Suzanne McCarthy has announced a series of posts
on the translation of a Hebrew Psalm. She’s looking at a variety of issues, some of which I’ve found include the question of ambiguity. Ambiguity is something modernists and masculinists tend not to favor in language, especially when it comes to Bible translation. But, in this post, I am going to make a big deal out of ambiguity for better (Bible) translation. For a feminist translation, ambiguity is huge. Ambiguity actually and ironically helps the best translators disambiguate to make meanings clear, to make the text more “wholly” and personally meaningful. And, below, I want to explain that and then illustrate it with a feminist translation of a Greek language passage my pastor had us read for the Easter Sunday sermon. It’s just a snippet of a narrative: Luke 24:8-12.
Let’s make six things clear initially. First, McCarthy is not necessarily making the arguments I am. In fact, she states very cogently in a comment on her first post in her series that she “cannot perceive what relevance gender might have
to this post”; I’d raised the issue that a particular Hebrew word is ambiguous in multiple ways, even with respect to grammatical gender. (In an update here, I note that McCarthy suggests ambiguity needs to be "resolved"
in or by translation, especially of the Christian scriptures.)
Second, I’m not trying to invent ambiguity where it does not exist, but I will agree with Richard Rhodes that I find much more ambiguity in language than he feels is necessary or is necessarily there. Ambiguity, I must say, has its limits; even though we users of language enjoy what Nelson Goodman calls “radical relativism,” there are what Nelson Goodman says are “rigid restraints”
Third, then, the radical relativism of language, including ambiguity, is related to several things Kenneth L. Pike observes about language. [Pike’s a teacher of mine who’s profoundly influenced my thinking about these things. Pike is as much interested in the nature of language as he is how we human beings look at—i.e., theorize—and talk about—i.e., know—language. The first SIL staff member and Wycliffe Bible Translator to earn a Ph.D., Pike began with some very radical ideas; his acclaimed dissertation “A Reconstruction of Phonetic Theory,” completed in 1942, foreshadowed postmodern methods as it emphasized the need for reworking rigid, traditional and modern ways of viewing language. With one of his favorite books—Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of Human Behavior—Pike commenced emphasizing “a wholistic view.” In a later introductory book—the book Linguistic Concepts, which he had some of us his students read for a seminar on this “wholistic view” —Pike starts with the following one-sentence paragraph: “In this volume person (and relation between persons) is given theoretical priority above formalism, above pure mathematics, above idealized abstractions” (page xi).] Language, Pike says, is N-Dimensional with respect (a) to hierarchy of features; (b) to salient context and unity of features; and (c) to “fusion, merging, gradients, change, growth, education, and indeterminancies” (xi). Persons may and do determine whether to view language as (a) field, (b) particle, or (c) wave. Persons are above logic. One person can learn another person’s language, not in spite of ambiguity and not just by formal logic, but because of such ambiguity and because we all are above such logic. Persons make language ambiguous, and radically so.
Fourth, I think confusing (1) ambiguity with (2) postmodernism or with (3) feminism or with (4) gender difference is not helpful. Aristotle can be of help to us here; for he does not want confusion of categories (and absolutely, in language, he does not want ambiguity
; and he does name ambiguity as a category of language to avoid). And yet, I can’t agree more with Cheryl Glenn who puzzles over the male-only histories of western rhetoric; Glenn, who reads the masculinist and modernist accounts of rhetoric’s history says that, helpfully, “[p]ostmodernism influences our resistant readings of the paternal narrative, particularly since it demands our awareness of situatedness, our angle (in my case [i.e., in Glenn’s case], reading as a feminist, as a woman)” (page 5 of Rhetoric Retold
). Glenn, “as a feminist, as a woman,” and as a postmodernist, employs “three methodologies” which she calls “three angles”: “historiography
(which informs the entire enterprise of feminist remappings); feminism
(which specifically works to situate female rhetorical figures); and gender studies
(which refigure gender as a category for historiographical analysis)” (page 4). Here we begin to see some methodology overlap. We might call it methodological ambiguity. For Glenn, ambiguity, postmodernism, feminism, and gender studies all “do
” different things; and nonetheless they still all do similar sorts of things. For me, Glenn and Pike do similar things, even though Pike resists some rather non-Pikean forms of “postmodernism” and even though he never called himself a “feminist.” For that matter, Glenn and Carolyn Custis James
do similar things. The former situates the predominately male history of classical rhetoric from the perspective of women; the latter rewrites the predominately male history in the Bible from the perspective of women. Nonetheless, Custis James is not an academician using postmodernism, feminism, or gender studies per se. What is common for Pike, Glenn, and Custis James is this: language is ambiguous because of persons
. Feminism as methodology set is also ambiguous because it speaks to feminism also as the aim or goal to be achieved by the method. Hence, Glenn can situate herself postmodernly “as a feminist, as a woman”; likewise, I can situate myself personally “as a feminist, as a man.” McCarthy, Pike, and Custis James might rather situate themselves as linguists and Christians and historians (who may or may not admit to doing
the kinds of things I want to follow Glenn in doing, as a feminist). The personal, and the ambiguities created by persons, allow us to tease out and to embrace the differences as long as, feministically, our epistemology works out the self evident truths that all men and women are created equal. (Aristotle insists on formal logic that would dictate to us no ambiguity; his end is to confirm by objective observation what is nature—including the nature of males over females and of logic over subjective rhetoric and of an original Greek text over any translation into a barbarian mother tongue.)
