Monday, February 8, 2010

A Strong (Black) (Woman) Translation of Proverbs 31

On Suzanne's Bookshelf is Sunday's post entitled "My lovely wife ...", which points us to Dave Warnock's post "My wife ...".  And the question raised is the interpretation and translation of Proverbs 31 from the perspective(s) of men who are husbands of the women who are their subjects of the discussion.

But below, here, and somewhat in contrast, is posted a woman's translation, a strong (Black woman's) translation of the text.  As an introduction to the Prov. 31 exposition, I've included the scholar's brief paragraph (with exposition from other [women] scholars) on an earlier verse in Proverbs; I'm including the paragraph to show the context and the care and the carefulness in the strength of the translation.


      Proverbs 14:1 presents a translational problem as well, and thus one of transmission of meaning as well.  The Hebrew states:  "The wisdom of women builds her house."  That is what the actual translation should be, but this is not shown in the biblical translation into English.  It is glossed over.  The translation that is given verges on being [merely] an interpretation ([Carol] Meyers 2001: [page] 306 ["Wise Woman Building Her House" in Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/ Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, ed. Carol Meyers, Toni Craven, and Ross S. Kraemer;  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans]).  Meyers sees this verse as being a term for the family household.  She also sees it as an expression of female agency (2001:306).  What is found within this verse is the understanding of collective wisdom of the foremothers throughout the generations coming forward and influencing the female members of successive generations as they build households, nurture offspring, and pass on their wisdom to their daughters.  Implicit in the text is the understanding of the transmission of wisdom as an aspect of oral pedagogy, which is a combination of tradition and practice.
      One of the most popular sections found in the book of Proverbs is Prov. 31:10-31.  It has often been preached on Women's Day in many African American churches.  Although beautiful in its lyrical form in the Hebrew, the passage can also be considered problematic by many Africana women who read it and try in some way to identify with or live up to this woman who appears to be ideal.
      The woman portrayed in this passage is a married, wealthy woman with servants, her own business, and a prominent husband.  Many persons reading this section might question how this section, this paradigm, can in any way be relevant to Black women on the whole, due to the fact that many do not fit into the patterns.  The possibility is minuscule at best.  However, there are yet possibilities for identification within the text.  Were there to be an adjustment in the translation of the adjective used to describe the woman, it would open up the possibility of identifying with this woman being described in the text.  The adjective in the text used to describe the wife/woman can also be translated as "strength," "power," or "courageous."  Thus, it can legitimately be translated as "a woman of strength" or "a woman of power" or "a woman who is courageous."  With this retranslation of the text, by saying "whoever finds a strong woman, a 'courageous woman' or a 'powerful woman,'" one finds a paradigm within which an Africana woman can place herself.  Also, it is not necessary to translate the word that is translated to mean "wife" as such.  Thus, again with a valid retranslation of the text, a place can be found for the woman who is single with children and who faces life with strength and courage daily.  Thus, this woman becomes real for Africana women.
      There have been countless Afro-Carribbean and African American women throughout history -- unsung heroines -- who have risen to that level.  Afro-Carribbean and African American mothers, grandmothers, and even great-grandmothers have for centuries risen to the challenges that arose for them and their families, meeting them valiantly, capably, and successfully.  Within our histories are many untold stories of women who have tirelessly worked with the willing hands of verse 13; women who have awakened while it was still night and began to work, as noted in 31:15, just to ensure that their families would have a meal before they went to work.  These are the women who stayed up late at night, just as noted in 31:18b, to make sure that their family's needs were met.  They did not have financial wealth, but their wealth of spirit and courage in the face of overwhelming odds and their ability to stretch their money in order to "make do," speak to their valiant spirit and their enormous capabilities.  These women abound in our present day and in our past.  Within African Diaspora communities, it has long been the practice for those who have little to extend a helping hand to those who have less.  There exists ample evidence, among the women of these communities, of the strength and dignity noted in 31:25.  One only needs to look at the matriarchs throughout the African Diaspora for examples.  What has been often woefully lacking is the praise due these women.

above, an excerpt from the chapter "Proverbs," by Dr. Naomi P. Franklin, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Virginia Union University, and Preacher at Pilgrim Journey Baptist Church, in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel's Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora

HT David Ker


Rod said...

Thank you Dr. Gayle, for this post. It brings back memories, going to conservative baptist black churches and, as a male, to hear Proverb 31 each women's day was just boring and essentialist.

J. K. Gayle said...

Rod, Thank you from the observations from your own experience! If essentialism and boredom were yours, as a male, then what might they be (or might they've been) for the women in the conservative baptist black congregation?

Rod said...

Knowing the stories from my mother and godmother, and great grand mother and aunts and cousins: oppression!