Saturday, January 30, 2010

commentary: translating Peter

How to translate a text which is already infected by the multiplicity of language...?

A preface to this post is here and an introduction here.  (I think I'll post next, after this one, an entirely new post I'm finally naming "translating Peter."  There, we'll look together at "Matthew 16:15-19.")  Now, here are more comments as we eventually come to that text in which Matthew writes some dialogue in which Jesus names (or renames) Peter.  We might name his bit of text "commentary."  But the text that we come to is already a "translation."  It's "already infected by the multiplicity of language," but we need to think some about "how to translate" that.

Yes, I know Matthew writes in Greek.  Yes, I understand he's partly translating from another language or two.  But that's just the problem.  Because he's writing in Hellene, Matthew is participating in something bigger than himself.  Greek is either very serious business or it's a game.  Either way, that's big.  What I mean by that is this:  Matthew is either mainly communicating (like Plato's Socrates or like Aristotle or Alexander the Great) or he is doing something more than that (like Aspasia or like Sappho or like Gorgias did, as we know them from Plato's communication and read their own writings).

Plato and his teacher Socrates were after reform in Greek communication.  Plato (in his Republic) rails against the Greek of the poets of old and presses toward the truth, the reality behind the shadows (in his parable of the "cave").  Socrates (in Plato's Gorgias) has the sophist Gorgias confess that he's a "speakeretta" who speaks "speakeristically" (or, in other words, he's a rhetorician who makes up rhetorical speeches).  Moreover, Socrates (in Plato's Phaedrus) warns his student about communication using "written words":  "you might think they [i.e., words that are written] spoke as though they made sense, but if you ask them anything about what they are saying, if you wish an explanation, they go on telling you the same thing, over and over forever."  Thus, the back-and-forth in communication, the "dialectic" of Socrates, gets at the ideal behind the poets' words, at the truth about the sophist's speakeristic tricks, and at the best explanation of any written word.  The need is reform.  Socrates and Plato are trying to ease a modal difficulty in communication, George Steiner might explain.  (It's the very difficulty that David Frank is trying to overcome in Bible translation when he turns to "relevance theory" to distinguish "weak" and "strong communication" and to achieve the ideal goals of "accuracy," "clarity," "naturalness," and "acceptability."  The mode of English clarity is a translator's difficulty, Joel M. Hoffman seems to respond, when there's not clarity in the mode we understand as "the original Hebrew or Greek (or Aramaic)."  For Frank, the communique, the message, is the ideal that the translator needs to bring across in the new language.  For Hoffman, the ordinariness or complexity or opacity or awkwardness of the old original languages is the ideal that the translator also needs to bring across in the new languages.  Frank and Hoffman are like Plato and Socrates in their goal of reforming translation.  It appears to me that Willis Barnstone, with his "Restored New Testament," and Ann Nyland, with her "Source New Testament," may be after reform as well; the former seems after the Hebrew (Aramaic) lost in English translation of the Greek, and the latter seems after the classical Greek senses behind the Greek of the New Testament.)   At first glance, it appears that Matthew might be after reforming as well.  In fact, Matthew has "Jesus" and "the disciples" and especially "Peter" in dialog, communicating, moving in accuracy and clarity toward some message or truth behind or in the words.  There are hints of Hebrew and Hebrew Aramaic in the Hellene; there is spoken Greek now within the written; but the goal of the author is to use various modes of communication ideally to communicate as clear and as accurate and as natural and as acceptable a message to his reader(s) as possible.  It appears, at first glance, that Matthew's goal might be basically the same as Plato's and Socrates's (and Frank's and Hoffman's and perhaps Barnstone's and Nyland's).  Their question tends to be "why that way"?  Their goal is transposition for better communication.

Aristotle communicated primarily and more purely with “pure correct Greek” to inform.  He separated himself from his teacher Plato.  His insistence tended to be "get it right."  There is one good word in good Greek, not two.  There is "logic" and "not logic."  Socrates's "dialectic" may be close, but it's "not logic."  "Rhetoric is the counterpart to dialectic," but not either of those is "logic."  "Dissoi Logoi" are two words, but "logos" is not always better, but neither of those is "logic."  Logic is science.  Science is that syl-logist-ic method of starting with the statement of what is objectively observed in Nature and lining up all the statements that follow (i.e., premises) and following them to the statement of the absolute replicable and invariable conclusion.  It appears that Matthew might be communicating by such logic.  At least his "Peter" does.  Peter zeroes in on the conclusion, the objective Nature, the Truth, about who Jesus is and who Jesus is not.  Peter gets it right.  And so, then, does the hidden translator / narrator we come to know as Matthew.  It appears that Matthew's goal -- or at least the goal of his character Peter -- is Aristotle's.  (Once upon a time, this was the goal of one Dr. Jim West in "getting Luke 2:14 right" in translation "so as to make it sensible and yet retain its meaning.").  His goal is to overcome the information gap, to ease what Steiner calls the "epiphenomenal" or the "contingency" difficulty.  His goal is proposition for pure, understood communication.

