Friday, January 23, 2009

Mothers of Moses

First, read Suzanne's post. Now you know how what's she's saying there has prompted me to say something more here. (No, I'm not blogging any more; just today).

See how Suzanne gets to the importance of gendered language? The insertion of male-only metaphors closes down a text and the translation of that text. Pay attention to the ironic examples she gives from one text of Creation (aka Sefer Yetsira or ספר יצירה) and from another text of Creation (aka Sefer Ma'aseh Be-Réshit or בְּרֵאשִׁית and Genesis or Γένεσις). The examples are ironic when the "creation" text uses "tongue" only (but not "lips"), so un-creatively, so de-creatively. Allowing men only to translate (in masculinist ways, or by abstract phallogocentric methods alone) kills creation. Suzanne starts by showing the womanly translation of Julia Smith, who (she says in her next post) is one of "the heroes of transparency and word for word translation. . . [with] a sense of the sound and flow of the language. . . not just translating meaning, but metaphor and imagery, alliteration and assonance." (Notice how Smith is not the only one who so heroically translates. Suzanne names two men as such heroic translators as well).

Womanly translation, which is like the "écriture féminine" espoused by Hélène Cixious, is plural. And is inclusive, of not only male but also female genders. Nancy Mairs describes such as "feminine discourse," as "not the language of opposites but a babel of eroticism, attachment, and empathy." Just to be clear, Aristotle, the father of masculinist language (i.e., Greek male-only logic), observed females in nature as the opposite of males. Biologically, the procreative organs and genitals of females are, Aristotle says, both the counterpart to and the inverse of the male procreative genital. He adds that females are inferior to males, are actually opposite and botched mutilations of males. Thus, the very vocalized sounds of females are inferior to male voices. Females in opposition to males, according to Aristotle, are "directly translational." But Mairs shows that one example of feminine discourse (as translational and plural as such can be) actually "blows to smithereens" the dominant male-only example of a "cultural paradigm" in the West (i.e., the Baconian "essay" not the Montaignian "essais"); Mairs's speaks of the richness of Alice Walker's personal, bodily, inclusive translation or reworking of the essay.

I suppose the previous paragraph will run off all readers who have little tolerance for anything feminist. And yet, Suzanne's post moves me forward to talk about what the text we've come to know as Exodus includes.

There are two things I want to discuss here.

One, do you notice how the name Moses comes from a woman, an Egyptian female? How she bends down and pulls the little baby out of the Nile River? And she says, "Let's call him Pulled Out"? And how she's speaking Egyptian, of course!? But how the Hebrew translators of her words put them in, well, in Hebrew, of course!? Or is the ambiguous claim of the "original" Hebrew text that "she" is the "sister" of the one pulled out of the Nile by the Egyptian daughter? Look for yourself! Listen to the wordplay:

וַיִגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד וַתְּבִאֵהוּ לְבַת־פַּרְעֹה וַיְהִי־לָהּ לְבֵן וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמֹו מֹשֶׁה וַתֹּאמֶר כִּי מִן־הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ׃

משה (Mosheh aka "Moses")
משה (mashah aka "draw out")
מים (mayim aka "[from] water(s)")

There are the bi-labial sounds of אם ('em), the universal cry for "ma" for "ma ma" for "mother." These are the first sounds on the lips of Moses, the baby, as his mother nurses him. Two lips are needed, for the nursing, for the creative, voiced name "Ma" and אם ('--m).

And the Egyptian daughter understands the sounds so well.

Two, I want to look at how Exodus 2 further disrupts the male-only line (i.e., the masculine genealogy, the patriarchy) of these Hebrews. Notice how the mother of Moses, the biological mother, is an unnamed daughter. This is significant. She is only named in reference to the "son" of Israel named Levi, and to one of the "sons" of this "son" named Levi. HE is איש ('iysh). But she is not named as his opposite, as coming from "man" (i.e., she's not called in this text אשה ['ishshah]). And she is not called a womb-man by the Jewish men translating the Hebrew into Greek (i.e., she is not translated as ἡ γυνὴ). Nonetheless, as we keep reading in both Hebrew and in Hellene, she is a mother, the mother who conceives and bears and hides the one to be called Moses [i.e., the One Pulled out by a mother who gives him back to his mother from whom he's pulled out, from whose breasts he nurses, whom he first and also calls אם ('--m, or "ma").

Remember how this same Moses later complains, in Hebrew, not only, "I being heavy of mouth, and heavy of tongue" but also "I of uncircumcised lips"?! (See Exodus 4:10 but then 6:12). Both the tongue and (for this man Moses) the lips are impediments to pulling the people out of slavery under a dominant man (i.e. Pharaoh) in Egypt.

