Saturday, June 6, 2009

John's Greek Rhetorical Prologue: My Rhetorical English

In light of discussions about the pronoun gender of the Prologue of the gospel of John, I thought I'd translate it. And I've left it "it." But I want us to notice how rhetorical John's word choice is in Greek.

Socrates says the following when talking with his disciple Polus. The passage is from the "Gorgias" by Plato, who coins the word "rhetoric" in the dramatic dialogue. Here's some of what Socrates says, and do note the Greek in this English translation by Benjamin Jowett. It's the rhetorical, case-building Greek of John's Prologue:
O Polus, I am not a public man, and only last year, when my tribe were serving as Prytanes, and it became my duty as their president to take the votes, there was a laugh at me, because I was unable to take them. And as I failed then, you must not ask me to count the suffrages of the company now; but if, as I was saying, you have no better argument than numbers, let me have a turn, and do you make trial of the sort of proof which, as I think, is required; for I shall produce one witness [μάρτυρα, martura, testifier] only of the truth of my words, and he is the person with whom I am arguing [ὁ λόγος, ho logos, i.e., making "the statement"]; his suffrage I know how to take; but with the many I have nothing to do, and do not even address myself to them. May I ask then whether you will answer in turn and have your words put to the proof? For I certainly think that I and you and every man [ἀνθρώπους, anthropous, human] do really believe [ἐπίσταμαι, epistamai, believe], that to do is a greater evil than to suffer injustice: and not to be punished than to be punished.
John uses many of the words of Greek rhetoric, and of Plato's sophistic caricature, in combination with the Jewish notion of The Beginning. He's also following the LXX translators' rhetorical choice of naming the Beginning Book as "Genesis" or "Birthings." (Birthings is a greeky pun on the word for "woman," a word which can also mean "wife.") John's identification of the male parent (i.e., father) is often typically only associated in English translation with "The Father, God." Certainly John disambiguates plenty at later points in his gospel just which Father he and Jesus are talking about; however, John's Greek word for father in the prologue can also apply to any parent who is the male in the birthing process, to any "father." (I'm sure there's a case to be made to translate that Greek word, likewise, as "parent" or even as "a mother and a father" - but in translating today, I'm not stretching the word possibility so far.)

Now, here's my English translation of John's Greek:


J. L. Watts said...

Excellent as always, Dr. Gayle. I have to wonder how this affects Trinitarian doctrine - if we remove the deep theological concepts applied to the Logos over 1800 years and simply let John speak for himself?

J. K. Gayle said...

Mr. Watts, Thank you. I really don't want to read too much into what you're asking! I do want to give a thoughtful response. If I go on too long, at least its not "1800 years."

On thing I didn't comment on but hope is apparent is how my translating attempts to tell John's story. I was thinking very much about what Peter Kirk was saying - that English translators have (too quickly) given away the ending.

This isn't so different from what Robert Alter accuses translators of doing when they use the translation to disambiguate and to clarify unnecessarily - something Alter calls "the heresy of explanation." I am not doing theology. I am translating. If I were doing theology, in this context, it may be historiographic - something like N.T. Wright's letting the gospels suspend the divinity of Jesus clearly until well after the resurrection. - Or something like Reynolds Price letting Mark not give the later added ending to his gospel. (Yes, I know Price was translating too.) I am translating. Not doing theology.

Translating is a way of listening, I think. It's amazing to me that the theological establishments (whether Islamic, Jewish, or Christian) will sanctify experts to let the text (whichever Holy one) speak for itself. It's amazing because this chokes out humility and ambiguity. There's absolute humility in contrast, for example, in someone like Jesus who leaves his words to others to be translated. Not unlike Aspasia's and Socrates' humility, except classicists, rhetoricians, and philosophers today want Plato's or Xenophon's rendering of the words to be untranslated at first (in other words, Plato's transcription or pure quotation.) The ambiguity of Jesus (or even Paul) in many texts and contexts allows the outsider in. In because the outsider is given agency, her or his subjectivities really matter. If "trinity" is constructed, then someone like Jesus and Paul will want to know why. This isn't to take away the voices of Paul or Jesus or Peter or Moses or Isaiah or anyone. It's rather always to ask, Who am I to say what is said? And to declare also Who I am to say what is said!

My translating is rhetorical and feministic, if you will. Unfortunately marked terms! Would that be "just translation." Or "real translation." Or letting the original writer speak. The reader (whoever she or he might be) is important. I'm reading as an outsider, eavesdropping on the text, if you'll allow. The rendering is embodied, it's a caring where what how why when of the body. Sex, class, race all matter, always. How the body is sexed, how its assigned class, and how the flesh is given a marked or unmarked skin and culture are most important. You say, "deep theological concepts" - and the translation asks what makes it deep.

