Monday, September 14, 2009

of sheep and men: overlooking wordplay in translation

There's an interesting discussion on translation with respect to gender inclusiveness and the Bible.  First, the background on the problem.  Then a look at a couple of translator's brilliant wordplay in the text in question.



In his post "On Translation and Explanation," Joel M. Hoffman takes the TNIV and the Message bible translations to task for "explanation" but "not a translation."  Then Peter Kirk defends the TNIV and takes Joel to task for his explanation about the "original text."

The point of issue is whether Matthew the gospel writer means "a man" (which Joel says is the real "translation") or "a human being" or "people" (which Joel says is the seeming "explanation" of the TNIV and the Message respectively).

Peter suggests that Joel is seeing the original as meaning "only male human beings, not female ones"; Gary Zimmerli had also suggested the gender question in his comment here, saying "I think the [TNIV] translators don’t want to leave the door open to the idea that a woman may be less valuable."

The discussion is around Matthew 12, especially verses 10-12, especially in TNIV.



Below, you'll see how two brilliant translators work here.  The issues of whether the speakers, writers, translators, listeners, and readers get it should be clear.  What there is to get is how gods and humans are in contrast; and how humans and sheep are in contrast.  The larger context of the wordplay is something that both Joel and Peter have overlooked.  Matthew is emphasizing and is having Jesus emphasize who he is, as a human.

First, Ann Nyland translates [my italics added]:
10 There was a person who had a withered hand!...
11 This was Jesus' response.  
"Let's say one of you [persons] had a sheep.... "
12 "Isn't a person worth more than a sheep?...  "
13 Then he said to the person,...
In a footnote, Nyland also says [her italics below]:
...ἄνθρωπος, anthropos, is the word for human, humanity, person.  Grammatically, it is the common gender and not the masculine.
Both Nyland's translation and her explanation are just fine, don't you think?  [Note: she elides the word in v 11, as my bracket above notes].  Her translation doesn't have to explain, and Matthew's Greek doesn't either.

Second, then, I'm bringing up Matthew here because, very likely, he's also translating.  His Greek plays with words.

The fact is that we do not know what Jesus said in Hebrew Aramaic.  Matthew translates that to Greek.  Our best guess is that Jesus was referring to himself as בר אנש (bar 'anash).  So Matthew, in 12.8, makes that ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου (which gets readers thinking perhaps of the aramaic of Daniel 7.13 or of its Greek translation in the Septuagint or both). 

Matthew wastes little ink before getting right into wordplay as he introduces a story about Jesus and as he translates a story-parable Jesus tells within the story.  You don't even have to read Greek to see the repetition of the word ἄνθρωπος, anthropos:
8 Κύριος γάρ ἐστιν τοῦ σαββάτου ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου. 
9 Καὶ μεταβὰς ἐκεῖθεν ἦλθεν εἰς τὴν συναγωγὴν αὐτῶν. 
10 Καὶ ἰδού, ἄνθρωπος ἦν τὴν χεῖρα ἔχων ξηράν· καὶ ἐπηρώτησαν αὐτόν, λέγοντες, 
Εἰ ἔξεστιν τοῖς σάββασιν θεραπεύειν;
 ἵνα κατηγορήσωσιν αὐτοῦ.
11Ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, 
Τίς ἔσται ἐξ ὑμῶν ἄνθρωπος, ὃς ἕξει πρόβατον ἕν, καὶ ἐὰν ἐμπέσῃ τοῦτο τοῖς σάββασιν εἰς βόθυνον, οὐχὶ κρατήσει αὐτὸ καὶ ἐγερεῖ;
12 Πόσῳ οὖν διαφέρει ἄνθρωπος προβάτου. Ὥστε ἔξεστιν τοῖς σάββασιν καλῶς ποιεῖν.
13 Τότε λέγει τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ, 
Ἔκτεινον τὴν χεῖρά σου. Καὶ ἐξέτεινεν, καὶ ἀποκατεστάθη ὑγιὴς ὡς ἡ ἄλλη.
At this point, we're curious to see how Nyland translated verse 8, aren't we?  Well, it's masterful!  She is translating Matthew translating Jesus, as follows:
8 "... The Human Being is the Master of the Sabbath!" 
Nyland also offers a wonderful explanations in a footnote.  Here they are:
ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, ho huios tou anthropou, meaning a person associated with humanity, a translation of bar nasha, an Aramaic periphrasis for "person," would be read word for word as "one associated with humanity" (as non-gender specific language and "humanity" in the singular.  However, bar nasha means one associated with people", "a person", "the person", "humanity", "the representative person".
υἱὸς, huios, with a noun refers to a member of a class of people, and should not be translated as "son/child of".  The Benai Israel, translated in the KJV as "children/sons of Israel" should be translated as "members of the class of people called Israel" = "Israelites".  The expression is also Greek, and found as early as Homer.  Note also that ἄνθρωπος, anthropos, is the word for human, humanity, person.  Grammatically, it is the common gender and not the masculine.
 What are your thoughts about how Matthew translates Jesus and how Ann Nyland translates Matthew?


