Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Bible Translation: Barbarisms, Solecisms, and Aristotle

This post is mainly technical. (Some of this is from a stuffy Ph.D. dissertation I defended nearly a year ago.) Here, I'd like us to look some more at the Bible, at its translation, and at a couple of words we tend to use in talking about translation without our recognizing we're using Aristotle's words. In using these words, so ostensibly benign, we might as well be using perhaps old “code words in our Christian culture” such asnigger, spic, kike, wop, sheeny, faggot, swish, and queer.”

The two words I'm wanting to talk about here are “barbarism” and “solecism.” And we get away with using the words with no one protesting because 1) they have become precise and technical words; and 2) they are words to mark what others (and not we ourselves) have done wrong (i.e., “not right”) with language.

So, first, we may need precise definitions to remind us what we mean. We certainly do not intend to be mean, we tell ourselves. And rhetorician George A. Kennedy explains, succinctly and precisely, in a footnote of his translation of Aristotle's Rhetoric that a “solecism 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” (page 208).

Now, then, we can understand when John L. McKenzie in his exact Dictionary of the Bible observes how “The Gk of Ape is the worst of the NT, much inferior to Jn and 1 Jn. It abounds with barbarisms and solecisms. The author thinks in Hb while he writes in Gk” (page 41).  And, of course, we understand that Gk = Greek; Ape = Apocalypse or Book of Revelation; Jn = Gospel of John; 1 Jn = First Epistle of John; Hb = Hebrew; and “barbarisms and solecisms” = exactly what Kennedy says that Aristotle says they are, i.e. “solecism” = “mistake in usage or syntax” and “barbarism” = “mistake in the form of a word”.

Likewise, we now can view A. T. Robinson's Word Pictures in the New Testament and get exactly what he means when he finds "in Revelation 13:17 and certainly so in 1 John 5:20..., a solecism in late vernacular Greek" (as we read his commentary on Revelation 12:6). We can even read T. Cowden Laughlin's Princeton University Ph.D. dissertation, “The Solecisms of the Apocalypse.” We understand how the writers of The Catholic Encyclopedia do remember that “The Purists [among the Protestant Reformers] held that in the Bible there are neither barbarisms nor solecisms; that the Greek of the New Testament is [exactly] as pure as that of the classical authors.” And we follow the Essentials of English: A Textbook for Schools by George W. Rine, who concludes (following his precise definitions of solecism and syntax) the following that defends the once-pristine purity of the translation of the Bible: “Hence solecisms, taken collectively, are usually called false syntax. The few solecisms found in the King James Version of the Bible were not solecisms at the time that version was made (1611)” (page 7).

Yes, you're catching on.  So am I.

We're using Aristotle's words. We're using them whether in writing about the Bible and its translation or in reading what others have written. Aristotle was very concerned that Greek users use the Hellene language right. We don't even need to talk about his "logic," his method to avoid the imprecisions and impurities of the language of women, catamites, eunuchs, androgynes, slaves, poets, sophists, and even of his teacher Plato and his teacher Socrates (whose idealism and dialectic were mere counterparts to sloppy rhetoric).