Fifth, when I call what I’m doing “feminist translating,” I am emphasizing as much the methodologies as I am what the methodologies produce. I am not, for example, wanting to go “Beyond the Personal,” not wanting to go beyond the methods of feminisms, which is what Joy S. Ritchie and Gesa E. Kirsch
want to do when one of their students turns to Christianity and when they conclude, therefore, that her move is now necessarily opposed to feminism, which their ultimate goal (but no longer their method) in “Theorizing a Politics of Location in Composition Research.” In addition, I am not wanting to use a methodology that is not also part and parcel of the aim of the method. This, for instance, is what Ann Nyland is wanting to do
by using ambiguity in language combined with the applied “Relevance Theory” of Bible translator Ernst-August Gutt for her goal: a Study New Testament for Lesbians, Gays, Bi, and Transgender
. Nyland may rightly challenge whether the “word arsenokoites in 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10” in English should be “homosexual”; nonetheless, she turns to Gutt and even to E. D. Hirsch for methodology to say that “[t]he reader’s context determines how a certain passage will be understood.” What Gutt does (and Hirsch and Nyland with him) is to resort to a reader’s-context method of masculinist logic. Such logic (i.e., “this context but NOT that one”) may find ambiguity determined. Such logic is not—and I will emphasize this emphatically here—such logic is not a methodology
that is lesbian, gay, bi, or transgender. (Generally, the Nyland translation gets favorable reviews by bloggers at BBB
; it seems “accurate” in the places spot checked.) Nyland uses Gutt’s “relevance theory” for her method (to achieve her lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender translation) which is a method that is not Pike’s tagmemics nor is any of Glenn’s three angles either. Feminist translating uses both a personal methodology and also (by those angles) works the personal aim of valuing females as equally as males are valued; a feminist translation valorizes the personal connections that a person using language makes, regardless of and with regard to gender especially.
Sixth, when I call what I’m doing “feminist translating,” I am calling attention to what male-dominant logic in translation neglects methodologically and teleologically.
In Luke 24:8-12, there is attention given to women that does come across in the history. But in the Greek language that Luke uses there is more ambiguity than traditional English translators attend to because they tend to use masculinist logic. Masculinist logic wants to abstract the meaning to the text; masculinist logic wants to pretend objectivity (i.e., to say there’s no theological agenda even if there’s an attempt to say the a priori commitment to “plenary inspiration” theory of Christian scriptures is not a theological agenda); masculinist logic wants to be over subjective person; and masculinist logic wants to eliminate ambiguity when it drives some inclusive goal, such as Nyland’s NT fo LGBTs. As a consequence, traditional English translations can ignore the importance of women and their rhetoric. Sometimes, this is an unwitting consequence. Most Bible translators will very explicitly and publicly express their commitment to the value of women. And Bible translations born out of masculinist logic do not hide the fact that Luke gives historical attention to women.
So what difference does a feminist translation make? Well, let’s look. First we’ll look at the King James Version; the Revised Standard Version; and the Nyland. Then we’ll check the texts of Luke. Finally we’ll examine feminist translating. (My formatting of the texts is for purposes of comparisons and contrasts).
And they remembered his words,
And returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest.
It was Mary Magdalene and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles.
And their words seemed to them as idle tales,
and they believed them not.
Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulchre;
and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves,
and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass.
And they remembered his words,
and returning from the tomb they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.
Now it was Mary Mag'dalene and Jo-an'na and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles;
but these words seemed to them an idle tale,
and they did not believe them.
Then they remembered what he’d said.
They returned from the tomb and reported all this to the Eleven and to all the others.
And it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and their companions who told this to the apostles,
but they didn’t believe them,
because they thought their words were a lot of nonsense.
However, Peter got up and ran to the tomb.
He bent over to peep in and saw the strips of linen lying by themselves,
and he went off wondering what on earth had happened.