This patriarchy of males cannot do without girls, without daughters, without mothers. And these girls and mothers and daughters are translational. They are equal with boys, with sons, with fathers, in the image of the god (i.e. of God) who created both genders. ("Let us create. . . boy and girl he created them"). I'm using "girl" and "sister" and "mother" as I write in English because they are gendered terms not dependent on some opposite. They are not like "female" which depends on "male" and "woman" which depends on "man." Equality, in originality, in creativity, in the Beginning, does not classify one sex as secondary to or as below the other sex. Don't misunderstand what I'm trying to say: female and woman are good English words--but they are terms that are marked as aberrant forms of their unmarked (i.e., default) male and man counterparts.

The story teller of what we know as Exodus 2 seems to get the disruption of the Hebrew patriarchy by girls, by mothers, by daughters not only of Hebrews but also of Egyptians. The translators translating in Egypt, using Homeric Hellene for their Hebrew, seem to get this too.

So let's focus now on just one "verse" of Exodus 2. We hear in verse 3 some of the most incredible echos of mothers desperate to protect and to preserve their progeny. Look and listen:

Here's the Hebrew.

וְלֹא־יָכְלָה עֹוד הַצְּפִינֹו וַתִּקַּח־לֹו תֵּבַת גֹּמֶא וַתַּחְמְרָה בַחֵמָר וּבַזָּפֶת וַתָּשֶׂם בָּהּ אֶת־הַיֶּלֶד וַתָּשֶׂם בַּסּוּף עַל־שְׂפַת הַיְאֹר׃

Now here's Julia Smith's English.

"And she will not be able any more to hide him, and she will take for him an ark of bulrush, and will pitch it with bitumen and with pitch, and she will put in it the child, and will put in the sedge by the lip of the river."

Do you see and hear? There's the return to Babel (i.e., "pitch it with bitumen and with pitch"), the repetition of "lip" (as is heard in the originally story of Babel). Now in Exodus, the Hebrew and the English, of the original story teller and of the translator, give this to readers. Why? What's so important about the re-collection of "bitumen" and "pitch"? It's what humans used to try to build a city state and a tower to get to the god (i.e., God). Now a mother is using the same materials to try to get her baby away from the man who would kill Hebrew males only. What's so important about the "lip" metaphor, instead of say a "bank" for the river? Some will say that a gendered reading of "lip" here as feminine discourse is "reading into the text." But why not another Hebrew metaphor, why not another English word? Don't these suggest other possibilities for a male only text? Don't they (allow us, boy and girl, to) disrupt the patriarchy? Isn't the disallowing of "lip" more than a "loss in translation"? Isn't the refusal to use "lip" (as an ambiguous, opened-up metaphor) an enactment of masculinist (i.e., phallogocentric) translation, in which the usually-male translator gets on his high horse and decides that "lip" is not "fit" for the nature of his "natural" English? Isn't "field-testing" (again in a "male" dominant select group of "native speakers") just a smoke screen for excluding the possibilities of alternative interpretations?

So let's turn to the Hellene translation by the Hebrews living in Egypt (and immediately then to Lancelot Brenton's and Larry Perkins's respective English "translations" of the Greek).

ἐπεὶ δὲ οὐκ ἠδύναντο αὐτὸ ἔτι κρύπτειν, ἔλαβεν αὐτῷ ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ θῖβιν καὶ κατέχρισεν αὐτὴν ἀσφαλτοπίσσῃ καὶ ἐνέβαλεν τὸ παιδίον εἰς αὐτὴν καὶ ἔθηκεν αὐτὴν εἰς τὸ ἕλος παρὰ τὸν ποταμόν.

"And when they could no longer hide him, his mother took for him an ark, and besmeared it with bitumen, and cast the child into it, and put it in the ooze by the river." - Brenton

"But when they could hide it no longer, its mother took a basket and plastered it with a mixture of pitch and tar, and she put the child in it and placed it in the marsh beside the river." - Perkins

What do you see? Or, rather, what do you neither see nor hear in the Greek? No "lip" of the river where the one (Hebrew) mother of Moses hides him to be delivered out of the river by the other (Egyptian) mother of Moses. This "delivery" by the translators using Greek fails to convey all that it does by the story teller using Hebrew, using "lip."

Suzanne has already noted something similar earlier in the Greek-translated Hebrew text:

"But the Greeks [i.e., the males reading and translating in Greek] would have none of that. The translators of the Septuagint could not write that Moses was of 'uncircumcised lips.' They clearly found this kind of formal equivalence to be impossible and refused to accept such a foreign notion in this case. In Greek the ears could literally be 'uncircumcised' and the heart, as well. This leads me to believe that the Greek translators did, indeed, associate the 'lips' with the female pudenda, and deliberately rejected the possibility that 'lips' could be circumcised."

So the translators are translating in a way that robs the text of feminine gender with respect to the female body in metaphor (i.e., a conception of and a carrying of meanings to full term towards the birth of new meanings, as in the playful name of Moses). The Hebrew senses are lost in translation into Greek.

