Thursday, January 28, 2010

Naming Translation

Do names contain meanings?  And by "contain" I mean, "label."  I'm suggesting "limit."  Do names set "exclusionary" boundaries? 
"Labels are limiting. They're exclusionary." 
That's what linguist David Ker says when reading my post on the labels "feminism," "rhetoric," "translation," and the "Bible."
"Roughly speaking, the scientist tries to name things and the artist tries to avoid naming things."
That's what acclaimed scientist and acclaimed novelist Alan Lightman says when writing and speaking about writing scientifically and writing artistically.

So I want to know what happens when a name is translated.  Is the name now more of a name?  Is the translated name more limiting, more exclusionary, more scientific?

If you've read my blog much at all, then you know I'm curious about how quickly -- how so easily and so effortlessly -- we in the West accept the binary distinction between science and art.  We follow Aristotle.  Aristotle named things.  He named science, and he named art.  He wrote of Physics, and he wrote of Poetics.  He claimed Logic, and he warned of slippery Logos and of Dissoi Logoi.

So what? we say.  So what if we use names to contain?  So what if we exclude?

Well, I asked Lightman about this.  He conceded that the binary of "scientist trying to name" / "artist avoiding naming" just doesn't work.  And he had to concede when thinking about his own work.  But he wanted to concede especially when recognizing that translators -- when really good -- are best not only as scientists but also as artists as well.

Let's just say that again so we don't miss it:
Good translators both do some naming and also leave some naming to be done by their readers.
This is exactly what goes on in the earliest Jewish translation of Torah by the Jews.  The Jews translating the Bible into Greek worked against Aristotle's clean division between Logic and Logoi, between Physics and Poetics.

And, in fact, when we come to "the Gospel," which is the limit that David Ker names, then we see much of this sort of translation going on.  I'm calling it -- even naming it -- wordplay.  And by "wordplay," I mean both playfulness with words and also interpretive wiggle room.

In an upcoming post, I'm planning to show -- in the gospel of "Jesus" -- some of the striking translational wordplay.  There's an example of one of the writers using Greek mixing (even mixing up) names in Greek, in Hebrew Aramaic, and in Hebrew.

So what? we ask again.  And I do think Ker is on to something.  The "so what" is the question of exclusion.  Who gets excluded when the translator presumes only to be a scientist?  When the translator decides to get so serious with names that there are clearly-defined labels and severely-strict limits, then who gets cut and who gets cut out?
"Christians who have translated the Bible have changed the Jewish names so as to de-Jew them." 
That's what New Testament translator Willis Barnstone, a Jew, claims in his history, his theory, and his practice of translation.
"So many women are kept out of the ministry on the grounds of 'what the Bible says' but the Bible in Greek actually doesn't say anything against women in the ministry. (Mis)translation is a different matter." 
That's what New Testament translator Ann Nyland, a woman, says.

So I want us in the West who are all too eager to practice the Aristotelian binary in translation to think again.
"all languages are translations. The moment I write, I translate. I translate what I feel in this or that language, which I am going to destabilize. The encounters of my emotions in my thought with the French language, for instance, is going to de-French and re-French French -- to free French... Of course the translator has to be a great poet and also a kind of mathematician of an equivalent order to displace the original to its next of kin."
That's of course what Hélène Cixous, a translator, a Jew, and a woman, says.  She also asks other questions when translating:
"La question des juifs.  La question des femmes.  La question des juifemmes... 
The question of the Jews.  The question of women.  The question of jewomen..."
So Sherry Simon says:
"We are reminded here of Derrida's question: can the process of transfer between texts already written in a plurality of tongues still be called translation?  How to translate a text which is already infected by the multiplicity of language...?"
So I'm planning to post again, to translate some when I do.  And I'm going to start with "the Gospel."  I'm going to look at some things that Jews we know as "Jesus," "Matthew," and "Peter" do with names.  I'm going to try to do some of those things myself, to try naming and also to avoid naming.   The name of that post will be "translating Peter."


adda said...

Great post. Liked the comment by Barnstone regarding de-Jewing the names. Actually, translating names is one of the challenges translators face daily. We have recently ordered a translation from an online translation service - . They had an interesting approach towards name translation which we had finally approved.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks for your comment. Barnstone has much to say, and thankfully he does more than just theorize translation. Would love to hear more about how the translation service approached rendering names, and how you liked it.