Alexander the Great was tutored by Aristotle.  He learned to impose Greek on the world, for communication of course.  We might say that everybody in the Hellene empire was to perform all communication in writing and in speaking by using the Greek language.  (A more contemporary variation on this theme of imposition of a single language is what the British empire was able to achieve by colonization and education so that many, many of us in the world today perform much communication -- such as this -- in English.  Or, the theme shows up with Greek bible readers who want to have us all read only or mainly or easily in Greek.  Transliteration can help get people reading the "original" more easily.)  By the time Matthew writes in Greek, the new Roman empire can hardly shake the language.  It appears that Matthew is participating in Alexander's project.  He names "Peter" with a Greek name.  Matthew is translating from Hebrew Aramaic and from Hebrew into hefty Hellene.  There's power in such communication (for the author and his reader); it is what Steiner calls the "strategic" or "tactical" difficulty.  Reader be damned, unless of course the reader learns to read what the author, by his own force and imposing strategy, has written.  Matthew, it appears, is just doing what Alexander did, what Alexander got the Egyptian King Ptolemy II Philadelphus had the Jews in Alexandria do:  perform the communication (even the communication of the holy Hebrew scriptures) in Greek.  "Whatever way works," seems to the be the machiavellian, alexandrian, gordian-knot-slicing method.  The goal is imposition of a communication strategy.

Now, we need a transition paragraph here.  I want to write one because what Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Alexander were doing with Greek was to work against what others before them had been doing.  Others before them may have been focused on communication.  Others before them may have used Greek for communication reformation, communication information, and even imposed communication performance.  And Matthew may have been following Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Alexander in their communication project.  But the others before Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Alexander (and Matthew after them) may have been doing other things with their Greek too.  Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Alexander did -- and it bears repeating -- oppose the other things that the others were doing.  The others were people such as Homer, Sappho, Aspasia, and Gorgias.  If we read Plato's Republic (or even if we read Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato), then we begin to get a pretty clear view of the power of the animosity of Plato against the Greek poets.  If we read Aristotle's Rhetoric or Poetics, then we begin to get a sense of how, in disparaging ways, he named certain ones and their ways of using non-logical Greek.  The point I'm trying to make is that there already were a number of various things Greek people before Aristotle did with their Greek that he attempted to box up and make out of bounds.  The other thing I'm trying to say is that the Greek users after Aristotle didn't always fall for it.  For example, the Jews translating their own Torah into a Greek Torah used Greek much more like Homer, Sappho, Aspasia, and Gorgias used Greek than as Aristotle taught his elite male students to use Greek.  I'm saying that Matthew might be doing some of that also.  And so ends the transitional paragraph here.

Now, we can talk a bit about how Homer, Sappho, Aspasia, and Gorgias (and others named by Plato and Aristotle too) used Greek and about how the Jews in Alexandria and Matthew in Jerusalem used Greek similarly.  Their language transformed.  It transformed the writer (or speaker), the readers (or audience), and those who were being written about (or spoken about).  The difficulty, as Steiner puts it, was "ontological."  The goal, if there was one, was a(p)position.  What I mean by that is both to participate in "apposition" or putting one word or phrase or story beside the next to see the meanings interlate and also to emphasize that one, at first, may not be in any position at all (i.e., a-position, or non-position) to relate and thus must participate by listening or overhearing or eavesdropping as if from the margins. "What may be(come) significant, meaningful" seems to be the motto.

Contemporary examples of this may be more what Mikhail Epstein has named "interlation," or "translingualism."  Maybe it's what Mikhail Bakhtin has named "polyglossia," or "heteroglossia." Certainly, it's what many feminists such as Hélène Cixous and Sherry Simon get at when translating or theorizing translation.

We don't pay attention much to this if we live in monolingual societies or read in one language in a cloistered "language group."  From time to time, we do get writers invading our one-language imaginations as creatively as Matthew writes his gospel.  For example, Yann Martel does this with his wonderful novel Life of Pi, in which the author's Indian protagonist narrates and converses in English until, at the end, the author himself (i.e., Martel the writer) must come back into the text to have two others speaking with the the protagonist in English but also speaking with one another mostly in Japanese.  We readers, nonetheless, get everything in English but understand perhaps Hindi thought patterns throughout and recognize the Japanese speech as bolded letters and otherwise very different font.  And, if you haven't yet read it, I haven't even given one thing away in the amazing story of stories.  I do have to tell you that "Pi" is a great play on the protagonist's name.  You get that right up front. But if you do make it to the end, then you find yourself, an outsider, suddenly thrust in, into the middle.  Pi's story becomes your own.  Or at least the Japanese interrogators' story does.  Or at least you find yourself changing, having to change now that you've suspended your own disbelief so long.  This may be what Matthew is doing with his Greek in "Matthew 16:15-19."

(And, with that long commentary, I think I might be ready soon now to post "translating Peter.")

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