Aristotle would write things like this to his elite male (and purely masculine) Greek students:
ἔτι τόδε ποιεῖ σολοικίζειν, τὸ μὴ ἀποδιδόναι, ἐὰν μὴ ἐπιζευγνύῃς ὃ ἀμφοῖν ἁρμόττει
Kennedy translates that into English (from the Rhetoric 1407b) as:
Further, the lack of correspondence creates a solecism (to soloikizein) if you do not join words with what fits both
And Aristotle would also write things like this to his elite male (and purely masculine) Greek students:
σεμνὴ δὲ καὶ ἐξαλλάττουσα τὸ ἰδιωτικὸν ἡ τοῖς ξενικοῖς κεχρημένη· ξενικὸν δὲ λέγω γλῶτταν καὶ μεταφορὰν καὶ ἐπέκτασιν καὶ πᾶν τὸ παρὰ τὸ κύριον. ἀλλ’ ἄν τις ἅπαντα τοιαῦτα ποιήσῃ, ἢ αἴνιγμα ἔσται ἢ βαρβαρισμός· ἂν μὲν οὖν ἐκ μεταφορῶν, αἴνιγμα, ἐὰν δὲ ἐκ γλωττῶν, βαρβαρισμός.
Gilbert Murray translates that into English (from the Poetics 1458a) as:
On the other hand the Diction becomes distinguished and non-prosaic by the use of unfamiliar terms, i.e. strange words, metaphors, lengthened forms, and everything that deviates from the ordinary mode of speech.--But a whole statement in such terms will be either a riddle or a barbarism, a riddle, if made up of metaphors, a barbarism, if made up of strange words.
Now, we should be able to follow here. Aristotle is advising his students to avoid "everything that deviates" from his standard of pure Greek. Translators Kennedy and Murry transliterate to avoid deviating from Aristotle's authorial intentions. The English translators are wanting to sound like Aristotle.

And, as noted, above, Kennedy takes the technical English terms from Aristotle's Greek so that a “solecism” 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.” Kennedy, when writing about the Bible and rhetoric, is always keen on making these terms clear. See his New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism (page 27) and his Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times (page 124), where Kennedy addresses solecisms and barbarisms.

What Kennedy does 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, stuttering, “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 of the people of Soli.

Aristotle, of course, was not interested in relativism of any kind, including linguistic relativism. He despised Δισσοι Λόγοι / Dissoi Logoi /. He advocated a centric position, an absolute prescription for Greek male students and their City States. For Aristotle, the Greek mother tongue purely consisted of his dialect alone, the one he taught logically to his elite male (purely masculine) students. More than that, Aristotle was threatened by women and their speech. He took their “logos” and reduced it to his “logic.” Thus, women rhetors and rhetoricians such as Aspasia were completely silenced by Aristotle because they were females. And yet, barbarisms in speech and solecisms in writing were not only frowned upon because they were contaminations from the foreigners but also because these foreigners - even males - sounded like the slippery women. Aristotle’s masculinistic, linguistic, and ethnocentric purity depended on and was reinforced by his phallogocentricism.

Now, when we return to the Bible and read it for itself, we hear authors there purely separating themselves from the Barbarians. Paul, for example, seems to call the Latin-using Romans in Rome βαρβάροις ("barbarians") when addressing his fellow Jews and the Greeks there. See Romans 1:14. The funny thing about that is Paul himself is a Roman (in terms of citizenship) and a Barbarian (in Aristotle's view); the silly thing is that Paul is using a solecism (in Kennedy's technical view of Aristotle's technical view). We wonder if any of the Greeks in Corinth or in Colossae laughed when Paul (the Jewish Romanish barbarian) so referred to Barbarians (in his Greek letters to Greeks and Jews). See 1 Corinthians 14:11 and Colossians 3:11. And we can only imagine how the Maltese in Malta felt when Luke (who was with Paul) referred to these "island people" as Οἱ βάρβαροι (the Barbarians). See Acts 28:2-4.

What I'm trying to get to in this post is all that gets lost when the translator follows the intention of the author too closely. When the translator is unwilling to let the author be ugly (or is not aware enough of the author's ugly language, whether intended or unintended ugliness), then much is lost. When the translator simply transliterates the sounds of the author's ugly words, then the author comes off sounding technical and not necessarily ugly at all. The author and the translator sound smart together. The meaning of the ugly word is no longer ugly but is something "original," something for the elite, the educated, the insiders, the linguistically astute.

Yes, I know, some do not want Aristotle to be ugly. I've posted what one of you wrote to me about my never really knowing "Aristote's heart." And there are defenders of Aristotle's scientific mistakes, such as Robert Mayhew (with his book The Female in Aristotle's Biology: Reason or Rationalization), whom I had to respond to in part in my dissertation.

