So lets say we know the backgrounds of all the people [translating the Bible]… does it really make that much difference in the ultimate translation? Do they endup, overall saying something much different in the text? … [D]o I take the translators' backgrounds into consideration when I compare the various versions I have, or have I already made my decision relative to the gender issue based more on my world view and sex?I think the questions are good, but I’m going to reply a bit with (A) some of my own struggles and (B) some of how feminist perspectives have opened up possibilities. I’ll talk of (C) some of what I know about one Bible translator and how she’s helped me some. But then (D) I’ll turn right around and say this: that openness to (other) possibilities can help more.
(A) SOME STRUGGLES. My two teenagers and I were looking at a Bible text (something in Proverbs) that has a father addressing a son about what kind of women he should avoid and what kind of woman he should have for himself to himself; my son began making applications to himself (and to me), but my daughter sat there on the sidelines.
(B) SOME PERSPECTIVES. My daughter’s not content to sit on the sidelines, and immediately she (rightly) sees all three of us as outsiders: “wonder what that meant to Solomon and his boy? He was the polygamist with all those other live-in women, right? And his dad was just like him, had lots of his own women, except he’s the one who confessed to murder to cover his affair, right? Guess they really do know something about girls after all.” My son and I, then, are fairly content to sit right there on the sidelines with my daughter. We’re three outsiders to the text. We’re outsiders to the “wise advice” from one polygamist to his son based on observations and experiences with womanizing. Now, that doesn’t mean the text has no particular value to each one of us as readers. It’s just that the applications are appropriated. And the better we know the Hebrew, the better we can position ourselves in relation to the wise advice. We could insist on the text being breathed by a higher author. That makes us like the audience members at the Nobel Prize awards, when Toni Morrison gives her “thank you” for the prize by telling a story, a very difficult to understand story. Hers is an inspired story, but that hardly makes any one of the audience members an old blind griot, a wise one, or some mischievous children trying to trick her. (The listeners, and Morrison herself, may really want somehow to find themselves blind and wise or mischievous. That would be one way to lock down “translation.”)
(C) HOW ONE TRANSLATOR HELPS ME. Phyllis A. Bird says our translating is “to overhear an ancient conversation, rather than to hear [one]self addressed directly”; and Bird adds “I am not certain that the translator is even obliged to make the modern reader understand what is overheard.” (“Translating Sexist Language as a Theological and Cultural Problem” 91).
Bird is a woman, a Bible translator, and a scholar. She is one of the four women on the thirty-member team of the NRSV. Bird has researched much, has written and published much, some by her A.B. fromUniversity of California at Berkeley and by her B.D. from Union Theological Seminary, New York; and a bit more by her Th.D. from Harvard Divinity School and by her study at University of Heidelberg. She’s also shared what she’s learned by teaching as Associate Professor of Old Testament at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University and as Professor at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She does have some perspective on translation, and on the text of the Bible. Here’s an article in which she considers, in part, the beginning of Genesis.
What we can know about Bird is some of what we can know about her “bias” in translation. But I want to say that Phyllis A. Bird has helped me learn that there is always “overhearing” in translation. I am an outsider, but I stand somewhere listening. (A man, a trusted New Testament guy such as Richard B. Hays, can see what Bird means. I'm being a little silly here, as if Bird, a woman scholar, is somehow less scholarly than the man scholar Hays. I do think he learns from her! And I do think women and men stand differently today as outsiders to the text of the mostly-male-oriented Bible. But Hays can still say, perhaps he has to say, “When we read Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, we are literally reading somebody else's mail...”). I think Bird’s humble position, my daughter’s humble position, Hays’s humble position, the humble position of the audience of the grateful Toni Morrison, can be any translator’s position. Such humility opens up other possibilities in the text. And it opens up possibilities in me. It helps us get around that ostensibly-objective refusal by Mohamed and that coldly-elitist refusal by Aristotle to translate texts, their precious texts. It frees translators and readers of translations to embrace their subjective positions. Hermeneutics (or interpretations) are translations. Translation, as Tremper Longman III says, is interpretation.
(D) OPEN TO POSSIBILITIES, FROM WHERE WE STAND. Lest it’s not clear, then let me go on: Not all feminist interpretations are the same. But then again, not any one of us, woman or man, is the same. There are different, and necessarily different, stances we each have with respect to the Bible. But as we change, these can too. So let’s just look at some of these.
Carolyn Osiek is a Greek and New Testament scholar who’s written a review of “The Feminist and the Bible: Hermeneutical Alternatives.” Osiek identifies five different possibilities for Bible interpretation by feminists: “rejectionist, loyalist, revisionist, sublimationist, and liberationist” (97). That is: 1) “rejecting the Bible as not authoritative or useful. . . [or even] the whole religious tradition it represents” (97-98); 2) “the opposite of rejectionist” (99); 3) “the tradition is worth saving” (101); 4) “the search for and glorification of the eternal feminine in biblical symbolism” (102); and 5) “the central message of the Bible is human liberation” (103). But, of course, these are not exhaustive interpretive positions for many reasons. First, none of the five is always exactly mutually exclusive of any of the others. Second, we each one must find our own position with respect to the Bible. My daughter, my son, and me, we all have different ways we’re outsiders. Third, I think our experiences and our subjectivities change. This seems to be what some mean by metanoia [μετανοεῖτε] in Greek, and by metamorphosis [μεταμορφοῦσθε]. (That first word is translated from Aramaic by the disciples of Jesus as his imperative for them: “change your minds, or repent.” The second word is what Paul wrote to the Greek-Latin-Aramaic-and-Hebrew speakers in Rome, as per our 12th chapter of his letter to them: “be transformed by the renewing of your minds”). Notice how different from Mohamed and from Aristotle this is; and the interesting thing about the non-translator men is they put women down, below men. How do you overhear that? So Osiek can say this, in conclusion, to keep interpretations open, to keep us open too:
We have surveyed five alternative responses to the question of feminist biblical hermenuetics. They arise from five different sets of women’s experiences and assumptions about the Bible. I believe that they are truly alternatives, that is, within the limits imposed upon us by our experience and human conditioning, we really are free to choose our own hermenuetical direction. The category of conversion directed by liberationist feminists to perpetrators of androcentric patriarchy applies to feminists as well, especially to those who by race and class are caught in the double web of being both oppressed and oppressor. (104).