Monday, January 5, 2009

A Circumcised Pen is Translation of Men

Please pardon my pun. I'm not asking you to pardon the fact that the title of this post is an intentional punning.  Rather, I want you to forgive me for having to talk about the male body part as the Bible does. :)

As if the tower of Babel (with it's tongues and lips) is not full enough of phallic symbolism, the story of Genesis moves on to male circumcision to establish the Jewish patriarchy. I'll look at that with you, right after this paragraph and its three related bullet points below. My interest is in how the Jews first translated their own Hebrew stories into Hellene--and what that means to us outsiders. But other bloggers have some broader if also very related posts:
  • Suzanne McCarthy has begun an incredibly intelligent series on Genesis 11, looking at not only gender issues and not only at Greek translation features but also at the choices of Pagnini and Jerome for their Latin translations.  In addition, Suzanne brings in the works of Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles, of Rabbi Leslie Bergson and Mary Baron, of David Stein, of Robert Alter, of the old Sefer Yetsira, and of the brand new translating of Martin Shields. Her series is the "babble from Babel" with part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 so far.
  • Martin Shields is going beyond the modern translation debate between Dynamic Equivalence / Literal [Functional] Equivalence to "a foreignising translation of genesis 1." He explains, "With the growing awareness of the distance between modern western readers of the Bible and the original context of the text’s composition comes a growing awareness of the manner in which most translations of either type allow the reader to domesticate the text by permitting the reader to impose upon the text their own cultural ideals and norms simply because the translations employ concepts sufficiently vague to allow them such freedom." Martin has a theoretical discussion in Part I and begins his translating in part II.  (HT John Hobbins)
  • Rich Rhodes has another post in which he argues, among other things, that "Taking figurative language literally is a problem in thinking about translation." As an example, he reviews a "theologically loaded term, like ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ‘the word of God’" to try to begin to show in English what's "Lost in translation."  Rich argues pointedly (as he has in the past, with his first-order "ouch,") in favor of Dynamic Equivalence translation of the Bible.  He slams alternative approaches (i.e., both Functional Equivalence and the sort of Foreignness translation that Martin is beginning and that Suzanne is discussing in various ways).

My interest is in how the Jews first translated their own Hebrew stories into foreign Hellene--and what that means to us outsiders.   Their translation methods are extremely important to me as I reflect on them at this blog (and translate their Greek into my English elsewhere). 

Curiously, from Genesis 14:13 to 18:8, the Hebrew translators do exactly what Rich Rhodes says a better bible translator ought not to do.  They make foreign their language that is familiar. Or they render as literal their language that is figural.

There are three notable examples.  Again, I'm just looking at Genesis 14:13 to 18:8.


First, the Jewish translators into Greek make the very first mention of the proper noun "Hebrew" a common noun. It's from Genesis 14:13.

Here's their original language, penned by some author as passed down presumably through the oral tradition:

לְאַבְרָם הָעִבְרִי

Now, our usual English translation of their Hebrew is "Abram the Hebrew." But here's their own Greek translation:

Αβραμ τῷ περάτῃ

This is very odd translating indeed. To call it Dynamic Equivalence is to speculate that the Jewish translators want to take the literal meaning of their identifying proper-noun name "Hebrew" and to put that into Greek as a dynamically equivalent common noun, which means something like "the passer through." Or would that be Functional Equivalence? No, it's neither.

Rather, the Jewish translators (living under the Greek empire under the Egyptian kingdom there in Alexandria) are doing something very personal. They are foreignizing their own text. They are turning emics into etics. They are distancing outsiders from their own text by translating the name "Hebrew" for their patriarch Abram rather descriptively as an outsider.

They know that περάτῃ is a very uncommon Hellene word. It is used exclusively of one particularly tough evening for the goddess Athena, the virgin patron of Athens. Homer's Odyssey (at 23.243) says this of her:

νύκτα μὲν ἐν περάτῃ δολιχὴν σχέθεν

She checked the long night in its passage
(which is James Huddleston's English).

Why περάτῃ? What doesn't help at all is that neither the Septuagint translators nor Homer or the other Greek poets ever use that word again. Elsewhere, starting in Genesis 39, the Jewish translators will transliterate the word we know as "Hebrew" as the Greek "Εβραῖος." The transliteration practice is something the letter-writing Jew named "Saul" then "Paul" will use. He writes in Greek to Greek readers to call himself a Ἑβραῖος ἐξ Ἑβραίων (a Hebrew born of Hebrews).

