Saturday, January 3, 2009

translating "Babel": Hellene wordplay

The translation of the Hebrew first book into the Hellene mother tongue is fascinating. No passage is more curious than Genesis 8 through Genesis 11:9.

The Jews, in the continuing story of Noah's ark and the building of Babel, seem to fully masculinize the narrative. They introduce the notion of the goyim, the plurality of nations not following G-d. But the narrative builds on men, specifically named men, without now any continued reference to "male AND female."

Furthermore, in the Hellene translation, two things suggest profound interaction with the Greek world of men. First, there are slight changes in names and metaphors. Second, there is the translation of the word-play in the Babel story. The seeming liberties taken with the translating appear to be statements against the nation of Egypt that had enslaved the Jews and against the Republic brought about by the Greek patriarchy from Plato to Aristotle to Alexander.

The translators are translating in Egypt, where the Jews were slaves. So when the sons of Ham are listed in 10:6 (וּבְנֵי חָם כּוּשׁ וּמִצְרַיִם וּפוּט וּכְנָעַן׃), and Egypt is named in the Hebrew, one would expect Egypt to be named in the Greek as well: instead there's this: Υἱοὶ δὲ Χαμ· Χους καὶ Μεσραιμ, Φουδ καὶ Χανααν.

Nimrod (in 10:9) is no longer just a mighty hunter, but he is a "giant" (γίγας ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς) and a giant hunter. The translators invoke the references to such creatures by Homer, Euripides, Sophocles, and Isocrates -- the rhetorical Greek playwrights and poets and sophists -- because these men speak of these so-called "giants."

But in 9:25, where the story has Noah cursing Ham's son Canaan, the references to the Greek Republic start. There's the reference to natural born (or at least patriarchy-established) slavery. The allusion is to the Spartans, who went naked as men -- were as naked as Noah -- and who enslaved their own kind.

From (וַיֹּאמֶר אָרוּר כְּנָעַן עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים יִהְיֶה לְאֶחָיו׃), here's the translation:

καὶ εἶπεν Ἑπικατάρατος Χανααν· παῖς οἰκέτης ἔσται τοῖς ἀδελφοῖς αὐτοῦ.

Notice how this is not δοῦλος ("doulos" slave) but a household male-servant.

And in his Republic, Plato makes clear the character of such slave-servants (as males low in the hierarchy like women in the households):

"And again, the mob of motley appetites and pleasures and pains one would find chiefly in man-servants and women and household-slaves and in the base rabble of those who are freemen in name."

καὶ μὴν καὶ τάς γε πολλὰς καὶ παντοδαπὰς ἐπιθυμίας καὶ ἡδονάς τε καὶ λύπας ἐν παισὶ μάλιστα ἄν τις εὕροι καὶ γυναιξὶ καὶ οἰκέταις καὶ τῶν ἐλευθέρων λεγομένων ἐν τοῖς πολλοῖς τε καὶ φαύλοις.

And finally, notably, in Genesis 11:1-9, the story of the City and Tower of Babel (Babylon) itself, there are new plays on words. Here G-d is now κύριος ("master," i.e., of male slaves of one's own kind). The climatic punning verse 9 (עַל־כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ בָּבֶל כִּי־שָׁם בָּלַל יְהוָה שְׂפַת כָּל־הָאָרֶץ וּמִשָּׁם הֱפִיצָם יְהוָה עַל־פְּנֵי כָּל־הָאָרֶץ׃ ף) becomes:

διὰ τοῦτο ἐκλήθη τὸ ὄνομα αὐτῆς Σύγχυσις, ὅτι ἐκεῖ συνέχεεν κύριος τὰ χείλη πάσης τῆς γῆς, καὶ ἐκεῖθεν διέσπειρεν αὐτοὺς κύριος ὁ θεὸς ἐπὶ πρόσωπον πάσης τῆς γῆς.

Sir Lancelot Brenton translates the Greek into his English as follows:

On this account its name was called Confusion, because there the Lord confounded the languages of all the earth, and thence the Lord scattered them upon the face of all the earth.

Likewise, Robert J. V. Hiebert translates the Greek into his English this way:

Therefore its name was called Confusion, because there the Lord confused the lips of all the earth, and from there the Lord God scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Now, anyone familiar with Plato's Republic will know the allusion, the wordplay borrowed from the Greek teacher. Plato is disparaging the poets, and he's championing the ideal city-state, like the City of Babel being built (i.e., the "Polis," οἰκοδομοῦντες τὴν πόλιν καὶ τὸν πύργον). Such a place is where the household-male-slaves and the women, under men, belong.

Plato writes:

“Then,” said I, “we must not accept from Homer or any other poet the folly of such error as this about the gods when he says Two urns stand on the floor of the palace of Zeus and are filled with Dooms he allots, one of blessings, the other of gifts that are evil,

and to whomsoever Zeus gives of both commingled— Now upon evil he chances and now again good is his portion,

but the man for whom he does not blend the lots, but to whom he gives unmixed evil— Hunger devouring drives him, a wanderer over the wide world,

nor will we tolerate the saying that Zeus is dispenser alike of good and of evil to mortals.

οὐδ’ ὡς ταμίας ἡμῖν Ζεὺς— ἀγαθῶν τε κακῶν τε τέτυκται.
τὴν δὲ τῶν ὅρκων καὶ σπονδῶν σύγχυσιν, ἣν ὁ Πάνδαρος συνέχεεν,

But as to the confusion of the oaths and the confounding by Pandarus, if anyone affirms it to have been brought about by the action of Athena and Zeus, we will not approve, nor that the strife and contention of the gods was the doing of Themis and Zeus; nor again must we permit our youth to hear what Aeschylus says— A god implants the guilty cause in men When he would utterly destroy a house,. . . . "

The interplay between Σύγχυσις and συνέχεεν in the Jewish translation into Greek seems to be a direct loan from Plato. Except, it appears the translators are not favoring Plato's Babylon at all. Rather, it seems the Hebrews are trying to show that Plato, in disparaging Homer and the poets for his ideal Republic, instead babbles (or word-plays) himself, just as the poets do.

Hence, given the translator choices in Genesis 8 - 11:9, there seems to be the use of the imperial mother tongue to resist both Egypt and the Greek City-State Republic under Alexander.


  1. This is so much fun! Come and see what I have written in response.

  2. Even though you're writing on so much more than gender, you've helped us recognize some of the bodily imagery of maleness and the feminine, lost in translation.


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