Friday, April 23, 2010

How to translate the word torah?

It's happened again.

Men are taking words, categorizing their meanings, and keeping them from mixing. The fear for Aristotle, as we all know by now, was that females would pollute males. Therefore, his scientific logic separated females - as botched or deformed males - from males. Likewise, the slippery words of women, if not boxed up and kept in check, would infect the world of men.

In the world of bible translation (which is far and away mostly male in 2010AD), a recent problem is the Greek word, νόμος. We can transliterate it with English letters as nómos.  Wayne Leman at Better Bibles Blog separates it, as a word "in the New Testament," from "the word torah [תּוֹרָה] in the Old Testament," although he calls the one "the equivalent" of the other.  The important point in the conversation there so far is the separation of the "Old Testament" from the "New Testament" and the Hebrew word from its Greek counterpart.

Wayne has pointed us to the separation Paul Franklyn has been struggling with.  Franklyn is the Associate Editor for the Common English Bible translation.  Franklyn gives a bit of translation history:

"The first efforts to translate torah occurred in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which is known as the Septuagint. The Septuagint was the Bible used by the Greek New Testament authors. So the Hebrew word torah was translated as the Greek word nomos, which we render as law in English. Nearly all English translations tried to be consistent and rendered "law" as the meaning of torah across the Old Testament and New Testament."

There is a tremendous point here to notice that gets overlooked by another separation of words.  The point is this:  that the Jews translating their own scriptures used their own Greek to render their own Hebrew.  It's not so clear that they were intent on locking down the meanings of either torah [תּוֹרָה] or nómos [νόμος].  Both words have slippery meanings and wet uses.  Yes, I said "wet," and we might as well say "womanly" too.  But let's come back to that.

What gets overlooked is how multivalent and how polymorphic the words are in their uses and in their meanings.  If we just take the Greek word nómos [νόμος], then we can begin to see the separations and the boxing up and the locking down.  In English, of course, Franklyn has boxed up the word as meaning "law," at least when it comes to the Bible.  Franklyn says the biblical nómos [νόμος] = "law." 

Now, I'm using math symbols because men in the past have used math to claim that nómos [νόμος] = "law."  No one is denying the two facts both (a) that there is such an equivalence and (b) that men have established the equivalence.  Aristotle wrote of nómos [νόμος] in the context of the laws of mathematics.  And his teacher Plato wrote an entire dialogue on Nómoi [Νόμοι], which has come to be called "Laws."  Like his student Aristotle, Plato's project in his writing is to circumscribe the sophistry of the sophists (as he does in his dialogue "Gorgias") and to curtail the poetry of the poets (as he does in his dialogue which we know as "Republic").  Aristotle takes the separation to the Nth degree; he's not content with dialogue or, "dialectic," being able to do the job of boxing up slippery meanings.  (In fact, Aristotle claims that a "rhetorician" such as Plato's Gorgias uses "rhetoric" as a counterpart to "dialectic," which Plato uses.  Sophistry and poetry are nearly as slippery as women's language.  This is all very technical.  But that's Aristotle's point.)  Women's logoi as slippery wet words needs to be separated from the logic of men.

We should be clear to say that neither Leman nor Franklyn have tried to separate women from their blogging.  Neither man is bringing up gender at all.  Nor is either excluding females in any way.  Nonetheless, they have used the Platonic and the Aristotelian methods of separation.  The Aristotelian method is one that classes but then it ranks.  And the rankings, it claims, are just natural.  This sort of method is the very one that classes females as inherently and naturally inferior to males.  We just want to be a little careful in drawing the conclusion of such logic, if we can follow it.

So I just want to suggest that nómos [νόμος] has not always been so boxed, so technical, so legal, so related to the law of nature, to firm "law."  And I also want to suggest that the Hellene of the Jews translating their Hebrew may have been a resistance to the Laws of the Greek empire.  Sylvie Honigman says in her history of the legend of the Septuagint that these particular Jews translated in the Homeric (not in the Alexandrian) paradigm.  Alexander, as we all know, was in the Aristotelian tradition.  Alexander the Great learned from Aristotle before he set up his great Polis called Alexandria Egypt, where the translations into Greek were commissioned.  I'm suggesting that the Jews there used slippery Greek, the kind that is found in the poets, such as Homer, not the legal technical Greek of Aristotle. 

So we might as well hear Homer.  Here's from the Iliad, book 20, lines 248 - 255.  First hear Homer as Richmond Lattimore translates, then as Ian Johnston renders the words. Notice how slippery and how even wet and womanly the conversation between two men here in the Iliad threatens to be. And then listen to, and watch for the Greek (with the Greek word nómos [νόμος] bolded).

The tongue of man is a twisty thing, there are plenty of words there
of every kind, the range of words is wide, and their variance.
The sort of thing you say is the thing that will be said to you.
But what have you and I to do with the need for squabbling
and hurling insults at each other, as if we were two wives
who when they have fallen upon a heart-perishing quarrel
go out in the street and say abusive things to each other,
much true, and much that is not, and it is their rage that drives them.

Men's tongues are glib, with various languages
words can go here and there in all directions,
and the sorts of words one speaks will be

the sorts of words one has to listen to.
But what's the point?  Why should the two of us
be squabbling here and fight by trading insults
back and forth, like two irritated women,
who, in some heart-wrenching raging spat,
go out into the street to scream at each other
with facts and lies, each one gripped by anger.

στρεπτὴ δὲ γλῶσσ' ἐστὶ βροτῶν, πολέες δ' ἔνι μῦθοι
παντοῖοι, ἐπέων δὲ πολὺς νομὸς ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα.
ὁπποῖόν κ' εἴπῃσθα ἔπος, τοῖόν κ' ἐπακούσαις.
ἀλλὰ τίη ἔριδας καὶ νείκεα νῶϊν ἀνάγκη
νεικεῖν ἀλλήλοισιν ἐναντίον ὥς τε γυναῖκας,
αἵ τε χολωσάμεναι ἔριδος πέρι θυμοβόροιο
νεικεῦσ' ἀλλήλῃσι μέσην ἐς ἄγυιαν ἰοῦσαι
πόλλ' ἐτεά τε καὶ οὐκί: χόλος δέ τε καὶ τὰ κελεύει

Now, go back and read Numbers 5 in the Greekish Jewish Old Testament called the Septuagint.  Notice how the word torah [תּוֹרָה] has been rendered nómos [νόμος].  Notice it's associated with women differently than it's associated with men.  Consider all the other uses of the same Greek word in place of the same Hebrew word throughout what is known as the Penta-Teuch, those five boxed up books of Moses.  Consider how the meanings are rather opened up and not so technically shut down.

We wonder then if our English translations need to make all the distinctions, as Aristotle distinguishes males from females and logic from rhetoric and his "original" meaning from Homer's various ones.  Do we need to see "New" distinguished from the "Old" testament, or nómos [νόμος] from torah [תּוֹרָה], if we don't box the words as "teaching" and, separately, as "law"?

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