And even more people, it seems, don't want Paul or Luke to use ugly Greek language or to commit Kennedy's Aristotle's "barbarisms" and "solecisms."  Who really wants to concede that Paul and Luke quoted the LXX translators who used an ugly Greek word that denigrates other human beings?  (See the Septuagint: Ps 113:1; Ez 21:36; 2Mc 2:21, 4:25, and 10:4; and 3Mc 3:24).

So the question for us reading translations of Aristotle and of Paul and of Luke is whether we have heard the barbarisms and solecisms?  Do we get the ugliness of σολοικίζειν and Οἱ βάρβαροι and ἐκ γλωττῶν βαρβαρισμός?  Are we willing to hear that as "the ignorant mistakes of the Cypriot colonists of Soli City" and "Those stammering stuttering strangers" and "what's born out of the mother tongue of those stammering stuttering strangers"?


teofilo said...

Don't forget Paul's quotation of Epimenides in Titus 1:12

A certain one of them, in fact, one of their own prophets, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”

Certainly he used terms that were intentionally ugly to get his point across. (Skubalon:

J. K. Gayle said...

Duly noted, teofilo! Thank you. Do you think Bible translators have downplayed the ugliness in Titus and Philippians?

I see that Daniel B. Wallace's essay you reference does have this cautionary note:

"Rather than be fully explicit, this study will address the meaning in more genteel terms and use asterisks where the more sophisticated (or perhaps less sophisticated!) can supply the appropriate letters."

Once upon a time, my observations weren't as nice as Wallace's I'm afraid. Here's from an earlier post of this blog:

"when Paul uses skubala (σκύβαλα) in his letter to readers in Philippoi, he's already called out 'the dogs' or perhaps 'the bitches' (touS KUnas, τοὺς κύνας) to distinguish himself from his fellow Jews who were insisting on male (penis) circumcision as a necessary mark on the body. So he plays on this derogatory term by downplaying his own personal, physical heritage as 'dog throw-up' if not 'bitch shit' (SKUbala, σκύβαλα). To see the gendered issues here is not too much of a stretch. (It's not, I'm saying, much at all like Sigmund Freud, as the-rapist, discussing penis envy that isn't really there.) The language Paul chooses is dirty on purpose."

Henry Neufeld said...

Another good post, and this one I followed right through. Similar things could be written of the Hebrew of the prophets. It's interesting how willing we often are to proclaim one form of Greek from the ancient world to be "good" and another "bad."

David Ker said...

I am so often guilty of S & B that I should just shut up, but...

Perhaps you are holding Aristotle and Paul and the others to a higher standard than that you espouse personally by stringing together these concordances and even etymologies. Oh, heck. I love that stuff. Thanks for writing.

J. K. Gayle said...

Henry, Thanks for helping us remember the Hebrew. Do you have an example? I think next I'll post a translation of Hebrew to illustrate what might be "good" or "bad."

David, My wife is an award-winning professional writer (not an ak-a-dem-ik writer), who looked at some of my dissertation and called it "Aristotle exposed." Talk about standards. My read of Paul is that he eventually began to repent of his Aristotle influence sometime after he repented of his pharisaism. His re-thinking of everything (i.e., his "meta-noia") in the context of his multilingualism helped him overcome some craziness (i.e., some "para-noia"). Aristotle seemed less willing to grow beyond "objectivity" and logic. But do feel free to point to something particular here that's eating you. Thanks for loving some of this stuff.

Katherine said...

This reminds me of something my historical theology prof would say when discussing figures like Athanasius or Luther; he would shake his head with a bemused smile on his face and reflect that God seemed perfectly willing to work with "stinkers" throughout history in the church. I also remember my NT criticism prof talking about the Bible as "fragile".

It's always a little sobering to notice the biblical writers doing things that when you see yourself doing them, you feel the need to repent. On the other, stranger hand, it's a bit comforting, because I see God's willingness to befriend and work with fellow "stinkers", as it were.

J. K. Gayle said...

Great comment, Katherine. I laughed out loud (and completely sympathize and identify with what you're saying about our feelings of the need for language repentance :) ).