As for "removal," a translation is always a "loss," isn't it? But rhetorical, feminist translating also is wanting to take advantage of the "gap." If John "speaks for himself," no translator ever lets him. The translator may aspire to (A) invisibility and (B) textual transparency and (C) accuracy and other such traditional notions. But when she is not so traditional by these standards, then the translator must not be (A) automatically visible, and (B) her translated text not an opposite opaqueness, and (C) her translation just plain in-accurate. Aristotle's rules of logic need not apply - not if, that is, they require a Nature that insists rhetoric is not logical, translating is not what the untranslated text is, and females are not as normal as males.

J. L. Watts said...

Dr. Gayle -

Well said.

I do not count myself among the legions of Trinitarians, feeling that particular doctrine constructed - which helps to construct biblical understanding. The premise of my question was that once you remove certain translation methods, and let the writer speak more plainly, the scaffolding must be thus reexamined.

I have no doubt that you do not intend to do theology, yet, moving these pronouns into a neuter, or even feminine, translation does theology well, because it forces people - or should - to think of Scripture beyond their own construction. It forces people to study more of God than to simply let someone else tell them what it says.

In letting John to tell his story, that is the best theology.

John Radcliffe said...

Hi JK,

Thanks for another interesting rendering, which justifies rereading before any detailed comment.

So in the interim, I'll address the question of using "it". The problem I see is that "it" does just what "he" does, but in a different way: one is marked as neuter, the other as masculine. The truth is that neither is truly appropriate (the Word wasn't a "he" or an "it"), but the problem is that English doesn't have a suitable "neutral" 3rd person singular pronoun (as Greek, for example, with its grammatical gender effectively does). As I see it, what we need here isn't "it", which would imply that the Word wasn't "personal" (for want of a better term), but a pronoun that shows the subject was indeed "personal", but without have to state the subject's "biological" sex (which of course the Word, like God, doesn't have).

Of course, when we talking about letting the cat out of the bag too early (as I have in the past), we have to admit that John himself does a pretty good job by telling us in verse 1 that "the Word was God". Most people would be reluctant to call God "it" (although some do so with the Spirit), so I'd suggest that any translator who uses "it" is being just as misleading as those who use "he", perhaps more so. John tells us in v14 that the (pre-existent) Word became flesh, and surely only a "personal" being could become a human being.

Another idea, which I've tried in my own rendering, is to replace all the "offending" pronouns with nouns throughout, but it's far from ideal (in my rendering below I gave up doing so from in v10 on), so perhaps on balance, if we are to use only English forms and structures that are currently available, I'd suggest using "he/him/his" in verse 1 to 13, while not ideal, is actually better than using "it/its".

Anyway, for what its worth, I'll let you read my own "free rendering" in the next comment. It’s still far from being considered final (there are a few variants shown: "{Or …}", and many places where I'm still far from happy with my choices), but I hope you enjoy "my take" anyway.

John Radcliffe said...

(Please note that I put in "[…]" things I consider might be implied, although they are certainly not explicitly stated.)

1 When everything began, the Word (who is God's self-expression) was there -- there with God, and there as God. 2 Yes, this "Word" was there with God when everything began.

3 It was through this Word that everything came into existence; indeed, not even one thing that has come into existence did so without the Word's involvement. 4 The Word was the source of all life: life that provides people everywhere with the light they need [to live by]. 5 That Light is still at work, shining out wherever there is darkness, because the [forces of] darkness have never [been able to] put it out {Or: the darkness has never taken it in}.

6 A person appeared who had an assignment from God; his name was John. 7 He came to provide testimony: [that is,] to testify about the Light, so that what he said might give everyone a basis for belief. 8 You see, John was not the Light; he just came to testify about it. 9 The real Light -- the one that gives its light to people everywhere -- was even then coming into the world.

10 This [life-and-light-providing] Word was in the world, the world that had gained its existence through him, and yet it did not recognise him. 11 Yes, he came to what belonged to him, and yet the people he belonged to did not welcome him. 12 But to all those [individuals] who did welcome him, those who accepted him for who and what he is -- to those he gave authority to actually become children of God. 13 Such children do not owe their birth to any natural means, human desire, or husband's decision, but to God himself.

14 Yes, the Word became a human being [just like us]. He pitched his "tent" of flesh, and came to live among us. And so we saw his splendour -- splendour such as that bestowed by a Father on his one-of-a-kind Son -- overflowing with the undeserved favour and truth that God has [in store for us] {Or:: Son -- saw that he was just bursting to show us God's undeserved favour and truth}.

15 John's testimony still rings out. He has cried out [for all to hear]: "This is the one I was talking about: Yes, he arrived after me, but on arrival he was already ahead of me. You see, he "was" first -- he existed before I was even born!

