Monday, June 1, 2009

All Men Are Created Equal (with no regard to gender and race)

Before we think about the translation of the Declaration of Independence, I wonder if we can't think about its interlation.

I'm thinking about the little clause therein that goes "all men are created equal." What did the original author, Thomas Jefferson, and the original signers intend by "men"?

Well, sure, some of these white men owned black women and african men and had their own wives without the same rights and protections as they, the husbands, enjoyed under the law of the new states and the new federal government, which did not recognize the governments of "the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions" because, well, because they were Savages and merciless. But proof positive that these original American men had an inclusive intention for "men" is that they quickly formed a Constitution constituted by "the People."

Never mind all those unnecessary Sentiments of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (a woman) and Frederick Douglass (a black man) and others in 1848, who declared that all men might read "a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her."

Never mind all those briefs of Dred Scott's lawyers who ignored what the Supreme Court of "all white men" would eventually write so precisely: "The words 'people of the United States' and 'citizens' are synonymous terms, and mean the same thing." and " The language of the Declaration of Independence is equally conclusive." Which means. . . .

Never mind what Abraham Lincoln had to address among bodies, not all white men, at Gettysburg: something "conceived" not yet delivered.

Never mind what Martin Luther King, Jr. scribbled, questioning how extreme all men must be, while jailed by all-white men: "And Thomas Jefferson: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ...' So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be."

Never mind that these words of Jefferson were intended to mirror the Enlighted words of John Locke and of the Bible of King James, men whose concern was not the gender or the race of "all men."

Never mind that some Germans in 1776 mistook that in translation as "alle Menschen." (or that that woman, namely Laurie G. Alberts, backtranslated that as "all people" in 1999.)

(Now, I'm trying to understand our little word problem here. If we allow "all men" to be anything other than "all men" in uni-directional translation, then we'll have to allow "translation" to be something like "interlation" whether in the original source language or in the target language. Sex and skin color are not good things by which to confuse Language or good translation. And language, if we can't fix it, will just be un-fixed.)


Suzanne McCarthy said...

This reminds me of the sermon I heard yesterday where the minister, a young man of excellent intentions, read 1 Tim. 5:8 in the NIV and added apologetically that it was a cultural aspect of the NT times that a man was expected to be the provider. However, he said, one could also now apply this verse to women.

While he came with the expected credentials he demonstrated no awareness that there is no Greek underlying the pronouns "he" and "his" in English. He implied instead that the Greek does contain a word for "he" but that he disagrees with this in theory.

Is there any use at all in mentioning that there is no masculine marker of any kind in the passage? In fact, Erasmus, who can hardly be classified as a feminist, translated 1 Tim. 5:8 with "woman." Here is what Calvin wrote,

8 "And if any person do not provide for his own" Erasmus has translated it, “If any woman do not provide for her own,” making it apply exclusively to females. But I prefer to view it as a general statement; for it is customary with Paul, even when he is treating of some particular subject, to deduce arguments from general principles, and, on the other hand, to draw from particular statements a universal doctrine. And certainly it will have greater weight, if it apply both to men and to women.But now there are some who know Greek well enough, but only as a gloss for their preconceived doctrinally convenient preferred English translation, who believe that this verse teaches that the male is the provider on the basis of a pronoun which does not exist in Greek.

I hardly think one needs a feminist translation. We do need a gender accurate translation, but as long as this kind of translation is labeled feminist out of complete ignorance, no progress will be made.

Its too bad that more of those who read the original languages can't put in a word for gender accuracy. I don't like to see Cleopatra and Elektra labeled as "brothers" in English just because they were called adelphoi in Greek. Women are frequently transgendered by Bible translators.

J. K. Gayle said...

"We do need a gender accurate translation, but as long as this kind of translation is labeled feminist out of complete ignorance, no progress will be made."
Great point, Suzanne!

Julia M. O'Brien, while posting on "The F-word, the P-word, and bell hooks," says something similar in her comment to a reader named Mark:

"...thinking about my approach to the label 'feminist.' My approach has been to take back the word from those who demonize it, to explain what it 'really' means, to make it an OK thing to call yourself and others. Maybe the better route is to work on the concepts and quit fighting over the word. I've experienced that myself in working with some church groups. Simply asking the right questions about the text produces amazing result, as apparently your ['Women as Pawns' college writing] assignment does."

The preacher at my church that Sunday said, "One of the great threats to America is feminism."

Sigh. Labels, essentializing labels, the very thing good feminisms work against.

Another case in point: one of my daughters has noticed that by reader-reviewers, Ann Nyland's "The Source New Testament With Extensive Notes On Greek Word Meaning" gets so many more positive reviews than her "Study New Testament for Lesbians, Gays, Bi, and Transgender: With Extensive Notes on Greek Word Meaning and Context" (essentially the same book with a different title and cover). In an interview about the latter, Nyland says the following in response to the question "Are you expecting controversy?": "A scholarly article I wrote in a peer-reviewed academic journal led to me be being described as 'a shrill feminist author from Australia', rather than a Greek scholar commenting on the blatant mistranslation of a common Greek word by a group of lobbyists."

Seems the label is a hand-grenade lobbed to explode the possibility of scholarship on the gender issues of NT Greek and its translation.

N T Wrong said...

“To wonder at this fact is not a proper philosophical attitude. That is to say, what if that which appears as an inconsistency, as the failure to draw all the consequences from one’s ethical attitude, is, on the contrary, its positive condition of possibility? What if such an exclusion of some form of otherness from the scope of our ethical concerns is consubstantial with the very founding gesture of ethical universality, so that the more universal our explicit ethics is, the more brutal the underlying exclusion is?

What the Christian all-inclusive attitude (recall St Paul’s famous ‘there are no men or women, no Jews and Greeks’) involves is a thorough exclusion of those who do not accept inclusion into the Christian community. In other ‘particularistic’ religions (and even in Islam, in spite of its global expansionism), there is a place for others: they are tolerated, even if they are looked upon with condescension. The Christian motto ‘all men are brothers’, however, also means that those who do not accept brotherhood are not men. In the early years of the Iranian revolution, Khomeini played on the same paradox when he claimed, in an interview for the Western press, that the Iranian revolution was the most humane in all of history: not a single person was killed by the revolutionaries. When the surprised journalist asked about the death penalties publicised in the media, Khomeini calmly replied: ‘Those that we killed were not men, but criminal dogs!’

Christians usually praise themselves for overcoming the Jewish exclusivist notion of the Chosen People and encompassing the entirety of humanity. The catch is that, in their very insistence that they are the Chosen People with a privileged direct link to God, Jews accept the humanity of the other people who celebrate their false gods, while Christian universalism tendentiously excludes non-believers from the very universality of humankind.” (Slavoj Žižek, Violence (2008), pp. 46-47)

Suzanne McCarthy said...

History is also full of examples of British (and other) organizations which prevented the evangelisation of the native races of India and the Americas just so that these people would not have to be treated as "brothers" but could be properly kept in a subordinate economic position as "others."