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Balinese Citrus, Greek Virgins, Hebrew Dogs: Part 2

November 6, 2012

In Parts I and III of this III-part series of posts, I wanted to emphasize the fact that languages (such as ordinary Indonesian and biblical Hebrew) are translatable.  But “translation” need not be reduced to the either/ or binary of “formal equivalence” vs. “dynamic equivalence,” a reductive essentializing that allows for no other options.  Rather, the translator as another human being, can overhear what’s going on in the Indonesian culture and in the Jewish culture, for example.  And the translator can use words that mark her or his translation as understanding or getting the points of the Indonesian flavors or the Jewishnesses of the expressions.  Thus, “jeruk Bali” although it refers to a fruit that most know as pomelo when speaking English gets the locality of Bali and the culture of the Balinese there.

Hence, although “כלב” around the temple may be understood in the context as some sort of counterpart to a “זנה”, the former phrase suggests a lowly dirty canine, a mere dog.  And English expresses “dog” aptly and ably.

Now in this Part 2 of the series, let’s consider something else.  Let’s consider how English language translators often impose their own limitations on the translated language, say classical or LXX or New Testament or post NT Greek.

Most texts of the ancient world (of old old old Greece) use context well enough to point to meanings and to references of specific words.  This allows those lexical items to carry vast ranges of meaning or, to say it another way, to have multiple and even all-related meanings.  Lots of words also have gendered and sexed and sexualized meanings as part of their, if you will, single meaning.  In other words, the Greeks had play in their words.  (By “play” I also have play in my English:  play can mean playfulness, and interpretive wiggle room, and performance as in what a playwright and a director and an actor and set makers and the chorus and the orchestra and the audience all perform together.)  English translators of Greek words have tended to reduce the Greek words that appear much in sexualized context to only sexualized meanings.

I’m thinking now of English translators of the Greek-language translation of the Hebrew of “The Book of Isaiah ( ספר ישעיה‎).”  The Greek word παρθένος is chosen by Jewish translators some 5 times for 2 Hebrew phrases. And most English translators of that reduce the Greek, in English, to something related to virginity, to sexually chaste and sexually pure sexual girls, to virgins.  Granted, the Greeks before their word is appropriated by, say the writer of the gospel of Matthew, were not part of any Jewish/ Christian translation difference.  “Isaiah prophesied of a maiden.  No, Mother Mary is the Virgin of Virginity.”

But it’s not just Bible translators from Greek to English that have trouble.  For example, when translating the play Hecuba by Euripides, translators from Edward P. Coleridge (1891) to George Theodoridis (2007), have reduced παρθένος to “maiden,”  when the word refers twice to Polyxena (who is Multiplyforeign).  Well, at least they haven’t reduced παρθένος to some religious sexual matter, to “virgin” of virginity.  And yet, the story, the context, the Greek lore, the vast culture of Homer and Homeric epics is fraught with sexuality.  To see Polyxena as she’s being stripped and sexually exposed and publicly humiliated and abused by the unsheathed sword of a man, to see her in contrast to her sister, to Hecuba’s other daughter, is to see how stressed is her virginity.  The word παρθένος is vast.  In the play, it has much play.

And so when we read what English translator Anne Carson has to say, how she ably and aptly translates this vastness, we get the fact that the Greek “Virgin” is not all a girl is.  Carson notes the profundity, the vastness, of humanity in the Greek.  And, in her Preface to her translation of Euripides’s play Hippolytos, she writes of the stress on sexualization and on objectification and essentialization of words, but she notes the agency of the Greek and the play of their language.  And she reminds us readers that our English may be as vast or at least as capable as the old Greek of conveying the depths and the width:

Aidos (“shame”) is a vast word in Greek. Its lexical equivalents
include “awe, reverence, respect, self-respect, shamefastness, sense
of honor, sobriety, moderation, regard for others, regard for the
helpless, compassion, shyness, coyness, scandal, dignity, majesty,
Majesty.” Shame vibrates with honor and also with disgrace, with
what is chaste and with what is erotic, with coldness and also
with blushing….

