Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Shame, Philomela, you unbiblical liberal bird

"When we say 'built on common ground,' we mean that the Common English Bible is the result of collaboration between opposites: scholars working with average readers; conservatives working with liberals; teens working with retirees; men working with women; many denominations and many ethnicities coming together around the common goal of creating a vibrant and clear translation for 21st century readers, with the ultimate objective of mutually accomplishing God's overall work in the world."
-- Paul Franklyn, PhD, associate publisher for the Common English Bible
"All these are unpersuasive for the reasons given.  Yet Gorgias' exclamation to the swallow when she flew down and let go her droppings on him is in the best tragic manner:  he said, 'Shame on you, Philomela'; for if a bird did it there was no shame, but [it would have been] shameful for a maiden.  He thus rebuked the bird well by calling it what it once had been rather than what it now was."
-- Aristotle
If you know the story of Philomela in Greek mythology, then you know how she was raped and how her rapist cut her tongue out because she yelled out exclamations of protest and how tragically in the end the gods translated her into a swallow.  If you know the Greek language of Aristotle here in his Rhetoric (Bekker page 1406b line 18), then you know how he's calling Philomela a παρθενον /parthenon/ but how he's praising Gorgias for calling her a bird, or rather for calling this swallow a shameful Philomela, because she's pooped on him.  That's right. Aristotle himself is saying that Philomela is still a "parthenon" who [read between the lines here] pooped on the man who desired her ['Shame on you, Philomela, because you did this to a man before you were a bird and while you were still a virgin, conservatively speaking, before he transformed you into something else, you maiden.  How inappropriate of you.  How shameful of you'].  Yes, this can be subtle stuff.  And in our status quo world, so conservative and so man first, we should not read too much into these things.  And if you do, then shame on you for your protests.

If you know how male English translators care about this word, parthenon, especially when it's sacred, then you know that "conservatives" translate it "virgin" while their opposites, the "liberals," translate it "maiden."  If you pay attention to how the man Paul Franklyn divides the world, then you see his polar opposite binaries as follows:
"scholars" / "average readers"
"conservatives" / "liberals"
"teens" / "retirees"
"men" / "women"
"denominations" / "ethnicities"
Opposites, in this way of thinking, are distinct even if there can be something in common between them, some common ground below them.
"a bird pooping" / "a maiden dropping protests of No! No! No! No!"
In these binaries, very subtly, not all is equal between the opposites.  Notice, if you will, how the men ordering the opposites put the better one on the left of / the lesser one. 
"men" / "women"
"denominations" / "ethnicities"
"virgin as translation of παρθενος" / "maiden or young lady or young woman or (unmarried) girl as translation of παρθενος"
Now listen to the language, the ordering of pairs, from BBB blogger Wayne Leman in his recent post on the question of whether Franklyn's Common English Bible translation is "liberal" or not.  Leman is attempting to deconstruct the "conservative" / "liberal" binary.  Ironically, however, he re-constructs his own binary, with "liberal" as the still-botched category:
"Some conservatives consider translation of Hebrew almah in this verse [i.e., Isaiah 7:14] as 'young woman' instead of 'virgin' to be liberal. But is it, or does it actually reflect accurate biblical scholarship?"

"What you think might be a liberal translation of some verse may be shown to be an accurate translation, especially when you find other verses in the translation which continue to support whatever is your own theological viewpoint."
Did you see it?  Here it is:
"accurate biblical scholarship" / "liberal"
"an accurate translation" / "a liberal translation"
Of course, Leman is arguing that "young woman" (as the best English for "almah" in Isaiah 7:14) is an actual reflection of biblical scholarship that is accurate.  In opposition to that, for Leman, is the very same translation that is motivated by what would be liberal.

Commenter Joel Hoffman says something similar, quoting and with some nuance correcting Leman:
"I think everyone agrees that changing 'virgin' to 'young woman' for alma in Isaiah 7:14 is 'accurate biblical scholarship,' but the decision to prefer that scholarship over tradition is liberal."
Here, as a variation, Hoffman's binary pits what is good against what is (not "liberal" exactly but what is, rather, instead) botched "tradition":
"accurate biblical scholarship" / "tradition"
The point for both Leman and Hoffman is that which opposes "accurate biblical scholarship" is botched, is lesser, is "in-accurate" and "un-biblical" and "not scholarly."

The binary (i.e., that "either / or" division) is what allows men who know things to know them op-positionally.  And what comes first (i.e., on the left side of the pair in a left-to-right listing) is determined, actually pre-determined by them, to be naturally what's best.


