Sunday, October 25, 2009

Aristotle and translation

To know Aristotle well, one takes the time to read his works (and even those works attributed to him) in Greek, his Greek. It's quite a body of work.

Most people who read Aristotle's body of written work read it mainly or only in translation. This is ironic and, for a number of reasons, problematic. It's ironic because Aristotle never intended for what he wrote to be translated from his elite Greek written for himself and for his educated-class, pure-Greek, male-only students into any bar-bar-ic mother tongue. If there was any translation to be done, it was to be a rendering of the lesser writings of foreigners into Hellene (as was done in Alexandria, the name-sake city of Aristotle's student Alexander the Great, as commissioned by a lackey king who called on Jews there to translate their holy scriptures from bar-bar-ian Hebrew into Greek for the elite students of Greek city states who would govern the empire).

There's more irony and then the problems also because the first translations of Aristotle's work were constructed most logically by the principles of Aristotle's logic. The first translations were from Aristotle's Greek into Arabic and into Latin by post-Greek world conquerors of a different sort, who were nonetheless similar to Aristotle and Alexander in their intentions to establish a global lingua franca. They were also similar in their allegiance to logic.  Aristotle's separational logic was the perfect method for their intentions of dominance. Logic divides and conquers, categorizes into us versus them, with "us" ultimately above "them." And translation can do this, logical translation, even translation from Aristotle's logical Greek into one's ultimately more-dominant language.

There's no surprise that people of Arab families, who found Aristotle's texts, used such appropriations of Aristotle's logic not only for their translation but also for advanced developments in astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, and even religion. That some contemporary Mohammedians despise translation - and even murder the translators - of the Koran today is no surprise, given the legacy of appropriated separational logic. There's no surprise that the Romans, setting up their empire in various hierarchical ranks, were strict about who could speak in public (women could not) and how the men were to speak and write (in imperial Latin). There's little surprise that the British, establishing the global Great Britain, would explicitly refer to the Greek imperial project as proposed by Aristotle and Alexander. For example, the first extant English translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric is addressed in its “Preface” to the Monarch of England by the translator “H. C.” who, in 1685, suggests that Aristotle’s logical intentions with the treatise are global domination and that the intentions of his British King, James II and VII, might be as well:
The Emulation of the Englifh Verfion to approach as near as might be to the Greek Original, and to follow the Authors Example, embolden’d this Addrefs to your Honour. For they were not the Pedantic Rudiments of Rhetoric, which Ariftotle offer’d to one that had been his Royal Pupil, . . . Alexander. (“Epistle Dedicatory”)
Alexander, of course, is Alexander the Great, whom Aristotle tutored. Likely, the world dominator had studied Aristotle’s accounts of the global conquerors Darius and Xerxes in the Rhetoric (Book II, Chapter 20, 1393a – 1393b); translator H. C. certainly seems to have taken note of this possibility. The strong implication is of an elitism in the text (both in Aristotle’s original Greek and in H. C.’s English) that instructs the powerful on means to acquire nations so that there can be educational and colonial conquest. One common denominator between the Greek empire achieved by Alexander and the Great British empire of James II and VII is the learning of lessons from Aristotle and his Rhetoric. Even if H. C. has exaggerated the history of Aristotle’s influence on Alexander, the translator is inviting his own ruler to read the Rhetoric as if it teaches one, logically, to dominate the globe.

In the note by the English translator, H. C., we begin to see some of the problems of "translation." First, the dominance and pervasiveness of logic comes through even in his notion of translation. The nod to the "original" as if it means one and only one meaning is clear. In other words, what Aristotle's original Greek text says is what that original Hellene text by its author means. The author has one and only one intention. And the translator, likewise, has one and only one intention: the author's original and singular intention. Second, there's a problem because Aristotle's Rhetoric, which H. C. is translating, is not exactly a work on "logic" or even a work of "logic." Aristotle himself is unable to sustain logic in this work, although his first sentence of the treatise uses a separational formula of logic but turns out to be much less definitional and much more metaphorical. Third, there's a problem because how English translator H. C. gets at the presumed singular meaning of Aristotle is different from how Arabic and Latin translators got at it.

What's funny today in English translation of Aristotle's body of works is related to this third problem. When philosophers read Aristotle's works and translate them into contemporary English, then the lens of philosophy dominates. When rhetoricians read Aristotle's works and translate them into contemporary English, then their lens of rhetorical studies dominates. When literary critics read Aristotle's works and translate them into contemporary English, then the lens of literary criticism dominates. When classicists read Aristotle, then their translational lens dominates. And so forth.

When I started reading Aristotle's Greek texts, I came at them initially through the lens of translation, ironically. In other words, my Greek lens was not only Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Euripides, Sappho, Gorgias, and the author of Dissoi Logoi (all of whom Aristotle and his logic disparaged), but also the Septuagint, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, the writer of "Hebrews," and Peter (all barbarians who came after Aristotle). These later works are largely works of translation from Hebrew and from Hebrew Aramaic. How very different the lens! How very different the notion of translation by these Jews! How non-logical (not necessarily illogical - if I can give a nod to Joel M. Hoffman for saying in a recent post "neither is it irrational — it is non-rational")! How very rhetorical in ways that Aristotle originally and logically despised rhetoric! How womanly in ways that Aristotle originally and logically despised fe-males! How accessible and bar-bar-ic in ways that Aristotle originally and logically despised the common and the lesser, non-Greek mother tongues!

But it may take another post or two to begin to illustrate just how different the concept and practice of translation that is seen in and by translators who have written the Bible of the Jews.  I'm talking specifically about the Septuagint translators and the writers of the New Testament who translated into Greek to write what Christians appropriate now as their Bible.  How very different the understanding and practice of translation by these early Jewish translators; how very different their understanding and practice from the Aristotelian understanding and practice of translation by Christian Bible translators today, whether these contemporary Bible translators employ the science of "linguistics" or push the dominance of "theology."

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