16 Out of his overflowing riches he has favoured us all with one gift heaped upon another. 17 So, while the Law was mediated [to us] through Moses, the undeserved favour and truth [that God freely gives] actually became [ours in and] through [the person of] Jesus Messiah. 18 Of course, no-one has actually seen God at any time. However, that "one-of-a-kind God" -- the one who is in the Father's intimate presence -- he has explained what God is really like [in a way we can all understand] {Or: has let us see what God is really like}.

J. K. Gayle said...

Hi John, Wow - thank you for reading and even more for translating! I love it!!

I'm following very carefully everything you're doing, every move you're making. I couldn't agree more with you on the values of and value in "replac[ing] all the 'offending' pronouns with nouns throughout." And in your rendering, I get exactly how you're making that happen through verse 10. Yes, I see how John's telling "us" right in the first verse that "the Word (who is God's self-expression) was there . . . there as God" - is "telling us in verse 1 that the Word was God'." The cat is out already before any pronoun tries to conceal "it" again. I do, indeed, appreciate you're stopping with verse 18 - quite a re-telling as if a re-concealing. A compelling of "us" - whoever we might be - to keep reading, to continue looking.

I've always thought it funny how John, the author, tries to hide. First introducing "John," the witness, who also must "decrease" so that this Joshua can "increase." "The disciple whom Joshua loved" - as if his name doesn't matter. "What is that to thee [about this one]," he has Jesus saying in the end to Peter who wants to know the eternal plans for the author; "follow thou me." The writer always using somebody else's megaphone, someone else's voice. He may be using pronouns to mimic the rhetorical style of others who so use them - use them to stay as hidden as possible. (..."he was just bursting to show us" - indeed).


I've refrained from saying anything, until now, about Aristotle's very precise prescriptions for pronoun use. He's not talking to "us" or writing to (or making his lecture notes for) anyone other than his elite male students. What's clear from what he notes is that he wouldn't like what either you or John the gospel writer are doing with pronouns. You, of course, are bar-bar-ous, translating from Hellene to En-g-Gl-ish, whatever rules of pronouns you're choosing. The other John, though much translating toGreek from Hebrew Aramaic commits Solecisms.

Aristotle's ch 14 of Sophistical Refutations begins, "Solecism we explained before to be barbarism in language." He then cites Protagoras and give numerous technical examples. The English translator of this work, Edward Poste, comments that, for Aristotle, "the paralogism of solecism depends on the ambiguity of the neuter pronoun, which has the same form for the nominative and the accusative." Moreover, more generally, an English translator of Aristotle's Rhetoric, George Kennedy, gets technical himself: a "solecism," he declares precisely, is a "mistake in usage or syntax; in later grammatical and rhetorical theory [the solecism is] contrasted to a 'barbarism' or mistake in the form of a word." I'm as much amused at Aristotle as I am at such commentators. But the would-be air-tight prescriptions for good Greek grammar rely on a foundation of xenophobia, I'm afraid.

What Poste and Kennedy do not say is that "barbarism" and "solecism" are Aristotle’s terms to denigrate whole groups of people. Barbarians were non-Greeks mocked by the Athenians for sounding foreign and funny, as if in their mother tongues they were saying “bar bar bar bar bar.” And the “Soloi” [Σολοι] were the people living in Soli, a Greek colonial city, on Cyprus. To the Athenians their speech sounded strange, not because of the bar-bar-ous sounds they made but because of their peculiar, non-standard Greek grammar.

John's Greek and your translation of it, then, celebrates the openness of language, I think, to whomever has ears to hear. Thank you.

John Radcliffe said...

Hi JK, I'm glad you enjoyed it. (It wasn't composed in response to your post, I'm afraid; it was on the boil around Christmas and has been gently simmering ever since. I've been taking the lid off every now and then to check on it, so I just stirred it up and served it while still warm.)

Of course, while you may well see what I'm doing (or trying to), frequently what you're up to is far from clear to me! For me translating is a bit like putting an adult meal in front of an infant. I push the words around a bit with a fork, mash a few phrases with a spoon, and play with the sentences. What I end up with may be a complete dog's dinner, but sometimes I find it quite edible, even satisfying. Occasionally someone else might like it too (but it's probably not going to be someone who considers themselves "all grown up", and who just don't see how "creative" I've been, playing with my Greek letters).

So no, I doubt Aristotle would approve. But I hope my namesake would.

J. K. Gayle said...

"translating is a bit like putting an adult meal in front of an infant."

Yes, it's a lot like that for me too, John! Ever read C.S. Lewis's essay "The Weight of Glory" where he compares study of Greek for beginning students with eating vegetables for a child? Or did St. Paul make that comparison? When will I ever grow up or at least get my teeth? For what it's worth, from me, I still love your translation.