Thursday, October 30, 2008

Puns, Translations, Females, Slaves, Bibles

This is a continuation of two earlier posts on puns, translations, females, slaves, and bibles.


cartoon caption: "Gene, I've never met a female that wasn't a double crosser."

Cartoonist Dan Reynolds provides the art above here--and Suzanne Jill Levine, in that first post, got us thinking about translating puns with her translation of the impossible Italian pun traduttore, traditore [meaning “translator, traitor,”], which she puts in English as "wordplay, an identity in sound, a similarity in difference, [that] forces the translator to transloot, to be a traitor." In that second post, Levine gets us listening to Plato and Socrates; and Anne Carson has us overhearing Aristophanes and Aristotle; and Katharine Kittredge lets us eavesdrop more on these guys and on Jonathan Swift whose pun Gulliver's [gullible] Travels got the reader travelling through his novel wondering whether they are as prone to the jokes.

(Remember the Laputan women, who are "la puta," the whores much less reasonable than their men. And that one woman, the wife, from Swift's Juvenal's tale runs off with the slave. There is so much English, British, and Roman male punning here that we need a graduate course in literature to get at most of it. The pun becomes an inside joke, a test of cultural literacy, a snobbish means of inclusion into the gentleman's club. That's The Gentleman's Club, you know.)

But, in this post, I want to look at how puns function for women and for abolitionists in the bible.

Let's start with quotations from two scholars. In her book, Translation and Gender: Translating in the "era of Feminism", Luise Von Flotow-Evans talks about (1) how wordplay is valuable to women. And in her book, Gender in Translation: Cultural Identity and the Politics of Transmission, Sherry Simon shows (2) some of the ways feminist translators translate wordplay.

Von Flotow-Evans notes:
For 1970s feminist writers such as Mary Daly or France Théoret, women live in exile in patriarchal language; punning expresses their pain, but it is also a way to fight back. Translating puns, on the other hand, has proven to be a form of ‘pun-ishment’ in much feminist work.

Mary Daly’s book Gyn/Ecology (1978) is full of wordplay on aspects of American culture; she invents neologisms such as ‘the-rapist’, ‘bore-ocracy’ and the ‘Totaled woman’ to refer to more or less familiar ideas and then to undermine them with humour, irony, and anger. The implication is that therapists work for patriarchy, keeping women in check by the age-old method of sexual violence or the threat of it; the bureaucracy bores people into passivity and exists to maintain its boring self; the ‘Totaled woman’ is the finished product of fashion-magazine designs but is closer to being ‘totaled’ the way a car is after a crash. These and many other of Daly’s puns work remarkably well in English. In the German translation, however, they are the source of serious problems.

cartoon caption (male therapist to female client): "I'd like you to look at some inkblots. They're on my bedroom ceiling."

For one thing the cultural situations are different. Therapies of various kinds were not as widespread a social phenomenon in 1970s Germany as they were in the USA, and the issue of sexual and emotional abuse of women patients by their [male] psychotherapists had had no exposure at all. This issue has only begun to be addressed in Germany in the 1990s. More problematic, however, is the fact that the linguistic aspects of the puns just don’t work in German. In German ‘therapist’ is Therapeut and ‘rapist’ is Vergewaltiger. The same problem arises with the ‘Totaled woman’. The ‘total’ fashion look might translate as ganzheitlich weiblich or durchgestylt, while a car that is ‘totaled’ has suffered a Totalschaden. Again there is not immediate linguistic relationship that can be exploited. The same goes for Daly’s term ‘womb-tomb’ for ‘spacecraft’. The German translator is hard put to find something as succinct and homophonic. Her translation Metterschoβ-Grabstätte is a literal rendering. (21)
So, on the one hand, puns are punctuation of the discourse of women. On the other hand, translation is punishment--and I'm going to say, it is the "masculinist" translation methods of "dynamic equivalence" (or "literal equivalence") that is the punishment of women and their puns here. (Please let me come back to that notion of "equivalence" as "sexist" in a moment, and do note that the art I've placed within the quotation above is from cartoonist J. C. Duffy).