Bob MacDonald said...

My thoughts are that you and Joel are going where I had hoped to go on my own - now I have company and can just tag along for now.

What's new here to me is the class distinction between humans and sheep. It occurs to me that it is not obvious that a human is worth more than a sheep. I hope I would care for both - though one might serve a different end than another.

Also new is the idea that bar 'anash is not singular. I like where this might lead.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks very much, Bob! I'd like to hear more of your thoughts now about the difference a plural bar 'anash makes.

And, as for the distinctions between a sheep and a human in value with respect to a god, here's an example. It's from Aristophanes's “Birds”, where Pisthetaerus (line 1625) says this:

Ὅταν διαριθμῶν ἀργυρίδιον τύχῃ ἅνθρωπος οὗτος, ἢ καθῆται λούμενος, καταπτόμενος ἰκτῖνος ἁρπάσας λάθρᾳ προβάτοιν δυοῖν τιμὴν ἀνοίσει τῷ θεῷ.

"While this human being [ἅνθρωπος anthropos] is counting his money or is in the bath, a kite will relieve him, before he knows it, either in coin or in clothes, of the value of a couple of sheep [προβάτοιν probatoin], and carry it to the god [θεῷ theo]."

Bob MacDonald said...

Rereading the post, I see that by 'singular' I meant 'particular' rather than 'not plural' as if the phrase 'son of man' was a circumlocution for Jesus himself. I see that it could be a phrase meaning 'anyone' representing the human. It is more obvious in 'the Lord of the Sabbath' phrase where I have taken it to signify that rules and regulations are not the point. Jesus is encouraging responsible use and understanding of the law.

J. K. Gayle said...

Your clarification makes a lot of sense, Bob. Appreciate your taking the time.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for weighing in on this.

After a day celebrating my birthday amid the beauty of nature, I've posted some more thoughts about methodology and specifically about anthropos.

Regarding Ann Nyland's translation, I think leaving out anthropos in v. 11 is a deal-breaker, because part of what I see is this:

1. A story about an anthropos.

2. A response to anthropos.

This drives home the point that the anthropos represents everyone.

Also, I think "person" is a poor compromise, not just because of its inherent neutrality (again, see my post), but because in fluid English we don't use "person" that way. We use "someone." Compare (1) "There was someone with a withered hand" with (2) "There was a person with a withered hand." Maybe it's dialectal, but the second one sounds strained to me.

On the other hand, the problem with "someone" is that we'll need "his hand" or "her hand" later. (This is exactly why the T-NIV decided to use colloquial grammar such as "someone ... their hand.")

On the third hand, if we are to cite v. 12 more generally and out of context, it demands "person" or "human."

John Radcliffe said...

Sometimes I think that the "linguists" among us (does that include you, JK?) like to overcomplicate things (as I kind of suggest elsewhere in the current debate). Perhaps at times we all need to step back and see the bigger picture.

But if so many people object to anthropos not being translated "man", or insist that the word "has a male meaning component" (and I met both ideas long before the current round of discussions), then just what would they do with an English translation that attempts (what I would consider) a gender-accurate update for "Son of Man", perhaps, "Child of Humanity"? I think the lynching parties would be out.