Shame is a system of exclusions and purity that subtends Hippolytos’
religion. Interesting, then, to notice the presence of a bee
within his private religious space. For there is some evidence that
the bee, in its role of busy pollinator, was associated with Aphrodite’s
cult. And you will hear the chorus make a direct comparison
between Aphrodite and the bee later in the play, in a choral
ode celebrating the unavoidability of Eros (580–636/525–564). So
you might begin to wonder about Hippolytos’ simplicity….

And the fact that in epic poetry the word aidos is used in the plural
(aidoia) as a euphemism for the sexual organs (Iliad, 2.262).
These sexual and erotic strands form only part of the word aidos,
but it is a part that Hippolytos edits out. He edits Artemis too.
Her sexlessness reminds him of his own chastity; he idolizes it.
Her prestige as mistress of the hunt coincides with his favorite activity;
he makes it a form of worship. Her epithet parthenos (“virgin,
maiden, girl”) is used by him as if it named Artemis to a different
species than the female race that he denounces (“this counterfeit
thing—woman?” [684ff/616ff ]).

So picture, with me, going to the Parthenon in Athens. And then strolling a few steps over to the Erechtheion. Let’s have a seat and ponder. Are these representations, statues, of perpetual viginity? Or might these Greek girls, okay Hellene maidens if we must, might these Greek girls be vastly more than sexual objects in relation to not men? And is our English so limited, for translation, that they are merely virgins of Greece?

So just to summarize as if to make clear:

Part I of this series suggests that English is powerful enough to go beyond our familiar word “pomelo” to describe how Indonesians and many Malays see the Balinese fruit.

Part III sends us over to the analysis of Harry McCall, who shows us that English really does best when it carries across a biblical phrase as “dogs.”

Part 2 challenges English translators who reduce a Greek noun for girls to their would-be necessary virginity whether for religious or for male-sexual purposes.  If the vastness of other Greek words can be conveyed by English words such as “shame,” then the vastness of the Greek word parthenos can be so conveyed as well.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 6, 2012 8:09 pm

    Thank you for your observations J.K. Gayle. You are absolutely correct, of course, that “παρθένος” is “a vast word.” In truth, most words are vast and for many reasons, two of which are that they are re-constituted (perhaps “evolve” would be a better word) as one era follows another, another cultural patina is placed upon another until our own era and cultural patina arrives, when we, too must re-constitute the meaning of words.What the word “φίλος” meant during Euripides’ time and what the suffix “philia” means now are, of course, another luminous paradigm of such reconstitution and evolution of meanings. The other reason is that the meaning of a word is made more precise when looked at in its context; and in that context, unless its user is playing word games and puns, the meaning would be very particular, as in the case of Polyxena, where, I suggest, the meaning is simply, young girl, as distinct from the married woman. The sexual part of the word would be secondary to that, in this instance. One could go on with Lit Crit to a great length and compare the two sisters to each other as well as to their mother, Hecuba, who bore them and is fighting helplessly for them. One also might add other references about the brutal (sexual) treatment that Polyxena has to endure; but in the end, the translator is faced with the acute question as to how to “translate” the original word to that of the audience to which s/he is translating. An enormous other consideration will exercise her/his mind as well, during that process. Such as the flow of the scene, the dialogue, the musicality, etc but, uppermost would be the question of the original author’s intent and the word “virgin,” I believe, in a modern context, has a far greater sexual weight than the passage suggests. The same, I believe, is true of the use of the word in its biblical meaning. “Virgin” when used as the eponym for Jesus’ mother is fine while used in that particular, biblical context. Taken out of that, however, and one is forced to bring in the baggage of sexuality. With Mary, the word is also loaded with another, much more weighty context: that, in spite of the fact that she was not known by man, she gave birth – much like Semele gave birth to Dionysus.
    Indeed, words can be vast.

  2. November 7, 2012 5:42 pm

    Mr. Theodoridis,
    Thank you for reading the post and for giving such additional insights, not only from theory but also from your wonderful practice of translation. You know, I’ve been a fan of yours for some time now. We’ve noticed that φίλος, the more vocative φίλε, and φιλίας in Euripides’s Cyclops is the Chorus dancing, “O Bacchus! O Dionysus! O dearest Lord! … your dear friendship” and in his Alcestis, for example, these are mainly “friend.” Vastness, in particular contexts constrained.

