Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Difference in Translations and Translators

Charles P Dog (aka Paul Larson) is asking more questions at BBB. Here are some:
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).


Unknown said...

JK, first of all, I am not an academic, and your credentials overwhelm me. I am a retired old f**t, and a male who has been on a driving spiritual search for the last 20 years. I am born again but not in the tradition sense but I have to let that lie (lay?). As I have said in the past my favorite line from a prayer is "Relieve me of the bondage of self." Also, thanks for not commenting in Greek or Hebrew as I do not know those languages. I do not say this in any self effacing manner, for I am not that man.

Your insightful analysis and the comments of Phyllis Bird point to a problem that I have with gender neutral language, in that it can obscure the original message. I understand how women may need an affirming source of Biblical knowledge, especially novices to Bible study or to the concept of the love/grace centric message of Jesus. One needs to understand that the "Christian" God is one of love and servanthood to his creation in its entirety. But one also needs to understand what the Bible actually says as well as we can glean it. The Old Testament and pentateuch in particular was written by men (and yes I believe not by God), of middle eastern culture a long time ago. I believe it is overly simplistic to think that one could read anything but a male centered religious orientation, especially in the priestly class and one must take that into consideration in reading these 5 books. I would say this approach is necessary to any meaningful discussion of the role of men and women in the Bible as a good basis for discussing who we are and ultimately how we relate to each other.

That being said I believe in some larger validity to the creation story and Genesis in particular, and yes "feel" the presence of God in there somewhere quite strongly. I think Genesis gives us some sort of answer to who am I and how did I get here (62 years old in a suburb of Minneapolis without a church). BUT I don't believe it literally. I think it is an actual reaction to some sort of spiritual contact between man and God without any other way of understanding it and putting it into words. The best we had as mere mortals but as the Created/the issue, of a true God

If we use gender neutral language here we may and probably will miss the point that yes, we are God's creation, but our true knowledge of him is very limited and left up to ourselves we create God in our own image, because we know of no other way to behave, because we are flawed. Men wrote it an thus it is going to be male oriented.

So what? Well, this vision does not jibe with the overall impression left with us after studying the New Testament; that what we have ended up with with a religion that has been reinterpreted from Jesus to include agendas that are exactly counter what I believe God had/has in mind for us. Jesus left us with two "commandments"/affirmations one of which is love one another as I have loved you: as you have loved yourself (the parallel transcendence blows me away) i.e., unconditionally and without agenda Flesh of my Flesh Bone of My Bone.

"But we will see them through men's eyes, and we will not hear their voices except as transmitted and interpreted by men. How would a woman answer the psalmist's question-or formulate it? How would she describe the relationship of humans to the rest of creation or conceive of the first sin? To ask such questions is to recognize the limits of the Bible as a source for contemporary theological anthropology. Yet it remains indispensable, and is, in my view, the richest resource for Christian theological reflection."

Yes, it is necessary to understand this fact, but to carry the message the this is not necessarily what God had in mind, since the source of the message was was man, both sexual and not sexual/being, but self oriented. God's messages are only partially understood through a glass darkly. Espcially when we perceive that message intellectually filtered through self. In our hearts, we "feel" God's presence, we "know" his love. He does not "know" us as male or female but as us/self/him.

That's what I think. Let us use the Bible to support that message, and to carry that message.

"We cannot know the meaning of our common humanity without taking seriously our individual particularity, and hence diversity. We grasp our common nature through multiple acts of self-transcendence in which we confront one another as other-but in that confrontation recognize the other as "bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh." I believe she comes to that conclusion because she can read the sexist language but "feels" as I do.No one can speak for another, and male cannot speak for female. But individuals and groups can and must speak about the nature of their fundamental humanity in ways that attempt to include all members of the species. It is not enough to record only my own experience or that of my class or people. All efforts to speak about the human require an attempt to speak globally, to reach beyond individual experience, to incorporate the other into the definition that begins with self."

I would caution though, that I think it a dangerous path to "celebrate" our diversity, or if our group "speaks" as males or "females" "advocating" the "the other" should and must agree with; for there resides self. Transcendence only comes through self forgetting.

It is highly interesting to me that the "tension" that was sensed between the NSRV and accuracy, which I couldn't adequately explain lead me to Phyliss Bird. Where much of what I feel is written. I truly know I wouldn't have read her of my own volition. There are NO coincidences.

Paul aka know as Charles P Dog ( a real Cavalier King Charles Spaniel)

ps fwiw my 18 year old daughter gets in arguments with her friends at a Missouri Synod Lutheran schools about whether Charlie will go to heaven with her. I say of course he will, it DOESN'T say he won't in the Bible......

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately I was too distracted by Bird writing from a JEPD framework to find whatever you were referring to.

But there's another interesting question, would believing in the JEPD theory produce a different translation?

Unknown said...

Well, then don't be distracted by it,........ one can easily suffer from analysis paralysis...... it is not only a very insightful essay, but also comforting. "Come fort ye my pe o ple", that's my goal comfort/peace/serenity. Don't let the theological analysis or the feminist rhetoric ruin her message for you. I don't believe she is writing a rant by trying to provide solace.

