Monday, December 21, 2009

Alternative Approaches to Translation (of Luke 2:14)

This post follows another that considered the labels "sexist" (or not) and "exclusivist" (or not) for Bible translations.  Here I'm wanting to focus a bit on how (i.e., by which approach) some translations end up deserving the labels.

Willis Barnstone's concept of register for approaches to translation is a useful lens by which to view and evaluate Bible translation theory and practice -- even when it comes to Luke 2:14.  I'd like to review and then go a bit beyond Barnstone's registers.

To review, Barnstone identifies three registers for translation.  The 3 are:
[1] a gloss for the reader who wants help with the source text [i.e., an interlinear] and [2] imitation for the ['translating'] writer who wants to collaborate with, adapt, or rewrite a precursor's [originally-authored] work....  There is also [3] a middle ground between [1] gloss and [2] imitation, whose purpose is to hear the source author more clearly than the translator author" (page 1290 of The Restored New Testament).
With respect to the Bible, an example Barnstone gives of [1] "a gloss" is "[t]he Jesus Seminar translation of the gospels... heavy in explanation and conceptualization of image and metaphor, [that] uses key words to clarify rather than to express." An illustration of [2] "imitation," according to Barnstone, is "John Dominic Crossan's adroit transformations of Yeshua's sayings into minimalist poems."  Finally, the exemplary [3] "middle ground" translation approach "is Tyndale's... autonomous restatement" and it is also what Robert Alter has done "in making the literal literary."  As he himself attempts it in translation of the New Testament, Barnstone says, "This is the difficult middle way."  He calls the final product of [3] "an autonomous text to be read in English as scripture...." " (pages 1289-91).

Barnstone gets his idea for [3] "the literal literary" not first from Bible translators such as Tyndale and Alter but from a translator of Homer's Odyssey:  Robert Fitzgerald.  When Fitzgerald began to translate Homer, he first asked Ezra Pound, "How?"  Pound replied, "Let Homer say everything he wanted to say."  This was the middle way between [1] glossing Homer's Greek and [2] imitating it.  (To be sure, this advice was unusual for Pound.  The translator was one who's "normal practice" was never [1] to gloss but was normally [2] to take "tremendous freedoms" as he "imitated, and intimately collaborated with or overcame the author in his best translations from Anglo-Saxon and Chinese."  Barnstone adds:  "and they may be his own best poems" not necessarily giving any credit whatsoever to the original authors.  Nonetheless, Pound advises Fitzgerald [3] to take the middle way between [1] literal glossing and [2] literary license.   To repeat, he advised: "Let Homer say everything he wanted to say."  Funny thing is, when I read Fitzgerald's translation of Homer, I find the translator all over the place, from [1] to [2] to [3].  Ask me in comments if you want examples.  We hope Barnstone himself is truer to his principles.)

Barnstone explains this [3] "middle ground" approach as "both literal and literary."  He says:
    The translator in service of the source author becomes more invisible as the art intensifies, permitting the reader [3] to see Homer or Dante or the Bible and, as Pound suggested, [3] to hear them have their say.  By contrast, in the inevitable collaboration between author and translator, as we move from [2] re-creation to [1] imitation, the earlier author tends to disappear, overcome by the voice of the translating author.  (page 1292).
So how does Barnstone himself let us see Luke?  Barnstone certainly does not intend simply [1] to gloss or to explain the Greek with his own English; nor does he want just [2] to flaunt his own English in imitation of Luke's text.  Rather, Barnstone is after a "literal litarary" [3] "middle ground" that let's Luke "say everything he wanted to say."

Here's Luke (2:14) the way Barnstone might take up Dr. Jim West's translation challenge:
Glory to God in the highest sky
And on earth peace among people of good will.
So West's question is for us, Does Barnstone get the Greek right? In other words, does he "render it so as to make it sensible and yet retain its meaning?" This sounds a little like the middle way, the literary literal. And West's translation is pretty close to Barnstone's; West translates: "Glory to the highest God; and on earth, peace to men of good will." Barnstone clearly, however, [3] lets Luke locate God (i.e., "in the highest sky") and [3] sees that Luke does not see gender here (i.e., not even the unmarked gender "men").

Barnstone does feel the need to explain some of the Greek and his English for it. And he does so with a footnote:
From the Greek εὐδοκία (eudokia), "of goodwill" or "good pleasure," or variously translated as "whom he favors."
From how Barnstone has explained his approach, he needs the footnote so as not to use his translation for a [1] gloss.  Likewise, he needs the footnote so that he can leave open other literary possibilities that might be [2] imitations of Luke's Greek.

What I like about his footnote is how Barnstone leaves open the possibility that Luke intends more possibly than "goodwill."  Nonetheless, I want to suggest that Barnstone does not afford himself another approach in translating.

The other approach is very close to the difficult [3] middle ground between [1] mere gloss and [2] mostly literary license.  The fourth [4] approach actually does let Luke have his say as much as possible.

Nonetheless, the fourth [4] approach also goes after what C.S. Lewis calls "second meanings."  These are meanings that the author may have intended unconsciously.  Language is so rich, and is so dimensioned, and the psyche is so powerful that an author might say something intentionally and not even realize it.  Or a speaker or a writer may say something, and others hear or read it, and it's taken differently in a way so that the original author protests -- but the listeners and readers intend and realize the meaning anyway.  Lewis says, for example, that Plato prophesies the "passion of Christ" in writing about the death of the ideally "righteous person."  (Of course, Plato is talking about Socrates, but he would definitely agree with Christians much later on - if they could talk about it later - they would all agree that Plato is also ideally talking about Jesus.)  Lewis, similarly, says that Virgil prophesies the Virgin birth of Jesus.  (Virgil would say he didn't intend this at all; but some Christians since the writer wrote what he have taken it to be such a foretelling).  Lewis writes about Second Meanings in a couple of chapters in his book Reflections on the Psalms.  It's a book on how an inexpert (i.e., non-Hebraist) literary scholar who's an atheist turned Christian reflects (as an outsider) on the many (also Christian and also literary) meanings of the Jewish psalms.

I don't have time to consider the rhetorical listening of Krista Ratcliffe or the N-dimensionality of language for Kenneth Pike or why Phyllis Bird says, with some ironic certainty, "I am not certain, that the translator is even obliged to make the modern reader understand what is overheard."  We don't have time to talk about why this is not absolute relativism, not "anything goes."

What I do want to take time to say is that when we let Luke have his say, then we need to recognize something else.  Luke himself is translating.  He's letting angels have their say (to Mary in 2:10 and to God and all mortals in 2:!4).  There are lots of intentions and many different voices.  And Luke - the translator - is not entirely invisible.  No, he's a human like Mary listening.  Yes, he's a mortal like you and me.  And if you translate his Greek translating angel language, well then:  you also are listening rhetorically, attending to second meanings, some blatantly intended and others that take some more careful listening.

So to close:  Barnstone advocates three approaches.  And I'm saying there's another as well.  Here they are:

1) "the right way"; ("to inform") [the gloss]

or 2) "any which way";  ("to perform") [the imitation license]

or 3) "why that way?";  ("to reform") [why?  because what the author intends is so very important]

or 4) the "significant way." ("to transform") [so that meaning is made when the author intends one thing and also has other meanings that the readers and listeners discern]

I think I've tried to say things like this before.  If it's too complicated at the moment, then I'm going to take a break for now.

If you've stayed with the post this far and still have any mental energy left, I'd love to hear which "register" or "approach" you think you've taken in translating Luke 2:14.  Or what do you think about others' translations with respect to Barnstone's 3 and this 4th approach mentioned?

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