidora. As we shall see, this was truly a case where a wife not only wore the pants in the family but where her determination, resourcefulness and drive were able to change history.”
Jones may not know any of this history as told so much more loudly and objectively. Somehow the words have come to her through the passages of stories passed down from mother to mother in hush tones. “. . . to leave evidence . . .” In Portuguese and Spanish languages, corregidor(e/a), is a pun: (1) “corrector” and (2) “corridor.” Jones has heard and has us hear both meanings. The titular male character is given the name in the feminine (not masculine gender) form. First, there is a theme of correction: (a) the titular character needs to be chastised (for the brutal ways he corrects the women around him), and (b) he seeks to have the women correct his ailments, and (c) the women in the book intend to correct their plight of having the historical record destroyed. Second, instead of “making generations” to correct the erasure of the record, the female protagonist Ursa sings improvised blues songs about types of corridors: songs “[a]bout this train going in the tunnel” and “about this bird woman, whose eyes were deep wells” (147). So alongside Jones’ character’s stories are our own (in hush tones, the unspeakable need for transformation).
For afrafeminist translators, the positions are not simply of word proposed, or word imposed, or even word transposed. A word touches the touched body. It doesn’t have to be a spoken word or literary word. Afrafeminist historian Jacqueline Jones Royster knows from experience how a good theory of literacy, even a translation “theory begins with the notion that a community’s material conditions greatly define the range of what [any] group does with the written word, and to a significant degree, even how they do it. . . [as] an expression of self, of society, and of self in society” (page 5, Traces of a Stream). Royster carefully reviews the history of words, and notes: “In the context of these definitions, the space to envision African American women writers emerges. . . African American women have acquired and mastered variously a new tool for a new day. We have done so with an apparently ageless set of tasks, all of which seem to pivot on notions of belief, identity, and social responsibility” (pages 105-07).
So when it comes to Bible translation, a particular interest of the friend I’m writing for here, the word a(p)posed is the afrafeminist method. Why can’t a man use such “an apparently ageless set of tasks, all of which seem to pivot on notions of belief, identity, and social responsibility”? Why can’t Anglo-American women? Why can’t Karen H. Jobes, for instance, insist on two very different texts of the Greek Septuagint Esther, presented side-by-side “where the Greek verb προστίθημι expresses the Hebrew idea ‘to do again’ or ‘keep on going’” ambiguously in one of the texts. And why can’t she translate that one Greek word, also ambiguously, by her English as in “Then she spoke again to the king. . .” (italics added)? And why can’t she then leave the untranslatable white space of the other variant text, and leave that absent word untranslated as against the other—a kind of death, so that there is a differently renewed tone: “Then Esther said to the king on the next day, ‘Allow me to punish my enemies with bloodshed.’ So Queen Esther appealed to the king also against Haman’s children, that they too should die with their father”? And why can’t Suzanne McCarthy question the single and masculine meaning imposed on ἄνθρωπος when it’s been translated to Greek already also as ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ. . . αὐτούς? Any why can’t Carolyn Custis James translate various Hebrew words as having more meanings than those men have given them, so that we all can hear our own stories alongside the one in which the man Boas hears and learns from the woman Ruth, an act of translation itself? Won't that kind of explanation (of λόγος) change us?

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