καὶ ἐμνήσθησαν τῶν ῥημάτων αὐτοῦ
καὶ ὑποστρέψασαι ἀπὸ τοῦ μνημείου ἀπήγγειλαν ταῦτα πάντα τοῖς ἕνδεκα καὶ πᾶσιν τοῖς λοιποῖς
(ἦσαν δὲ ἡ Μαγδαληνὴ Μαρία καὶ Ἰωάννα καὶ Μαρία ἡ Ἰακώβου καὶ αἱ λοιπαὶ σὺν αὐταῖς ἔλεγον πρὸς τοὺς ἀποστόλους ταῦτα)
καὶ ἐφάνησαν ἐνώπιον αὐτῶν ὡσεὶ λῆρος τὰ ῥήματα ταῦτα
καὶ ἠπίστουν αὐταῖς
(ὁ δὲ Πέτρος ἀναστὰς ἔδραμεν ἐπὶ τὸ μνημεῖον
καὶ παρακύψας βλέπει τὰ ὀθόνια μόνα
καὶ ἀπῆλθεν πρὸς ἑαυτὸν θαυμάζων τὸ γεγονός)
The women remembered the sayings he’d spoken.
They returned from the memorial grave announcing every bit of this to the eleven men and to the other men.
(There were Miyam from Magdala and Johanna and Jacob’s Miryam and the other women with them, stating this to the men he’d sent out.)
They appeared in front of the men as if this were a bunch of silly sayings.
The men disbelieved the women.
(There was “Rock” standing up; he ran to the memorial grave;
bending over, he looked at the linen cloth only;
he left, amazed at what was birthed.)
As mentioned, the blip of history that Luke provides here does not obscure women (in his Greek or in any translation above). Women are the first on the scene at Jesus’s tomb; they’re the first to remember what he said (because they listen to the angels jogging their memories); the women are the first believers; the first apostles (i.e., the male apostles’ apostles); and the first disciples to follow Jesus’s kinds of rhetorics (i.e., parable that requires personal reflection; hyperbole that appears silly; and miracle that can make radical changes for and in a body). We might say Jesus’s rhetorics are feminisms. Luke and the translations are not masculinist with respect to these facts of history.
What Luke and the feminist translation do show (in contrast to KJV, RSV, and Nyland) are the following. The Greek gendered pronouns and verbs and played-on phrases (i.e., τοῖς λοιποῖς vs. αἱ λοιπαὶ) highlight whether the referents in English are females or males. There’s a bit of play also in the first action of the women (i.e., ἐμνήσθησαν or remembering) and the place they turn from (i.e. μνημείος or tomb for memorial). The main lines of action and the parenthetical comments are marked (i.e., in Greek by καὶ plus aorist verb for mainline action, by δὲ plus proper noun subject for parethetical comment; in English by “The [wo]men” or “They” for mainline action, and by the parentheses plus the existential there for parenthetical comment). What’s more, the initial main line for both resulting paragraphs is punctuated by a repeated clause object (i.e., τῶν ῥημάτων and τὰ ῥήματα); but even the repeated ταῦτα (i.e. “this”) following τὰ ῥήματα does not make clear whether the men think they are λῆρος because women are presenting them or because they were that way when Jesus first said them—there’s vagueness (not helpful ambiguity) in this bit of language. In addition, since the Greek proper names are common Hebrew names or peculiar Aramaic nicknames, the English tries to signal these personal connections (both to the people in Luke’s history here and to his later readers) with common Old Testament counterparts (in translation) or with scare quotes. (In showing the Hebrew senses of proper nouns, I’m following Willis Barnstone
). Joshua (aka Jesus) had sent the men out to announce his kingdom, but they are hiding away when the women are sent to them; hence, “sent out” seems more personal and more to the point than a non-translation transliteration “apostle
”. Finally, the final word here has a generative meaning in Greek that means something to those of us who are parents, or who have parents, especially mothers; hence, in English it’s “what was birthed”.
(Oh, one more little thing that Luke plays with, from verse 7 just before the lines noted above: He has angels reminding the women of the sayings of Joshua--i.e., Jesus--and ends with the one in which Joshua says this
τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ὅτι δεῖ παραδοθῆναι εἰς χεῖρας ἀνθρώπων ἁμαρτωλῶν καὶ σταυρωθῆναι καὶ τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ ἀναστῆναι
Of course, that last word is the one Luke picks up when he describes what “Rock”--i.e., Peter--does when he hears the women repeating the sayings of Joshua. “Rock,” like Joshua from the dead, stands up. That Joshua and the women can have such an effect is no small thing. Matthew hints at this power, and so does the feminist translation.)