Biblical Translation: Art, Science, or Politics?
Theophrastus’s question about the best translation of Ἰουδαῖος threw me for a loop. First I grappled with the question itself (you can see my rather lame conclusion here). Then I realized I wanted to get back into my long-dormant translations of Mark and John’s gospels—the most terse, tightly packed, and probably earliest gospel alongside the most florid, gnostic (in the non-technical, lowercased-g sense of the word), and historically latest gospel.
Then I decided I wanted to settle in my own mind the two Big Questions about these gospels: Was the late Morton Smith’s “discovery” of the Secret Gospel of Mark the most important find of the 20th century, or a carefully constructed fraud? And who authored the Fourth Gospel—John bar-Zebedee? John the Presbyter? John of Patmos? And, for that matter, who was the Beloved Disciple, and is he another candidate for the gospel’s authorship? I still favor the identification of Lazarus as ὃν ἠγάπα ὁ Ἰησοῦς, but I can see others’ arguments, too.
Since I couldn’t make any headway there, I started pondering what approach I wanted to take with the translation. “Starkly literal” has a certain appeal, though it makes for deucedly difficult reading. And what is “literal” anyway, when a single word can have a number of equally valid renderings? Does one list all renderings each time, to let the reader pick and choose? How then is that a translation as opposed to an interlinear apparatus? No, the translator must make the choice, and therein lies all our conundrums. Conundra. Whatever.
Every choice I make as a translator betrays my personal convictions—if not about what I want the text to say, at least about what I believe the text actually says. And that means I must somehow get inside the head of individuals (or perhaps committees), dead for millennia, who had a wildly different culture and language and worldview than mine. It’s almost as if the work of biblical translation becomes little more than a grandiose Rorschach test, revealing more about my biases and beliefs than about the original authors’.
That said, if one wants to be a translator (as I wanted to be from at least the age of 11), one must make choices. One must present, usually for an audience that doesn’t know all the ins-and-outs of grammar, etymology, and cultural context, a fairly authoritative position. Not the impossible “What do the words mean?” but the more accessible “What is the text actually saying?” and even “What is the text saying to me, and to us?”
In my discussion with Theophrastus on whether the translation of Ἰουδαῖος in John’s gospel as “the Jews”—a translation which has inflamed two millennia of anti-Semitism—is (a) accurate, or (b) necessary, knowing how it would be used by the worst segments of society, I recalled my own struggles several years ago with the translation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. I desperately wanted these passages to say something that homophobes can no longer use as a tool against gay people. תּוֹעֵבָה is, of course, the big issue: these behaviors are “an abomination” or “a detestable thing,” depending which translation you read. Does tôwʻêvâh, as would be suggested from its etymology, mean “disgusting”? Or does it really mean “involving foreign religious cultic practice,” the way “unclean” really means “ritually impure”? I can see how eating snakes might make some people go “ick.” But lobster and shrimp? They, like a woman wearing pants, are similarly “disgusting.” Eating game birds, cross-breeding livestock, getting a tattoo, wearing clothes made from a blend of textile materials, and charging interest on a loan are also prohibited by the levitical code, but no one seems to care about them.
The chapter 18 version says, “Do not lie with a male as one would lie with a woman; it is tôwʻêvâh.” Men who allowed themselves to be penetrated by another man were felt to have made themselves like women—who were, of course, not valued in patriarchal cultures. The absence of a similar injunction against “a woman lying with a woman as with a man” indicates that this passage does not refer to homosexuality at all, but to the “dishonor” that one’s maleness would suffer through being penetrated.
The version in chapter 20 says, “And if a man lies with a male as one would lie with a woman, it is tôwʻêvâh: both of them must be killed, their bloodguilt be upon them!” Again, it is the dishonoring of a man’s maleness that is forbidden, with no discussion of love or of other same-gender sexual behaviors. Female homosexuality poses little threat to patriarchal cultures primarily due to the low status of women within the culture. One might even argue that female homosexuality prior to marriage supports the patriarchal culture by providing a sexual outlet yet preserving a woman’s virginity until given by her father in marriage to a man.
So if I want to communicate this information in translation rather than in a footnote, since I feel I know what the text means (if not quite what it says)—revealing cultural attitudes so foreign and, to our mind, hateful and sexist, not to mention homophobic—do I add words that are not present in the original? Do I leave the text to speak for itself, even though I risk it being used by bigots to fuel their prejudices, or worse, by people who would decide to carry out the biblical penalties spontaneously (as with Matthew Shepard) or legislatively (as with the anti-gay death penalty bill in Uganda)? Or do I soft-pedal the text, and say, “Same-sex behavior is prohibited because it is practiced by our enemies”? But is that really soft-pedaling, or is “things practiced by our enemies” a valid translation of tôwʻêvâh?
These are the sorts of questions that keep me awake at night.