Tuesday, March 31, 2009

ESV, Luther Bible, and Jewish Women

43 million people hours will be spent nationwide in Israel's cleaning preparations for Passover this year. How does that break down? Of those cleaning hours, 29 million are done by women and 11 million by men. Persons paid to clean do the remaining 3 million hours
--Judy Lash Balint, Jerusalem Diaries

As usual in our own day the Jewish women were allowed to give generously, work untiringly and beg eloquently to build altars and Tabernacles to the Lord, to embroider slippers and make flowing robes for the priesthood, but they could not enter the holy of holies or take any active part. in the services.
--Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Woman's Bible

Moreover, a focus on women uncovers women's distinctive perspectives on public life, which often differed from those of men. . . . For example, the Nazis murdered a disproportionate number of elderly women, suggesting age and gender were a fatal combination. . . . Even if ultimately Jewish women, seen as procreators, were also enemies in the Nazi's "race war," at the beginning Jewish women saw their men arrested. . . and tried to rescue them.
--Marion A. Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair

John's post (comparing the 1984 revision of Martin Luther's translation of the Bible with the 2001 English Standard Version) overlooks the issues of racism and sexism in the translations, which makes their marriage in a bilingual volume now so curious. Suzanne posts an excellent analysis of some of the differences between the Luther revision and the ESV, saying, "In no way is the Luther Bible an equivalent to the ESV in terms of general translation style or gender philosophy." My post here is to offer some illustrations of what Suzanne is saying.

And I am wanting to complicate the race and gender and translation issues a bit more. I'm wanting to show that women matter, that Jewish women matter, in Bible translation.

Luther overlooks the Jews (when translating their bible) - if he did break away some from Aristotle's misogyny. The all-male ESV translation team overlook women - even if they were trying to stay true to the Hebrew (and to the Jews' Greek also in the case of the NT and the LXX).

But women such as Gertrud Käthe Chodziesner (aka Gertrud Kolmar) and Julia Evelina Smith show that both race and gender are inherently important to Bible translation. Jewish women are not unimportant in translation of the bible.

Luther wrote however that "Whoever would speak German must not use Hebrew style. Rather he must see to it—once he understand the Hebrew author—that he concentrates on the sense of the text, asking himself, 'Pray tell, what do the Germans say in such a situation?'" Whether this is one of his infamous antisemitic statements, I don't know. What is apparent to me is that Luther presumes that Hebrew style is nothing that a German man would use. More on that in a moment.

The ESV team wrote that "
In the area of gender language, the goal of the ESV is to render literally what is in the original. For example, 'anyone' replaces 'any man' where there is no word corresponding to 'man' in the original languages, and 'people' rather than 'men' is regularly used where the original languages refer to both men and women. But the words 'man' and 'men' are retained where a male meaning component is part of the original Greek or Hebrew." Now, that sounds pretty good, except when we keep reading their statement it becomes clear that there is a male bias, and a Christian male bias at that. The default English pronoun is "he," and the default referent to mortal humans (vs. God) is "man," and the default original language of the bible (in terms of gendered examples) is Greek of the Christian New Testament (never Hebrew of the original testament), and when there is mention of "an important familial form of address between fellow-Jews and fellow-Christians" then the default is the masculine "fellow" during the default Christian time period, "in the first century." One is left to wonder how "gender language" is worked out when the Hebrew text of the bible explicitly refers to women, and Jewish women at that. How is there consistent "transparency to the original text, allowing the reader to understand the original on its own terms rather than on the terms of our present-day culture"? So there again is the aristotelian presumption Luther makes: there's this binary that one culture's terms and style are necessarily and purely different from the other's.

Before going on to how Kolmar and Smith rise above Luther's and the ESV male-translation binaries, I'd like to give you a bit more of what Marion Kaplan says:
Women's history asks the kinds of questions that are central to an understanding of daily life, revealing crucial private thoughts and emotions. Moreover, a focus on women uncovers women's distinctive perspectives on public life, which often differed from those of men. But such a focus shows more than how gender--the culturally and hierarchically constructed differences between the sexes--made a difference in the way people perceived and reacted to daily events. It also shows how gender made a difference, ultimately, in matters of life and death. . . . To stress women's history, however, is not to exclude men--quite the contrary. To understand how gender operated, men's history is also required; their memoirs and diaries are also essential. In addition, the memoirs and interviews of Jewish women provide an inclusive viewpoint. Men and children, as well as extended family and friendship networks, were central to women's recollections and hence are visible and active at every term. Although the clamity that hit German Jews affected them as Jews first, they also suffered based on gender. (Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany, page 7)
Notice that "German Jews who are women" may just conflate some of the binaries of Luther and of the ESV male-only Christian-only team. And German Jews who are women may just give a perspective important to the histories of those who are not women, who are not Jews, and who are not German Jews. If you are not a German Jew who is a woman, then her history can help with the telling of yours anyway. To parse out gender and race affects the parser outer negatively, no?