Simon explains how translator Deborah Jenson has managed to include wordplay in her English translation of Hélène Cixous' French wordplay. Simon notes:
According to Jenson, the reader [of works by Cixous] is responsible for discerning the several meanings which are suggested, but can also let them "lie dormant" (Jenson 1991:195). It is because Cixous' writing should be understood primarily as poetry that its "untranslatability" is to be respected. There can be no equivalence for words which gather connotative force as they advance through the text (ibid.: 195). Jenson herself uses endnotes rather than extensively (though reluctantly, as they "interrupt the musical flow of the test") to underline, in particular, the omnipresent Cixousian stylistic device of homophony. For instance, Jenson, in her translation "Coming to Writing," leaves the word languelait in the English text, but in a footnote explains that "languelait" is a phonetic spelling of anglais (English) which produces a pun combining langue (language) and lait (milk) (footnote 11). A play on demain (tomorrow) and deux mains (two hands) is rendered by [Jenson as] "twomorrow." A play on grammaire and grand-mère with reference to the big bad wolf is given as "gramma-r wolf"; the confusion of mère (mother) and mer (sea) are given as "sea-mother" (ibid.: 8, 22, 23). . . .
The idea of writing as a process of discovery which escapes the control of the author recurs often in the essays of Cixous. "Writing advances in the dark," she says. "One cannot know." "Écrire chemine dans le noir vers ces vérités. On ne sait pas. On va" (Cixous in Rossum-Guyon and Diaz-Docaretz 1990: 34-35). This weakening of the authority of the author creates an uncomfortable situation for the translator, whose position is structurally tied to that of a strong author. (100-01)
Note, however, that although the translator is uncomfortable, is in-pain, she may still create a new original (i.e., translated text) in-a-pun. To be clear, Simon is not suggesting that Jenson's feminist way of translating Cixous is the only (feminist) way to translate. Nonetheless, Simon shows that Jenson shows how wordplay in translation, with "no equivalence for words which gather connotative force as they advance through the [author's original] text" is possible, perhaps is the only possibility.

I want to go back to Levine's assertion: "Language is already always a betrayal, a translation of the object it intends, pretends to re-create. Mythology claims that Satan fell from grace because of his games with God’s sacred words. . . . The all-powerful word has a life of its own. . . . the wordsmith in God, . . . incarnated the Word" (14). I am not trying to suggest that Levine is saying that God is female, but that wordsmithing is feminine, perhaps feminist, and abolitionist.

Here's how Willis Barnstone puts that in his book, The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice (in his own word play with "Thirteen [i.e., unlucky] Quick Looks at Sacred Originals," of which I offer my top ten):
  • All originals are sacred in the eyes of the translator.
  • All translations are profane in the eyes of the world.
  • But at times translators forget, suppress, or conceal the original, thereby making a profane transformation into a sacred original.
  • Much of the Old and most of the New Testament is disguised translation, and so the Bible passes uniformly as a sacred original.
  • Keep track of Ezra Pound's deceits and win an apple. . . .

  • cartoon caption: "Now hold it right there, Eve. I wear the plants in this family."

  • Between the original [Hebrew scriptural] text and its translation is a familial tie of holy father to secular children. . . .
  • Eve has given the world her gift of translation. A translator steals and gives.
  • Eve is the mother of translation. She transformed forbidden fruit into knowledge, secret sperm into children, and the text of her story into us.
  • Eve's word continues when her offspring read her meaning through their eyes.
  • Eve doesn't mind a reader who steals what she has stolen. Fulfilled as mother of the world, she laughs when her children arrogantly make her invisible translation their own immaculate and holy creation. (81-82)
If there is something in divine language that is multidimensional, that is translational, that is punny, then there is something in every mortal's language that is divinely plural, humanly incarnate, born of a mother.