But the thing is: I DON'T SEE WHY. What is lost is that rendering? Certainly much is gained. Why are some people so zealous in defending Jesus' masculinity at the expense, it seems to me, of his humanity? I just don't get it. Or are they (still) convinced that all "real men" are "true blue" without a trace of "pink"? So just what do they make of a Messiah who wept openly following the death of a close friend, or when confronted by people's refusal to accept what God was offering them through him?

So when it comes to defining men and women in "blue" or "pink" terms, my response is that if God goes to the trouble of making every snowflake different then I'm sure he doesn't want us to be all the same.

J. K. Gayle said...

>Happy birthday, Joel! Glad you were able to get away to enjoy nature's beauty! Thanks for returning to post again at your blog and to comment here. You make a great point that Nyland's "leaving out anthropos in v. 11 is a deal-breaker." My guess is that the direct address using "you humans" or "you persons" didn't sound natural enough in English to her. Yes, you're absolutely right about your critique of her translation, "because in fluid English we don't use 'person' that way."

Matthew certainly gets away with the repetition, however, by running anthropos right through v.11. "Matthew is mainly poetry," observes Willis Barnstone. And he hears "Yeshua’s voice." I think the challenge for the translator is to create or at least to echo the poetry of "Job and the Song of Songs" of "the Sermon on the Mount, [of] a string of poems that includes the psalm of the Lord’s Prayer."

Joel, I appreciate your newer post that you've linked to here. And thank you for linking back to this post of mine from there. You did inspire me to write another post, here.

>John, You always make such interesting points. Yes, I think there is political correctness involved in the translating. I confess (as a linguist even), my tendency is to "overcomplicate things" - mind you, that's not my first intention! My first tendency as a translator is to open things up, not to shut things down to a single narrow and rigidly certain meaning. That intention, if successful, does nonetheless complicate.

MANY THANKS for your comments about "Jesus' masculinity at the expense, it seems to me, of his humanity"! And about God, his snowflakes, and us each one and us all!

Gary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gary said...

This may just be the ignorance of youth: as translators doesn't our primary concern lie with translating Greek idiom into intelligible English idiom? The pursuit of gender-neutrality in English translation is going to be quite a feat that will further complicate an already arduous task.

My main concern with feminism -- as opposed to the advocacy of women -- is that the concerns outlined by feminists (again, youthful ignorance here!) are the concerns of well-read women in the first world.

Could we, perhaps, look to countries where women suffer brutality regularly in broad daylight? Hey, if we "translators" look there, we'd also find that there are entire language groups that do not even have the Bible translated into their language at all.

I find the topic of feminist translation, and feminist criticism in general, to be a confusion of priority both in translation and in what issues most crucially need addressing in the humane treatment of women.

Put simply, I find this to be intellectual energy better spent addressing more concrete issues.

J. K. Gayle said...

Divine_Contemplation, Welcome and thanks for your very good questions!

as translators doesn't our primary concern lie with translating Greek idiom into intelligible English idiom? The pursuit of gender-neutrality in English translation is going to be quite a feat that will further complicate an already arduous task.

yes, exactly. And yet our question is whether our English translations tend to be more male dominant than the Greek we're translating. Does Luke translating into and by writing in Greek, for example, by his Greek word Anthropos include Mary the mother of Jesus? It seems clear that he does. And still most contemporary English Bible translators have rendered that Greek word "Man," which is a strange way to refer to the woman Mary.

You also say and ask: My main concern with feminism -- as opposed to the advocacy of women -- is that the concerns outlined by feminists (again, youthful ignorance here!) are the concerns of well-read women in the first world.

Could we, perhaps, look to countries where women suffer brutality regularly in broad daylight?