All the NET Bible commentary can add is that "The meaning of the word 'Hebrew' has proved elusive. It may be related to the verb 'to cross over,' perhaps meaning 'immigrant.' Or it might be derived from the name of Abram’s ancestor Eber."

What this commentary shows is none of the word play. The context of the story here shows that Abram is failing as a father. He's just "passing" on God's promise, if I may pun further. He needs an extreme makeover. He needs a significant name change. He needs a very personal, very painful change in his generative abilities, indeed, in his genitals. It's like that long passing night of the goddess Athena, nothing comfortable at all, something extremely memorable for this Hebrew-patriarchal-passer.


So we come to that second example of foreignizing translation in this passage from the pen of Hebrew men. Abram is complaining to God (calling him Δέσποτα, or in Greek a "master who's a despot"), saying that a foreign-born slave-woman's son (υἱὸς . . . τῆς οἰκογενοῦς) is going to outdo him in the fathering business. This is after the "word of the LORD" (or Master's speech, as ῥῆμα κυρίου) comes to him. So God has to speak another word (φωνὴ κυρίου, or Master's voice speaks). Abram listens (and this is well before his mistake, ha, of listening obediently to the voice of his wife-wombman Sara, whom he'd failed to get pregnant: ὑπήκουσεν δὲ Αβραμ τῆς φωνῆς Σαρας, Genesis 16:2). So then, there's the famous line that Christians, including the Jewish Paul, have quoted so much (Genesis 15:6):

καὶ ἐπίστευσεν Αβραμ τῷ θεῷ,
καὶ ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην.
(and Abram by this rhetorical proof believed the god,
and it was stated in legal terms to him as Justice.)

My Englishing of the Greek is to get at some of the legalese here, at much of Aristotle's judicial-rhetorical theorizing. But I'm also getting at the unintended Hellene theo-logic, in the result: δικαιοσύνην. So much has already been said about this particular Jew-to-Christian passage that I won't say anything more than just to suggest again that English "righteousness" - which may be more the Hebrew sense - hardly gets at the goddess Dike (i.e., Δίκας or Justice), whom the Jewish translators' Greek invokes.  

So many more different Greek words could have been chosen.  (Paul uses many Greek synonyms in what's now the New Testament).  But this foreign Hellene goddess word was the one the Hebrew translators chose:  they chose it to highlight the "belief/ faith" reward of the god of the passer-father named Abram.


Finally, in this passage, there is the foreign-literal translation of a third Hebrew phrase.  Well, here's a complete sentence with the whole thing pretty well summarized (Genesis 17:23):

וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָהָם אֶת־יִשְׁמָעֵאל בְּנֹו וְאֵת כָּל־יְלִידֵי בֵיתֹו וְאֵת כָּל־מִקְנַת כַּסְפֹּו כָּל־זָכָר בְּאַנְשֵׁי בֵּית אַבְרָהָם וַיָּמָל אֶת־בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתָם בְּעֶצֶם הַיֹּום הַזֶּה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אִתֹּו אֱלֹהִים׃

The translators of King James rendered that this way:

Then Abraham took Ish'mael his son and all the slaves born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham's house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him.

The translators of "Today's New International Version" (TNIV) put that this way:

On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him.

The Hebrews of Alexandria Egypt put their own language into Greek this way:

Καὶ ἔλαβεν Αβρααμ Ισμαηλ τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ καὶ πάντας τοὺς οἰκογενεῖς αὐτοῦ καὶ πάντας τοὺς ἀργυρωνήτους καὶ πᾶν ἄρσεν τῶν ἀνδρῶν τῶν ἐν τῷ οἴκῳ Αβρααμ καὶ περιέτεμεν τὰς ἀκροβυστίας αὐτῶν ἐν τῷ καιρῷ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης, καθὰ ἐλάλησεν αὐτῷ ὁ θεός.

What is most interesting here are the translation decisions. The KJV uses the FE method, offering latinized and middle english phases to make a literal translation. The TNIV uses the DE approach, which assumes that natural international English of readers is best the excised phrase "circumcised" (i.e., without any redundant references to "flesh" or to "foreskin" as per the full ancient Hebrew phrase).

But the Jews in Alexandria, Egypt do something completely different.  They do use a literal translating into Hellene, but they also truncate the literal phrase.  In other words, περι-έτεμεν literally mirrors the first word of the Hebrew and ἀκρο-βυστίας mirrors the last word of the phrase. But the middle word (e.g., literally σάρκα, as in Genesis 17:11) is cut out.