I usually end up getting myself in trouble with this stuff, but think about it..........what viewpoint do you think the priestly writer/s would be coming from.........maybe to make like better or easier or more financially rewarding, and power endowing for the priests?

Then ask yourself does this look like what the priestly writers wrote. Do you think God really came up with the 10% tithe, plus whatever they could get by changing the public currency into priestly coin, the only coins they accepted, hhmmm? How bout the people that would receive it. The old follow the money theory.

Have you noted that Jesus did not rebel against or discredit the Romans (todays justification for political advocacy not there), check it out he NEVER DID, but against the priests and the whole Temple system, the church they had created in their image.

The Bible we have IS the Bible of the JEPD tradition, including R the redactor or editor who combined what was written.......thats why two creation stories......two or maybe even three flood narratives, all runing on sequentially (creation) or concurrently (Noah). Does this mean that the Bible was only written by men? No, but I think the spirit of God may have be distorted at times by the agendas of the men who may or may not have intended to do so. God's message is still in there, you just have to look hard.

I like the spot where God says to, Nathan?....why are you building me a temple, do you really think I live in a box? of course then they go on to build the temple anyway.......look it up.....its what the Bible says.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks for stopping by; you've obviously been doing a lot of thinking.

I'm happy you visited the blog. You're also reflecting very thoughtfully.

I've just got a moment to respond. But I'll be musing a long time about your respective questions!

How would a woman answer the psalmist's question-or formulate it?

There's an academic named Krista Ratcliffe who does a good job, I think, of talking to (us) lay people. She says we can and should listen, not just FOR the intent of the author (i.e., the psalmist); but we can and should also always listen WITH intent. This is, it seems, what C.S. Lewis does as a novice when he begins reflecting on the Psalms. His first lines of his book Reflections on the Psalms get right to that. In other words, he reads humbly, as a non expert, and as an outsider, but as an outsider with his own intent. With intent, with his own intentions, he listens in.

"But there's another interesting question, would believing in the JEPD theory produce a different translation?"

Dannii, It's a great question, a rhetorical question, which you know the answer to. My Hebrew prof, Bob Bergen, used to have us look for the unity in the entire discourse of the Torah Shebichtav. I do think seeing such unity is a personal thing, more than one of pure logic. I'm not saying the linguistic or textual cues aren't there; but it takes the human observer to see them there, and there's a bit of the insider perspective that really helps. So a Jewish scholar, who is rejects the Documentary Hypothesis, will translate much differently than someone like Julius Wellhausen. But really, what do you think?

scott gray said...


i was floored by the phyllis bird understanding that 'translating is “to overhear an ancient conversation, rather than to hear [one]self addressed directly." i sing in small acapella ensembles, and in many ways, when we sing for others, we are allowing them to peek in the window as the five of us 'converse' in 16th century counterpoint. in many ways, we aren't talking directly to them, but rather intimately to each other. this perspective makes me both more tolerant of the scripture texts, and translations, and yet less tolerant as well.

i often think of these scripture texts as photographic snapshots, as single moments of a faith community's theology ('faith seeking understanding'). we some how insist that the texts we have are the only snapshot of a particular faith community, yet i'm sure that five years after the reification of the text, new snap shots by each community would appear as well. we want the snapshots we have to be so real, we forget they are snapshots. and we don't really know what all those objects in the background are, what they meant to the community, and who each of the faces in snapshot are.

in 1st c. ce, if the demographics are like ours, most of the faces in the snapshots are women-- and unless you were brought up in a matriarchal community, or unless the 'keeper of the snapshots' is a woman, we forget who those women in the snapshot are, and focus on the men.



J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks for coming by and commenting. (Somehow I just noticed this today; so sorry for the late reply). I love that you share your own position quite literally here as you show us your vantages and your audiences' vantages as you sing. I like your snapshot thoughts too!

For me, the three who've theorized insiderness and outsiderness the best are Kenneth Pike, Jacqueline Jones Royster, and Krista Ratcliff.

Pike coins emic and etic to theorize insiderness and outsidernesss. But he also learns language as an "outsider" while talking with an "insider" a native speaker of a language he's never heard or read before--he calls it the "monolingual demonstration." It demonstrates not only language learning in a very short time, but also very very personal interactions with a person, an other, who is the expert insider though Pike an expert linguist humbly takes/ acknowledges his lowly inexpert outsider role.

Royster says everyone does well to acknowledge when they're on the outside so as not to speak for the insider. She also says she's multiply inside and outside. As an African American and as a woman and as a scholar and as someone researching in the 20th-21st centuries, Royster studies literate African American women who have studied and spoken long before. She's the same but different.

Then Ratcliffe. She's theorized listening as rhetoric, a rhetoric Aristotle ignored. She's done much much with overhearing and with reading other peoples mail, both of which she calls eavesdropping in a positive sense. She emphasizes listening WITH intent over listening TO the intention of the other as if the speaker is the only one who matters.

peace indeed--