Many of us share your concern and question! Postmodernists, for instance, get rightly suspicious when a small society (to the exclusion of others) pushes for its own agenda. But feminists like Phyllis Chesler talk about The Death of Feminism: What's Next in the Struggle for Women's Freedom, also the title of one of Chesler's books -- wondering where the support of women outside the West will come from if feminists here in the West stay silent about them. And minority-race feminists (not the dominant group of white more-privileged men and women feminists) in the US use words such as latina and womanist to distinguish their issues and perspectives from the dominant ones. Since the advent of feminism in the US in the nineteenth century there has been the tension between the rights of women (i.e., white women) and the rights of other ignored groups (i.e., native Americans and African Americans). We do well to listen to people like Ruth Behar, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, and Lydia H. Liu living in the West but also to many many more women living in the terrible woman-denigrated contexts outside the West. (Liu looks at how Chinese translate Western modern texts by a womanly and Eastern conception of language and of translation, interestingly enough). Yesterday, I posted on the perspectives of Fulata Mbano Moyo with respect to reading the book of Ruth. Mbano Moyo is from Malawi.

The discussion there in comments so far is about how to take her perspectives, and whether hers is a woman-only or mainly a female concern. (It's not.)

For me, the issues of translation come back to the questions of the dominance of and within a text. Sometimes language, and a piece of writing - a passage of scripture, for example - can be used to promote a default perspective (usually a male perspective to the exclusion of a female perspective). This "norm" is hardly normal for the majority of the people in the world. I'm assuming half of us are men and half women, more or less. And the kind of "metanoia" or change of thinking that Jesus in the gospels both called for and worked for seems to be a gendered change in many respects. His thinking and teachings about divorce, for instance, seem to rework the "norm" or the understanding of the Torah Law of the men (not the experience of the women) of the first century. It doesn't seem enough for Jesus just to address the concerns of women and to let them speak (i.e., as his first witnesses to men and women -- and in some instances, Jesus, like you, listens to "foreign" women not part of the main-stream dominant groups or culture around him); and yet, the need to address the (male-slanted) readings and teachings and language of the day were also his concern.

I'm afraid I've gone on too much here. But you're questions really are excellent! Would you please let me know if I've misunderstood what you were saying? And would you feel free to say other things as well?

Gary said...

Thank you for your patient and thorough response! Please, call me Gary.

I will admit I have little personal interaction with feminism. Only recently, in fact, was I made aware of the Women's Crusade in the New York Times. Since reading that article, and talking with a dear sister in Christ about trying to better the world and economy through sending funds specifically to women in third-world countries, I've started really thinking about issues of being genuinely active in advancing society.

When the NYT article mentioned that if the female of the population could be active in the economy, that would perhaps pull the country (world, even?) out of this downward spiral. When I read that, it was an epiphany: "how did I NOT notice that before?! Of course! Part of the rationale for giving to women is that femmes tend to be more focused with how money is used and not spend 20% or so on alcohol/tobacco.

I can't deny the truth of that claim, really. But then I ask myself: who am I? What is my identity as a person? As a young man in Christ? How can I be better than the statistic?

So, this sort of set me on a journey of self-discovery, as well as reshaping my view of the world in general. Mind you, I've involved myself in Wishing Well, a non-profit organization that seeks to bring clean water around the world, so I was never truly inactive in world affairs.

I'm sorry - I tend to ramble sometimes! In any case, I've been studying (Koine) Greek for 5 years now, and I actually just learned Luke about a month ago. Is there a particular reference in Luke that you're referring to with anthropos? Learning Luke for the first time doesn't leave room for noticing such nuances unless you're looking for them, haha.

So, if I understand you properly, your concern is with ensuring that scripture (and writing in general) is made to address and apply to all sections of society, inasmuch as that goal can be realized. I believe this mutual concern, as well as a fondness for Koine, makes for good "common" ground between us.

I look forward to more dialogue!

J. K. Gayle said...

Gary, Thank you for sharing much of your background! Some of my friends and I heard Donald Miller and Susan Isaacs speak in Fort Worth Sunday evening, and the former mentioned a clean-water well digging project in Africa -- could it be yours, the Wishing Well?

On feminism and Christianity, and women's rights, it seems many us of forget that these were all together in the USA during the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Christians were the first feminists and fought for women to have a voice and to vote and to own property and the like.

Glad you like Greek! I did a post on Luke's use of anthropos some time back. Glad you're reading Luke, and please say more.