    Thanks for letting us in some on your reasons, your thought process, for calling Polyxena a maiden (i.e., “very particular, … where, … the meaning is simply, young girl, as distinct from the married woman”).

    Contrasts are, indeed, as interesting as we make them necessary. This is way what you say about Mary (whom Willis Barnstone restores as Miryam, calling her through Matthew’s παρθένος and Isaiah’s העלמה also a “young woman”) is so refreshing. “One is forced,” to me, seems awfully passive, divorced of agency. But such is the “baggage of sexuality.” Either she’s sexual or she’s not, not until the child, the son, is born, not of a man, not of that father who’s a man anyway. Yes, and there’s Semele and her son. Why don’t we more talk more often of Leda and her daughter? Why not speak of Helen? Gorgias “praises” her but concedes to his fellows that her mother surely was impregnated by, if not God, then that man. That baggage is heavy with the binary. Is she? Or is she not? As if that’s all she might be or even can be. Once, at a different blog, I was curious about this, about how translators seem to prefer the weight of the dichotomy, especially when it comes to the question of the Virginity of the mother of Jesus. Lest we want to revisit some of that, that’s here:

    http://speakeristic.blogspot.com/2011/09/shame-philomela-you-unbiblical-liberal.html

    Just out of curiosity, have you read much of George Steiner? In the Preface to The Poetry of Thought he has the audacity to challenge (by his own Hebraic-Hellenistic English creations) what he calls “Adamic privilege.” After that phrase, he finishes a paragraph:

    Inescapably, the “language-animal,” as the ancient Greeks defined man, inhabits the bounded immensities of the word, of grammatical instruments. The Logos equates word with reason in its very foundations. Thought may indeed be in exile. But if so, we do not know or, more precisely, we cannot say from what.

    I think he’s arguing against our agreement here that — as you put is so well — “that the meaning of a word is made more precise when looked at in its context; and in that context, unless its user is playing word games and puns, the meaning would be very particular.” And yet Steiner, and Carson, and the rest of us all seem to agree about vastnesses, “immensities of the word,” albeit that are “bounded.” Bounded by us. We create context? This seems to be poetics and, for Steiner, “all thought.”

  3. November 8, 2012 7:28 pm

    Dear JK,
    Sorry I didn’t get here earlier. Life’s (and Fate’s) tides have navigated me to all sorts of other, very busy harbours. (Please forgive me my Australian/English spelling).
    I have not yet read Mr Steiner’s “Poetry of Thought” and so I won’t be able to comment about his views on this (thought as poetry) topic. However, do let me please to make a couple of little observation pertaining to words and the meanings that people apply to them.

    “Poetry” means “creation” or “creativity” and that’s why various people, poets included, observe that God is the poet of the universe. He is its creator.
    Steiner’s observation about the word “logos” is correct but, here, at least, it seems anemic. Like a great many words we use, it, too is a “package” of meanings. It also, very definitely means “reason” or “logic” “cause” “the point of,” etc. So when we do see it in John 1 as:
    Εν αρχή ην ο Λόγος, και ο Λόγος ην προς τον Θεόν, και Θεός ην ο Λόγος. 2 Ούτος ην εν αρχή προς τον Θεόν. 3 πάντα δι’ αυτού εγένετο, και χωρίς αυτού εγένετο ουδέ εν ό γέγονεν.
    One should understand that John mean that the reason why God created everything stays with him. (He knows why he did this, we don’t.) The aphorism, “God knows why mother forbids me to eat chocolate…” I’d suggest has its origin here.
    God’s reason, logic, etc, for creating the Universe is his and we cannot, need not question that reasoning.
    Continuing with the passage, we should read, “God is Reason” ie, Reason itself, is a constituent of God’s make up. Reason and God are one.
    All things are made due to that logic, that reasoning that God had in his mind and as part of his make up.
    To this day, Greeks will ask each other, ποιός ο λόγος που… “what is the reason that…”
    So, the now ubiquitous translation of “Λόγος” as “Word,” is, in my opinion, quite wrong.

