Saturday, December 12, 2009

What Bible Translation Sounds Like

Sometimes Bible translation sounds like gibberish. But gibberish can sound really important, even condescending. Let's look at an example in a moment. Before we listen in on biblistic language, here are a couple of non-biblical true stories of mine.

First Story. Someone really important to me once questioned one of my words. That somebody is Carolyn Osiek, a New Testament scholar who is a feminist who served on my dissertation committee. As we were in the Greek restaurant of all places talking about how I was accusing Aristotle of coining technical-and-abstract words to box in others, she turned the conversation to me (on me?) to ask: "Are you coining the word feministic?" "What word would you use?" I retorted. "Something like, 'in feminist ways' or 'by means that are feminist'," she replied. And she could have explained, "feministic sounds like you're looking down on feminists"; but she didn't need to say anything. I stopped using the word for a while, and when I did use it tried to make sure no one mistook me for Aristotle. A little later, I blogged this post on how rhetorical "-istic" can be. How little parts of words sound like big, condescending stuff.

Second Story. My college roommate from Japan was a helpful tutor when I was taking classes in Japanese language. My private lessons included listening to and trying to say tongue twisters like, "なまむぎ なまごめ なまたまご." Of course, I heard that as, "namamugi namagome namatamago," which hardly rolled off my tongue. This, of course, means 生麦生米生卵. It might be something you hear in a kitchen (if not as a joke on Japanese language learners): "raw wheat, raw rice, raw eggs." Even if I'd wanted to make my roommate-tutor feel my pain, I couldn't. He didn't stumble over my mother tongue the way I tripped over his. He'd grown up bilingual, and he spoke his English Rs and Ls and Ws and Fs as fluently as I did. The lessons were playful ("-mugi, -gome, -mago") but pronounced a difference between us. How little parts of words sound like big, condescending stuff.

So, now, there's this story in the Bible. It's also become a story of bible translation. This is the example of gibberish I was talking about at the beginning of this post. Sounding really important and smart, the translation usually goes like this:
Jephthah captured the shallow crossings of the Jordan River, and whenever a fugitive from Ephraim tried to go back across, the men of Gilead would challenge him. “Are you a member of the tribe of Ephraim?” they would ask. If the man said, “No, I’m not,” they would tell him to say “Shibboleth.” If he was from Ephraim, he would say “Sibboleth,” because people from Ephraim cannot pronounce the word correctly. Then they would take him and kill him at the shallow crossings of the Jordan. In all, 42,000 Ephraimites were killed at that time.
This really is one of the best translations of Judges 12:5-6 in my opinion because it forgoes the really strange English word "fords" and uses the much-clearer phrase "shallow crossings" instead. This is the New Living Translation. But, like every other translation of the Bible I've heard, there's the weird "Shibboleth" / "Sibboleth" thing that seems give us English readers (especially non-Ephramites) some kind of insider track here. We'd more quickly side with the killers than the killed here.

What we don't get by the sounds-only translation is what the Hebrew word שִׁבֹּלֶת means to some of the early readers of the story. Quite literally, it's an ambiguous term that can mean either "corn stalk or grain waves" or "water flood or stream." And the Jews translating this word into Greek (in the Septuagint, "Judges A" AND "Judges B") make the Hebrew mean either σύνθημα or στάχυς [sun-thema OR stachys]. The first Greek word is just a signal to the reader who seems to know the story well:  it means something like a "theme together" or an "inside joke" (or a "password" -- which is how translator Philip E. Satterthwaite moves the Greek into English in the New English Translation of the Septuagint).  The second Greek word, in this context, is sometimes translated into English as "Stachys."  (And that's exactly how English translator Sir Lancelot Brenton translates it while Satterthwaite clarifies the word to mean "Ear-of-Corn"). The Greek word στάχυς, of course, is ambiguous. Greek readers know it means "ear of corn" but it also is used for the "lower part of the abdomen."