And the two literal Greek words (meaning respectively "cut-around" and "full-tip") are fairly uncommon, to say the least. For the exact common words, there's a relatively recent collection of them in Frederick M. Hodges' article, "The Ideal Prepuce in Ancient Greece and Rome: Male Genital Aesthetics and Their Relation to Lipodermos, Circumcision, Foreskin Restoration, and the Kynodesme." The literal then sounds fairly foreign when used this way.

It's almost as if the Hebrew translators using Hellene are flaunting their own circumcisions. They knew the Greek and Egyptian attitudes towards circumcision. (Read 1 Maccabees for the ongoing and later resentments between the various groups, on this very topic. And Gerald A. Larue's lecture, "Religious Traditions and Circumcision," gives an overview of some of the history.) Were they personally trying to sound foreign here by being literal? Were they ignorant, or were they playing with words in translation to add meanings? To suggest that their Abram passing through foreign lands as now passing-father Abraham became "cut-around the bulk of his tip"? Did you picture that literally? Now, I'm trying to sound like an ESL student with my English, on purpose.

A native speaker of Greek, an eloquent one, would use the words differently, maybe not so painfully anatomically but rather metaphorically. Plato, for example, in his Hippias Major (304a.5), uses the Greek word "cut-around" (i.e., the word the Jewish translators use) in a much different context. The writer has his character Hippias saying the following:

ἀλλὰ δή γ’, ὦ Σώκρατες, τί οἴει ταῦτα εἶναι συνάπαντα; κνήσματά τοί ἐστι καὶ περιτμήματα τῶν λόγων, ὅπερ ἄρτι ἔλεγον, κατὰ βραχὺ διῃρημένα

(But now, Socrates, what do you think all this amounts to? It is mere scrapings and circumcisions [lit. cut-arounds] of the statement, as I stated a while ago, divided into bits.)

As mentioned, the Maccabees Jewish translation into Greek addresses the Hebrew resentments of Alexander's conquest and the Hellene male resentments of the Hebrew male circumcisions. The Maccabean translators use the same words as the Genesis translators: the literal, foreign-sounding words. This practice continues with the Jew Saul-Paul, who begins to distance himself in new ways from his "pharisee" tradition. He talks of his own heritage (writing to those in Macedonia, Greece - the fatherland of Alexander):

περιτομῇ ὀκταήμερος ἐκ γένους Ἰσραήλ φυλῆς Βενιαμίν Ἑβραῖος ἐξ Ἑβραίων κατὰ νόμον Φαρισαῖος
(I'm a "cut-around" born of Israel's tribe of Benyamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, according to Law a Pharisee).

And writing, Paul plays with words. He calls the Legalist proponents of male circumcision (or "cut-around") those who "cut-off" or κατατομή. When writing to Greeks in Galatia (Galatians 6:15), he says: 

οὔτε γὰρ περιτομή τί ἐστιν οὔτε ἀκροβυστία ἀλλὰ καινὴ κτίσις.
 (There are, in fact, neither "cut-arounds" nor "spongy-tips" but rather there are new makings)


It's rather funny to think of male circumcision in the context of the Bible.  Suzanne wrote a funny visual post on this not long ago, and some time back I found the Greek word περι-τομή to be a particularly playful one.

And I think Martin is on to something in translating as a foreigner, something we can learn from the Jews who translated as insider-outsiders of Greek in Egypt.   A DE translation of Genesis, such as the TNIV, can miss more than Rich thinks it does.  For example, there's much lost by the "dynamically equivalent" TNIV even in its reduction of the phrase of 17:23:  "every male in his household," which the FE KJV makes "every male among the men of Abraham's house" and the first translators literally kept the Hebrew redundancies "πᾶν ἄρσεν τῶν ἀνδρῶν τῶν ἐν τῷ οἴκῳ Αβρααμ."  When the foreigners come visiting Abraham's house (in 18:1,2), it becomes clear (in both Hebrew and in Greek and in the English KJV -- because of those redundancies (i.e., "every male among the men") that the outsiders are "male" because they are "men" (i.e., ἄνδρες). 

This raises the question, doesn't it, whether these three outsider men have had their "male" "spongy-tips" "cut-around"? Otherwise, writers of commentaries make these "men" less physical, more like angels, which perhaps they are. And yet, the Jewish male translator's personal pen is painfully more akin to the sharpened-father Abraham's passing Hebrew. (Huh? that's what I say. To pretend to know all that the Hebrew text must mean, or only what it means, is not to allow translators and translation to be foreign.)

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