And yet, there is something found in the Greek that's not in Hebrew. What's found is found in the Hellene feminine again. Did you see it?

I'm talking about the verb, κατέχρισεν (kate-chris-en). Brenton only puts that in English as "besmeared"; and Perkins only as "plastered."

Perhaps the English translators of the Greek (i.e., Brenton and Perkins) are looking not at the Greek but at the Hebrew: חמר (chamar). Most English translators have made this Hebrew something like "daubed" or "covered." Most have, that is, in this context only. In every other context, the English translators of the Hebrew tend translate this Hebrew word negatively. For instance, in Job 16:16, weeping "fouled" [not "covered" or "daubed" or "plastered"] his face; in Lamentations 1:20 and 2:11, bowels are "troubled" [not "covered"]; in Psalms 46:3, it's water that is "troubled" and in Psalms 75:8, it's wine that is made "red" and bad.

Is such negativity what the Greek translators are after in Exodus 2:3 by rendering חמר (chamar) as κατέχρισεν (kate-chris-en)?

Yes, I think these translators in Egypt recognize how troubling the Hebrew word. And so they turn to a troubling context in Greek: the agency of women and their washings and anointings. Four times in Homer's Odus-ssey (the proto Ex-Odus) there are these lines:

τὰρ ἐπεὶ λοῦσέν τε καὶ ἔχρισεν λίπ’ ἐλαίῳ,
ἀμφὶ δέ μιν φᾶρος καλὸν βάλεν ἠδὲ χιτῶνα,

First, beautiful Polycaste, the daughter of Nestor Neleides, is bathing Telemachus. "Then after she bathes him she slathers oil on him; and she wraps him in a well-formed coat and tunic" (in Book 3, lines 466-467). Second, Telemachus (again) and (this time) with Nestor's son get the exact same treatment from the slave women (in Book 10 lines 364). Third, Circe bathes and oils up and clothes the buddies of Odysseus (Book 10 continued).

Fourth, but earlier in the story, Helen herself, "born of Zeus," is the one speaking. She's borrowed helpful potions from an Egyptian woman, Thonus' wife Polydamna. And here she uses them. (See translator-scholar Suzanne Jill Lavine's comment on potions, on the pun of pharmakon.) Yes, here's a Greek heroine getting help from an Egyptian heroine. Helen then tells of bathing Odysseus, the one journeying on the Way, and it is he, this central Greek hero of the story, whom she ἔχρισεν has anointed with oil. (Book 4, lines 252-253)

The translators of Hebrew Ex-Odus into Greek are surely aware of Homer and the Odus-ssey. It seems the story of Moses being pulled out of the Egyptian river by an Egyptian daughter in some ways reminds them of the story of Odysseus and his Wayfaring. In particular, they remember the Greek verb ἔχρισεν (e-chris-en) as they look to translate the consistently troubling Hebrew verb חמר (chamar). No doubt they remember also the logic of female pollution, according to some Greek men; for example, Hesiod warns, "Let a man not clean his skin in water that a woman has washed in. For a hard penalty follows on that for a long time." (Op. 753-55). In Exodus 2:3, there's a group of daughters, Egyptians too, who bathe in the river and gather at it's lip. A daughter of Levi who couples with a son of Levi finds herself putting a circumcised Hebrew male baby down in this ooze (i.e., τὸ ἕλος, or helos).

Notice how ἕλος (or the troubled yucky female-polluted water for the Greek men) ambiguously plays on Hellene, on Helen. Notice how ἔχρισεν (e-chris-en) plays on Homer's women anointing men after their bathing them. Notice how apt this term for the Hebrew men translating their mother tongue without the lip into Hellene.

Notice how χρισ (Chris) is used later for משיח (mashiyach, aka Messiah aka "Christ"). The first "anointed" is the basket of Moses by the Hebrew mother in Egypt (translated in Egypt into Hellene). See and hear how meanings can be found (rather than lost) in translation.


One last little playful note. David creates these "psalms" he calls cyber psalms. Others now have been singing them aloud. Yesterday, I so badly wanted to translate Cyber Psalm 29 from his English into a Zimbabwe woman's Fanagalo. Alas, I only found Brazilian Portuguese available for our play with words. I know my friend studied his Portuguese in Portugal, and uses it even to teach in Mozambique, so I figured the American version was distant enough. There is play I say. "They bilk the bank," sings the psalmist in his original. And he adds, "They snatch the bread," to the same line. So she sings back with added alliteration and idiomatic idiom: "Eles pilhar porquinho de poupança. Eles pegam o pão." She's not a "native speaker" so he does note that her grammar is non-native. No, her lips speak Fanagalo, and perhaps some non-native English and a little Portuguese. Look, listen. (And call me crazy for overhearing all that. Bon voyage, friend. We're glad you're going to be blogging again.)

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