Here's the way J. William Whedbee, in his book, The Bible and the Comic Vision, puts the pun-pain-punishment relationship of men and women in the Bible:
A hallmark of biblical comedy is the surprising roles that women often play over against the male protagonists. Beginning with mother Eve, women especially live by wit and wisdom to fulfill their function as symbolically captured in the pun involving Eve (havah="life") who is the prototypical "mother of all living" (hay). Hence, as already noted, Eve is counterposed as the strong, active one over agains the passive, compliant, comical Adam. The various women of Genesis, Exodus, Esther, Job, and the Song of Songs continue to embody this drive to give birth to new life and then to nourish and protect it. We can draw a comic arc among Eve's daughters that stretches from Sarah who laughs with embarrassed skepticism at the promise of life but who then laughs joyfully over the birth of her son "Laughter," to the mother and sister of Moses who conspire together with Pharoah's daughter in defiance of her father's decree to save Moses from a watery grave, to Esther who plays the clever and courageous heroine who rescues her people from Haman's genocidal plan and helps to institute the festival of Purim, to Job's wife and daughters who play peripheral, albeit striking roles in the story of Job, and finally to the fabled Shulamite who becomes the more dominant speaker and lover in the Song of Songs, a woman who both playfully subverts the domineering presence of the royal lover and powerfully affirms the "love that is strong as death" (8:6) (281-82)
Notice the need for word play, for pun, in naming, from original to translation.

So now, I've run out of time for today. (Later, perhaps, I'll get to the abolitionists, and their need for pun, for translation of wordplay). I have to leave you now with a long quotation. Perhaps it's the keynote of this post. It's Von Flotow-Evans again; this time, she's discussing the problem of masculinist translation of the Bible:
Rewriting Existing Translations: The Bible

. . . . In a brief manuscript text entitled ‘Names and Titles’, Eugene Nida, famed American Bible translator and translation theorist, has commented on [certain] types of linguistic changes. . . as generally impracticable. . . He gives the feminist views relatively short shrift, ignoring the careful argumentation in the introductions to [Joann] Haugerud’s work [The Word for Us] and the Inclusive Language Lectionary. He proposes that the problems are cultural, not linguistic, and . . . he asserts, the Bible needs to be read in the context of the chauvinist male-dominated society in which it originated, and which has been perpetuated by the church. . . .

The point about the chauvinist patriarchal aspects of the society which many of the biblical texts originated is doubtless true. It is, however, also true that over the course of one thousand years of rewriting and translation by the Church, these texts have been subject to ‘patriarchal’ translation. . . . Feminist translators do not seek to change historical fact, [but rather] they want to overcome some of the patriarchal excesses imposed on the Bible through translation.

Nida’s. . . point that an institution can reform itself without linguistic changes contrasts sharply with the approaches of feminist translators who posit a close link between the language used to describe God and patriarchal culture. . . .

[T]he male biased vocabulary used for God is seen to have an important influence on patriarchal social structures that assign authority to human males. The fact that such language also reflects the patriarchal bias of the societies that are the sources of the Biblical texts is acknowledged by these translators. Yet they view the Bible as a book that is used for contemporary religious instruction and worship, a book that must speak to ‘young and old, male and female, and persons of every racial, cultural and national background’ (Inclusive Language Lectionary, Preface). The contemporary context in which ‘mutuality and coequality are important in the Christian church’ (Inclusive Language Lectionary, Appendix) thus justifies these new translations. This can be seen operating in the following excerpt (from the Book of Genesis), which includes a translator’s note:
Then God the Sovereign One said, ‘it is not good that the human being should be alone; I will make a companion corresponding to the creature.’. . . So God the Sovereign One caused a deep sleep to fall upon the human being, and took a rib out of the sleeping human being and closed up the place with flesh; and God the Sovereign One built the rib which God took from the human being into woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh
she shall be called Woman
because she was taken out of Man.’***
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh. And the man and woman were both naked, and were not ashamed.

***This literary pun on ‘man’ (ish) and ‘woman’ (ishshah) intends to show relationship rather than biological origin. The relationship is one of equality: ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.’ (Inclusive Language Lectionary, Lent 1)
This reading of the well-know creation myth amply demonstrates the effect of inclusive language. God is no longer ‘the Father’, and human beings, not ‘men’, are being created. In the first paragraph, ‘God the Sovereign One’ and ‘God’ appear four times; no pronoun ‘He’ is used to avoid repetition. Moreover, the translator’s note places the emphasis on the relationship between the sexes rather than on any essential biological qualities. The re-translation thus deletes the male bias and patriarchal authority and seeks to establish a sense of inclusive mutuality considered more appropriate to the context of the late twentieth century. The fact that this text may be difficult to read says more about religious traditions and reading habits than about appropriateness of the translation. (56-57)

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