Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Translooting the Woman (Pun in Greek)

"Translooting the Bible (Puns)" was the title of one of my posts yesterday. Today, I want to look at the sexist, masculinist methods that constrain pun translation in the Bible.

Before even considering the Bible, which I'll do later this week, let's look at the Greek traditions that intersect with it. The Jewish Bible, of course, was first translated into Greek from Hebrew (as the Septuagint, or LXX). And then the Christian part of the Bible (or the New Testament) was written in Greek with much of the dialogue in the narratives translated from a little Roman-Latin and a lot of Aramaic-Hebrew. So the look over at Greek is helpful when considering the early sexism.

"Puns discover a coincidence, a potential affinity, a homonymy already latent in language," says translator scholar Suzanne Jill Levine. Levine hints at the sexism surrounding puns, and finds Plato's Socrates pushing against them:
They place sound above meaning, and yet point to hidden semantic bonds between words. While puns leap out spontaneously in (and especially between) languages, the suggestion of causality between pun and pain, half-hiding and half-revealing itself, seems, according to Walter Redfern, "like wit to wed the dissimilar.'" Freud made us see that jokes signal something censured, that witty and "ready repartees" are often acts of revenge. Puns hide (hence reveal) pain and, as Shakespeare proved, are seriously laughter-provoking; we wield puns in order to provoke outrages. "Crime and Puns," used by Nabokov in his own translation of his novel Despair (1966), and added to Three Trapped Tigers, is no joke: Puns are punishment. "Pun" has evolved from "pound," meaning "to mistreat words": Have we discovered here the etymology of Ezra's patronym? Socrates pinpointed language's unstable polyvalence in his aporiae, exposing how words like pharmakon (meaning both "remedy" and "poison") undermine [Aristotle's] logic, subverting our complacent dependence on an inert relation between word and idea, language and thought. (Subversive Scribe 13)
Anne Carson is more direct about the sexism in Greek, and about Aristotle's roles:
Aristotle tells us that the highpitched voice of the female is one evidence of her evil disposition, for creatures who are brave or just (like lions, bulls, roosters and the human male) have large deep voices. If you hear a man talking in a gentle or high-pitched voice you know he is a kinaidos (“catamite”). The poet Aristophanes put a comic turn on this cliché in his Ekklesiazousai: as the women of Athens are about to infiltrate the Athenian assembly and take over political process, the feminist leader Praxagora reassures her fellow female activists that they have precisely the right kind of voices for this task. Because, as she says, “You know that among the young men the ones who turn out to be terrific talkers are the ones who get fucked a lot.” This joke depends on a collapsing together of two different aspects of sound production, quality of voice and use of voice. We will find the ancients continually at pains to associate these two aspects under a general rubric of gender. High vocal pitch goes together with talkativeness to characterize a person who is deviant from or deficient in the masculine ideal of self-control. Women, catamites, eunuchs and androgynes fall into this category. Their sounds are bad to hear and make men uncomfortable. Just how uncomfortable may be measured by the lengths to which Aristotle is willing to go in accounting for the gender of sound physiognomically; he ends up ascribing the lower pitch of the male voice to the tension placed on a man’s vocal chords by his testicles functioning as loom weights. (Glass, Irony, and God)
Carson says more about Aristotle's influence with respect to women and translation and their disparagement:
Females blurt out a direct translation [i.e., as with a pun] of what should be formulated indirectly [as by a syllogism of logic] . . . . [S]ince woman does not bound herself, she must be bounded. The celebrated Greek virtue of self-control (sophrosyne) has to be defined differently for men and for women, Aristotle maintains. Masculine sophrosyne is rational self-control and resistance to excess, but for the woman [according to Aristotle] sophrosyne means obedience and consists in submitting herself to the control of others. (Men in the Off Hours 142)
Katharine Kittredge gets to some of the influence of ancient Greek males on Roman and modern men. A forked tongue snake may pun with Eve in the beginning of the Bible; and the origin of puns among the Greeks (and the copycat Romans) seems to involve something similar:
Punning was often compared to the splitting of a bird's tongue, after which it sings twice as much, as the flow of meaningless babble is doubled. In [Jonathan] Swift's prefatory verse to his Ars Punica, he imitates the original two-sexed human described by Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium. Swift describes the mythological birth of a pun as a double-sexed creature whom Jove eventually splits with a thunderbolt in an attempt to silence it. Unsurprisingly, the "Thing" merely "PUNN'D as much again" (56-57), as Jove relates to Pluto:

And ever since, your
Men of Wit,
Until they're
Cut, can't PUN a bit.
So take a
Starling when 'tis Young,
And down the middle
slit the Tongue,
Groat or Sixpence, 'tis no matter,
You'll find the Bird will
doubly chatter.
Upon the whole, dear Pluto you know,
'Tis well I did not split my Juno!
For had I don't when e'er she'd scold me,
She'd make the
Heavens too hot to hold me. (60-65)

Jove seems to have considered "splitting" Juno with one of his thunderbolts when she last scolded him, but he realizes that, like the bird's tongue, her scolding might be doubled. Thus Swift links the double language of a pun with the volubility of a woman. The "splitting" of a woman, arguably visible in her genital structure, doubles her garrulity just as the splitting of a word into a pun doubles the significance.
(Lewd and Notorious 73-74)

What I'll do in another post is try to show the associations by men between women and puns in the Bible. If we have time, we'll try to show how translation, like punning (and especially translation of puns), is important to women and to feminine discourse. Likewise, for groups oppressed by slavery and / or by racism, puns--even in the Bible--are important. Hence, translators who neglect or ignore or refuse to translate puns tend to work in masculinist and oppressive paradigms.

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