So let's now look at how this works out in Bible translation.   Franklyn lists these binaries as opposites that must find common ground for his Common English Bible translation:
"men" / "women"
"denominations" / "ethnicities" 
When you look at the CEB team of translators (i.e., individuals on either side of his oppositions), what's interesting is how somebody like Adele Berlin on the team can neither be one of the men nor is actually able to be person of a Christian denomination.  Must Berlin, a woman, be the opposite of the men?  Is she, as not a member of a denomination, a person of some specific marked ethnicity?  Which one?  Is this a Christian / Jewish binary?

It's no secret that the problem in Bible translation with the words almah (עלמה) and pathenos (παρθενος) is the problem over whether the girl Mary (the mother of Jesus) was a virgin, or not, when these words are used.

How this seems to mirror Gorgias' and Aristotle's own tragic problem of whether Philomela is an ὄρνιθι /ornithi/ or a παρθένος /parthenos/.  One is appropriate and not shameful; the other is inappropriate, and shameful.

The Hebrew alma is in Isaiah 7:14.  So is the Greek pathenos in the earliest translation of Isaiah 7:14.  Whoever the maiden is that this scripture and that these words refer to might have been a virgin.  And the "young woman," as the common denominator CEB translation team has translated the Hebrew, might she be the prophesied Mary, the mother of Immanuel as Jesus, or not? 

The binary way of knowing the answer will not tolerate ambiguity.  Either she is, or not.  Either this is accurate, or not.  Either it is respectable, or it's shameful.

When we get to the New Testament, then we leave the Hebrew and have only the Greek.  Moreover, both in the gospel of Matthew and in the gospel of Luke, we have the story of the pregnant Mary not being "known" or "impregnated" by her man, her fiancé, her husband, Joseph.  In both stories, she is a virgin with child by the Holy Spirit.  So now, in these contexts, is the Greek pathenos (παρθενος) any less ambiguous than the Hebrew almah (עלמה) and its Greek translation the Greek pathenos (παρθενος) in Isaiah 7:14?  Do the stories of the virgin Mary require the Greek word to be translated unambiguously in Matthew 1:23 and in Luke 1:27?

Is one translation accurate, biblical, scholarly, respectable, and the other not?

I'll let you answer.  And to help, it may be interesting to see how various translators have translated the words:

the Hebrew almah (עלמה) as "young woman" in Isaiah 7:14 - JPS, JPCT, RSV, NET, NEB, NABRE 2011, NAB 2011, The Inclusive Bible

the Hebrew almah (עלמה) as "the young woman is with child" and "a young woman who is pregnant" and "A girl who is presently a virgin" and "a young woman is now with child" and "young woman is pregnant" in Isaiah 7:14 - NRSV and Good News Translation and The Message and The Bible in Basic English and the Common English Bible

the Hebrew almah (עלמה) as "virgin" in Isaiah 7:14 - pretty much all the other translations

the Greek pathenos (παρθενος) as "virgin" in LXX Isaiah 7:14 - Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton, NETS by Moisés Silva

the Greek pathenos (παρθενος) as "maiden" in Matthew 1:23 - Weymouth, Richmond Lattimore

the Greek pathenos (παρθενος) as "the unmarried girl" in Matthew 1:23 - Ann Nyland

the Greek pathenos (παρθενος) as "young woman" in Matthew 1:23 - Willis Barnstone

the Greek pathenos (παρθενος) as "virgin" in Matthew 1:23 - pretty much all the other translations

the Greek pathenos (παρθενος) as "young woman" in Luke 1:27 - The Inclusive Bible

the Greek pathenos (παρθενος) as "the unmarried girl" in Luke 1:27 - Ann Nyland

the Greek pathenos (παρθενος) as "virgin" in Luke 1:27 - pretty much all the other translations

the Greek pathenos (παρθενος) as "girl" in Aristotle's Rhetoric - W. Rhys Roberts

the Greek pathenos (παρθενος) as "young lady" in Aristotle's Rhetoric - J. H. Freese

the Greek pathenos (παρθενος) as "maiden" in Aristotle's Rhetoric - George A. Kennedy

the Greek pathenos (παρθενος) as "virgin" in Aristotle's Rhetoric - anon, 1683

Is one translation accurate, biblical, scholarly, respectable, and the other not?


Kristen said...

"Is one translation accurate, biblical, scholarly, respectable, and the other not?"

As far as I can tell, it IS ambiguous. Except that (as I remember it) both Matthew and Luke's gospels say that what happened to Mary was in fulfillment of this passage-- which otherwise I would not necessarily have connected.

But you're right-- I don't see why the translation of this word one way or the other should put people on one side or the other of a binary.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks always, Kristen, for your comments. What you said here about Matthew and Luke inspired me to see how a different emphasis in their translation might show how some of their first native Greek readers could have understood what they wrote.

Here's the attempt at translation.