So if you read the story in Greek translation from the Hebrew, then it is funny because the Ephramites can't pronounce "corn stalk" and they get stabbed in the point of their body that looks like a corn stalk: they get a sword run through the lower part of their abdomen.  Or if you read the Judges A translation from Hebrew to Greek, then it's more serious because the translator is just reminding Jewish readers how one group used a password (an inside joke) on the other group, deadly serious stuff.  In both Jewish translations (from Hebrew to their Hellene), the reader never hears the Ephramites stumbling over the word (i.e., as if saying "Sibboleth").  The silence is important, I think, because the translators are giving a nod to their readers and not entirely trying to explain what would be understood if listening to the story in Hebrew.  (Sylvie Honigman, the scholar in Jerusalem who's looked at the legend of the Septuagint, says that the Greek here is in the Homeric not the Alexandrian [or Aristotelian] paradigm -- that's important to me as I look at how Aristotle abstracts language and the early Greeks refused to do that.  The Jews, with their scripture, are much more playful than many of our English translations - in Aristotelian fashion - give them credit for).

And if you read the story in Hebrew translated into as playful English, then it goes something like this. And here I give apologies to my good Japanese language tutor:

So they say to him,
"So say 'cornstalk rows like water flows'."
So he says "colnstark lows rike watel hrows."
So he can't rightly get it right.
So they seize him.
So they make his blood flow at the crossing of the Jordan.
So at that time some forty two thousand fall
some forty two thousand of the tribe
                                        of that twice-blessed second born of

Now listen to the Hebrew:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֹו אֱמָר־נָא שִׁבֹּלֶת
וַיֹּאמֶר סִבֹּלֶת
וְלֹא יָכִין לְדַבֵּר כֵּן
וַיֹּאחֲזוּ אֹותֹו
וַיִּשְׁחָטוּהוּ אֶל־מַעְבְּרֹות הַיַּרְדֵּן
וַיִּפֹּל בָּעֵת הַהִיא מֵאֶפְרַיִם אַרְבָּעִים וּשְׁנַיִם אָלֶף׃

And hear the Greekistic translations:

Judges A
καὶ εἶπαν αὐτοῖς εἴπατε δὴ σύνθημα
[nothing's needed here]
καὶ οὐ κατηύθυναν τοῦ λαλῆσαι οὕτως
καὶ ἐπελάβοντο αὐτῶν
καὶ ἔσφαξαν αὐτοὺς ἐπὶ τὰς διαβάσεις τοῦ Ιορδάνου
καὶ ἔπεσαν ἐξ Εφραιμ ἐν τῷ καιρῷ ἐκείνῳ δύο τεσσαράκοντα χιλιάδες

Judges B
καὶ εἶπαν αὐτῷ εἰπὸν δὴ στάχυς
[nothing's needed here!]
καὶ οὐ κατεύθυνεν τοῦ λαλῆσαι οὕτως
καὶ ἐπελάβοντο αὐτοῦ
καὶ ἔθυσαν αὐτὸν πρὸς τὰς διαβάσεις τοῦ Ιορδάνου
καὶ ἔπεσαν ἐν τῷ καιρῷ ἐκείνῳ ἀπὸ Εφραιμ τεσσαράκοντα δύο χιλιάδες

Don't you hear how language keeps us out?  If it's "shibboleth" and we can say it, we think we're in.  But the Jews translating from Hebrew to their own Hellene didn't feel the need (in either Greek version) to separate out only the sounds of שִׁבֹּלֶת and σύνθημα or στάχυς.  The Hebrew writer of Judges seems to allow readers to play close attention to the interplay between the water crossing of the Jordan river and the word (i.e., water flowing like grain growing) used to trip up the Ephramites at that cross.  The Jews translating the Hebrew into their Greek, similarly, remind the readers that this is word play.  How it sounds can be fatal.  (In somebody's gibberish, that's just fatalistic?)

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