Saturday, December 12, 2009

Getting Luke 2:14 as Glorious Wordplay

Dr. Jim West is concerned about getting it right. He's posted on "getting Luke 2:14 right" in translation. He gives Luke's Greek. And, in issuing a translation challenge to readers, West makes clear that getting it right is to translate "so as to make it sensible and yet retain its meaning." The strong implication is that not getting it right means its opposite: getting it wrong. So West observes "the KJV misses the boat ... translating ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας erroneously." He likes "the Douay-Rheims go at it" as "[f]ar better," saying, "however, I translate ‘Glory to the highest God; and on earth, peace to men of good will.’

What West leaves readers to presume is that a chorus of angels is dancing in the sky and is singing in Greek or that Luke is translating the angelic song and dance into Greek. In either case, Luke's writing is a transposition of something fantastic. There is wordplay here that West, in getting his translation right, doesn't engage. And his own rendering of ἀνθρώποις as ‘men’ makes us wonder if he's working to get his "right" position clear on gendered language. I think we will do well to return to the chorus to listen. Here's Luke's Greek again:

δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας.

Now, even if you don't know Greek you can see some play in the language. And by play, I mean both fun playfulness and interpretive wiggle room. Look and listen again:

δόξα and εὐδοκίας are bookends. They mean different things (as West tries to get it right) and they mean the same thing too. Let's come back to that in a minute.

ἐν ὑψίστοις and ἐν ἀνθρώποις are rhymes. They're different but they sound similar.

And if you know a bit of Greek, then you know that καὶ often conjoins phrases but often contrasts phrases. And Luke's chorus of angels is doing both at the same time.

Now if you know a good bit more of Greek, then you hear these angels talking like the sophist Isocrates. One of his favorite things to do was to play with the difference and the similarity of δόξα and εὐδοκίας. I don't have time to show you, but if you ask in comments, I'll give some examples from Panegyricus, Plataicus, Nicocles, To Philip, Panathenaicus, and Antidosis, if you like.

What we should take time to do is to listen now to the chorus in Euripides's play Heracleidae and to compare that with the chorus in Luke's gospel. I don't have time to translate it, but David Kovacs's translation is fine. Here are a few lines in English and then in Greek:
But do not fall prostrate and lament the gods' dispensation, do not grieve overly in your heart. For the unhappy girl has a death-portion that is glorious, a death on behalf of her brothers and the land, and the renown that will await her on the lips of mortals is one of great honor. Heroic goodness involves itself ever in toil. Her deeds were worthy of her father, worthy of her noble lineage. If you show reverence to the death of the brave, in this I am your partner.
ἀλλὰ σὺ μὴ προπίτνων τὰ θεῶν φέρε,
μηδ’ ὑπεράλγει φροντίδα λύπᾳ·
εὐδόκιμον γὰρ ἔχει θανάτου μέρος
ἁ μελέα πρό τ’ ἀδελφῶν καὶ γᾶς·
οὐδ’ ἀκλεής νιν
δόξα πρὸς ἀνθρώπων ὑποδέξεται·
ἁ δ’ ἀρετὰ βαίνει διὰ μόχθων.
ἄξια μὲν πατρός, ἄξια δ’ εὐγενίας τάδε γίγνεται·
εἰ δὲ σέβεις θανάτους ἀγαθῶν, μετέχω σοι
Now, let's hear again Luke's chorus, with some of the same words bolded.  Then we'll try a translation into English.
δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας.
Brilliant renown to god in the highest places and on the ground peace in blessed honor to mortals.
See how I'm trying to run with some of the playful renderings of Kovacs?   See how Luke's Greek-singing angels sound like Euripides's chorus?   If and when there's more time, maybe we'd play with the chorus a bit differently; but it'd be some the same too.


J. L. Watts said...

As always most interesting. I take a happy not in your noting of Luke's favorite wording, although it just may be a personal theological and canonical bias.

Gary said...

Thank you for this insightful post, Kurk! I get so side-tracked by the question of what sort of genitive eudokias is (and the gender issue of anthropois) that I never noticed the wordplay or even the rhyme.

Wow, I still have so much to learn!

J. K. Gayle said...

J.L, I can appreciate any and all suspicion that wording may be "personal theological and canonical bias." If Jesus had said it (and not angels or Luke), then we could see how the Jesus Seminar might color code the words.

Gary, Your attention to the genitive and the gender of Greek words is most important. One thing at a time is all I can do. I'm learning as well!

Jay, Thanks!

J. L. Watts said...

Let me clarify - I mean that my take on your note of Luke's favorite wording is based on my personal theological and canonical basis. Sorry about that.

David Ker said...

Good post!

The "of goodwill" thing has never set right with me. Are they good willed sort of people or is God the one that is good willed toward them? I favor the latter (as you'll see in my BBB post). The TR leaves the adjective out altogether I think which is something worth pondering.

John Hobbins said...

Very nice, Kurk.

It's a very merry Christmas in my book when three people not known to always agree, you, Sue, and I, concur against the vast majority of modern translations (including those of Jim West, Doug Chaplin, and David Ker) - but with KJV - that Luke 2:14 has a universal thrust.

J. K. Gayle said...

David, I was hoping to hear more what you think about the missing adjective but am glad to see how you focus the emphasis on "him" to the finish from the start in your translation. Clever English to mirror an emphasis in the Greek.

John, What a nice comment! Thank you for seeing our agreement -- yours with Suzanne and with me, on the bible and its translation. It was a year ago this time when we emphasized how profoundly we disagreed, and so yes a Merry Christmas in contrast now.