Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Double Trouble in Greek Bible Translation

In this post, I'm going to look at three words in the Bible that are only used once. They are two wordplays that Paul uses and one wordplay that James uses. Because each wordplay is used just a single time by the writers, the wordplay spells double double toil and trouble for translators. So we'll look at how some Bible translators have translated the wordplays.

 (Joel M. Hoffman reminds us to call these a "hapax legomenon" which is how to pronounce the Greek, ἅπαξ λεγόμενον, which can mean something like "a statement used once." In contrast, of course, is a "dis legomenon," or δις λεγόμενον, which might be used to suggest a "doubly-made statement." And we could play all day with this, inventing real or imagined words like "tris legomenon" and "tetrakis legomenon" and claim technical or imprecise meanings for them all.)

When a writer plays with a word, then a translator does well to show the wordplay. (The writer might be Xenophon or Aristotle, Paul or James). Too often, however, the translator gets bewildered and flummoxed by the following concern: "We simply do not know what the word truly means." (This is the concern of William D. Mounce as he considers the concerns of Mark L. Strauss). The translator looks around for how other writers used the word or whether anyone ever used the word. The translator looks around at how other translators translated the word. The translator asks again, answers again, and concludes that there are TWO solutions: "can we know—with precision—what it means? Of course not. We just don’t know. And hence we have the two solutions proposed by formal and functional translations."

 (So Mounce says again, "we simply do not know for sure what the word means," and then he wants Strauss, himself, and others "to leave that [word-meaning] debate for the commentaries, pastors, and blogs.")


So what're the wordplays?  And who are the translators?

Paul's wordplays are δί·λογος / dí-logos / and λογ·ική / log-ikḗ / (as he writes them respectively in I Timothy 3:8 and in Romans 12:1).

The wordplay by James is δί·ψυχος / dí-psychos / (and he writes it in James 1:8 and in James 4:8; but should we call it a "dis legomenon" because of his double use of a single wordplay?).

The translators are the teams for the ESV and the TNIV (since Mounce and Strauss are playfully arguing over these translations).  And I'm interested in translators Richmond Lattimore, Ann Nyland, and Willis Barnstone - since these three have translated and worked in Greek far beyond the New Testament.  Let me (J. K. Gayle) play with translating too.

Now before we get to the translations, we'll do well to think a bit more about peculiar wordplay. "Double double toil and trouble" is rhetorical, isn't it? Yes, it really is poetical too. But the poetry draws attention to the words, and the words - for a writer like Shakespeare - let three Scottish witches call in demons as they wait for a king, Macbeth, and all his trouble. This lets English listening audiences through years and decades and centuries now consider the powers of incantations and politics. It even lets children tv film makers in America entertain the population of families who are willing to pay for it: yes, the Olsen twins with Cloris Leachman. How would a translator in China translate any of that into Chinese? I mean, "We native English speakers whether in England or in one of its now-predominantly-anglo former colonies simply do not know what these words truly mean."

So we move on to the old Greek wordplays.  Paul's two words δί·λογος / dí-logos / and λογ·ική / log-ikḗ / play on the word λογος / logos /.  The latter is the very common Greek word for "statement."  It was an extremely important word for Greek science and for Greek philosophy and for Greek knowing.  Hence, meaning-wise λογος / logos / became over determined.  By that, I mean, its different meanings were differently determined depending on which different people were using it.  The gospel writer, John,  for example, cleverly uses λογος / logos / to open the very peculiar (i.e. non-synoptic) gospel.  But long before Jews started using Greek for montheistic religious purposes, Greeks were using the word λογος / logos / in ways that were almost mythic.  This seemed to trouble Socrates, then Plato, and then even more Aristotle.  The wordplayful sophists were using the "statement" in all sorts of indeterminate ways.  

In fact, some of the sophists (anonymously it seems) produced a work of radical cultural relativism and pluralism called Δισσοι Λόγοι / Dissoi Logoi /.  That spelled double double toil and trouble for the pan-Hellenists who were trying to unite the Greek city states in a single Republic with a single Politics and a single Ethics.  Somewhat literally the title of the work means something like "Two Statements."  Aristotle's response was to invent an entirely new λογος / logos / which he coined by adding the feminine suffix -ική / ikḗ to form a singularly-determined method of knowing that we now call "logic" or even λογ·ική / log-ikḗ /.  Aristotle didn't much like Xenophon's wordplay when writing about horsemanship either.  The latter had taken the prefix δις / dis / and added it onto λογος / logos / to make δί·λογος / dí-logos / - a wordplay which he used twice to let his readers know that he wasn't just making double-trouble statements when giving them instructions on riding horses up and down hills.

I think Paul was facile enough in Greek to have some familiarity with Xenophon and with Aristotle and with the writings of the sophists.  I think James was just downright playful with his Greek.  (I think the best Bible translators and scholars are those who are facile with the word  λογος / logos / and the wordplays on it, whether the wordplays of the sophists, or of Xenophon, Aristotle, Paul, or James.  Likely they have better facility after reading works such as Edward Schiappa's Protagoras and Logos: A Study in Greek Philosophy and Rhetoric, Ekaterina V. Haskins's Logos and Power in Isocrates and Aristotle, Jeffrey Walker's Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity, Richard Leo Enos's Greek Rhetoric Before Aristotle, and Cheryl Glenn's Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity Through the Renaissance.  Certainly they are facile in their understanding of wordplay after reading primary texts such as the primarily-Greek new testament, Dissoi Logoi [even as translated by Thomas M. Roberston], and the bodies of work by Sappho, Homer, Hesiod, the myriad playwrights, and Plato and Aristotle, at least.  Well, enough of that.)


μὴ δι·λόγους / mḕ di-lógous /  (Paul to Timo-THeos)
not double-tongued (ESV)
sincere (TNIV)
not two-tongued (Lattimore)
not two-faced (Nyland)
not two-tongued (Barnstone)
not making two statements like a wishy-washy sophist (Gayle)

τὴν λογ·ικὴν λατρείαν ὑμῶν / tḕn log-ikḕn latreían hmōn /  (Paul to Greeks and Jews in Rome)
which is your spiritual worship (ESV)
this is true worship (TNIV)
which is your rational worship (Lattimore)
This is your reasonable service (Nyland)
Which is your reasonable temple worship (Barnstone)
which is that aristotle-logical, statement-istical temple service of yours (Gayle)

νὴρ δί·ψυχος / anḕr dí-psychos /  (James 1:8 to Jews in the diaspora of the Greek empire)
he is a double-minded man (ESV)
they are double-minded  (TNIV)
a man who is of two minds (Lattimore)
a double-minded person (Nyland)
one who vacillates (Barnstone)
a two-personality human (Gayle)

δί·ψυχοι / dí-psychoi /  (James 4:8)
you double-minded (ESV)
you double-minded (TNIV)
you doubters (Lattimore)
You double-minded people (Nyland)
You of two minds (Barnstone)
You two-personality ones (Gayle)

Notice how the translations are all over the place.  Double double toil and trouble.  What's that mean?  Sometimes two is one, and mostly it's wordplay for rhetorical effect, for the effect of statements.

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