So we might want to listen to Kolmar. A (Jew, German, Hebrew-reader, translator) woman. The wikipedia folks call her the "the finest woman writer in the history of the German language." Here's a long quote from one of her letters to a family member perhaps explaining why:
You bought yourself a Bible--and I own four! An old Luther Bible from the year 1854, it was given to Mutti's mother (according to the inscription); then I have the, though incomplete, Bible with pictures and marginal illustrations by Lilien; then the completely new, handy, thin-paper edition (without new testament), which cites Professor Torczyner, a Hebraist at the University of Jerusalem [sic; Hebrew University], as the responsible editor and which presumably also offers the most reliable German text. The translation is by various scholars; for example, the prophet Samuel was translated by Thea's father. Torczyner proofread everything and translated large parts himself and that which has its own rhythm in the original language has been presented by him for the first time as recognizable poetry, as hymn, also from the outside. This is also the reason why laymen and professional critics alike are very divided in their assessment of the new work. Thea's father, for example, was, of course, quite satisfied with his own work but did not approve of Torczyner's rhythmic texts. Mrs. Feld, on the other hand, whose father had originated the idea for a new complete translation, though Torczyner's psalms and prophets beautiful but was not at all enthusiastic about the prose of the other contributors. She much preferred the Luther Bible, and event he later Zunz Bible. I, myself, reach again and again for the Torczyner, especially when I'm reading my Hebrew Bible--for I own this one as well--and need help with translating. I had been reading the Luther Bible all my life, and some people who are in a position to judge such things have claimed that its language has clearly influenced by poetic language. I remember a colleague at Döberitz saying once: "You talk like Martin Luther." Because I said: "This towel is dirty beyond all measure." I'm less well versed in the New Testament, and I have read, if at all, always only the Gospels; Paul and the other epistles rarely, and hardly at all the apostle stories. I would very much like to participate in your course. For even though, as I said, I know and honor the Bible, there is a good deal about its development that I could learn. (My gaze is turned inward: letters 1934-1943, By Gertrud Kolmar, Translated into English by Brigitte Goldstein, pages 87-88)
Notice how facile, how humble, Kolmar is with the Hebrew, with the German translation including her own translating. Notice how she, a Jewess, writes like the German Martin Luther, while understanding poetry and rhythm and style - a German Jewish, Jewish German, Hebrew womanish, like the manliest man of German bible translation, range of styles.

Listen to her poem, "The Woman Poet" (as you're trying to forget, trying not to think about, the horrors in her holocaust poetry):
. . . You do not think
A person lives within the page you thumb.
To you this book is paper, cloth, and ink,
Some binding thread and glue, and thus is dumb,
And cannot touch you. . . .
[But] you hold me now completely in your hands. . . .
So then, to tell my story, here I stand. . . .
You hear me speak. But do you hear me feel?
Do you hear? Hear how dependent this Jewish woman poet is on you, the reader? To catch the "here I stand" resemblances to the Martin Luther you think you've heard before? Who has had to do more work? Who was sentenced to die, who died, because of her race, her gender, her voice?

Now, when turning to Julia Smith, I really want to turn to her own translation of the Hebrew and Greek bible. She does write a philosophy of translation and a bit of commentary on her translation (as do some of the contributors to The Woman's Bible). But given how long this post is already, it's worth just comparing Smith's translating to the Hebrew and to Luther's (1984 updated) and to the ESV men's. Given the time, I'll try to do that in another post another time.


Suzanne McCarthy said...

Luther overlooks the Jews (when translating their bible) - if he did break away some from Aristotle's misogyny. The all-male ESV translation team overlook women

I don't think that Luther broke away from Aristotle's misogyny. However, I don't think that the role of women was anywhere in his mind at all when he was translating. He thought of them as nuns who needed to be freed to become wives - but not his - and that's all. Otherwise not an issue.

The ESV team, however, live in a world where women are ordained and they wish to stop that. They want women to be protected and prevented from doing what they are already doing. They want to rescue women from being preachers so they can be mothers. But they have forgotten that the women they are treating in this way are over 50 and should be treated as older women, as their own mothers, respected that is.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks, Suzanne, for your observations about Luther and the ESV team. Always insightful! I wonder how really separated the categories of race and gender can be when a man uses logic in either ethnocentric or androcentric ways. Lots of "thinking" seems to mask deeply held beliefs betrayed by behavior towards "others" (whether the others are women with respect to sexist men or people of any other race/ culture).