    Moving on… in respect of the notion of “language-animal”. The Greek here (and Latin, of course) is quite useful. A being, an entity, in Greek is an ων and a being that lives is a ζών, a ζώον. Let me get back to λόγος for a second here, please: The Greek word for “horse” is άλογον, with the first letter being the privative alpha, ie, the prefix “αν” or “un” in Latin, which makes the horse either, without speech or without reason (of its own).
    And so, to go back to Mr Steiner, man, as distinct from other species is a reason-possessing, living being.
    I cannot comment on his understanding of “thought” because I don’t have his book and cannot put it in the context of his reasoning but one may be reminded that the suffix –ology denotes a “study of” or a concantanation of cogent reasons.

    Finally, therefore, I am not that sure if Mr Steiner is, in fact arguing totally against our agreement or, he is providing us with a more nuanced explanation of what he sees; more nuanced, though perhaps, still not fully formed. It is, after all, a difficult idea to articulate.

    I have always had difficulty with the argument of “Adamic privilege” It seems far too distant from anything scientific and more in concert with theological explanations that have little strength outside the OT.
    Still, on that subject, I may well be corrected.

    Many thanks for the opportunity and your kind words. I shall pop in here whenever Life’s tides give me free purchase of the radar!
    George

  4. November 8, 2012 9:27 pm

    For some reason the program did not include my footnote confession, which came after the phrase, “He is its creator.”
    This is it:
    Here, I must make the confession that, though I had a very strong and profound upbringing in Theology, (Grandfather a priest of the Greek Orthodox church and my uncle, upon whose lap I was raised, a student of Theology and then its professor) I am a happy atheist.

  5. November 10, 2012 6:50 am

    Please know, George Theodoridis, that my slowness in reply doesn’t just reflect the fact that I’ve been too busy in my real life to respond here right away. It’s also that I’ve thought, and am thinking a lot, about what you’ve written. That you’ve so qualified the kind of atheist you are is just fascinating to me. What a disparaging Greek term “atheos” can be.

    When we read Euripides’s near sophistry, hear it in his Chorus (in his Helen 1148), we “get” the rhyme, the alliteration, the suggestion ambiguous that it’s not only Helen but also the fellow accusing Hellenes:

    προδότις ἄπιστος ἄδικος ἄθεος

    The translators of the New Testament, the Christian theists who are poly-god-head theists, hardly know what to do with this. And so you’ve said something about or at least have looked at the Greek of some of that, and the way it tends to be translated so often. I’d like to come back to it, just to be more open to the real alternatives, the likely and more likely possibilities on “logos”:

    “Poetry” means “creation” or “creativity” and that’s why various people, poets included, observe that God is the poet of the universe. He is its creator.
    Steiner’s observation about the word “logos” is correct but, here, at least, it seems anemic. Like a great many words we use, it, too is a “package” of meanings. It also, very definitely means “reason” or “logic” “cause” “the point of,” etc. So when we do see it in John 1 as:
    Εν αρχή ην ο Λόγος, και ο Λόγος ην προς τον Θεόν, και Θεός ην ο Λόγος. 2 Ούτος ην εν αρχή προς τον Θεόν. 3 πάντα δι’ αυτού εγένετο, και χωρίς αυτού εγένετο ουδέ εν ό γέγονεν.
    One should understand that John mean that the reason why God created everything stays with him. (He knows why he did this, we don’t.) The aphorism, “God knows why mother forbids me to eat chocolate…” I’d suggest has its origin here.
    God’s reason, logic, etc, for creating the Universe is his and we cannot, need not question that reasoning.
    Continuing with the passage, we should read, “God is Reason” ie, Reason itself, is a constituent of God’s make up. Reason and God are one.
    All things are made due to that logic, that reasoning that God had in his mind and as part of his make up.

    You’re responding, of course, to my little out of full context quotation of George Steiner. And you say that. Well. It may be enough just to move on to what Edward Schiappa has said. But then there’s another book that refers to many many other books, so where does it end? Schiappa may have the finest word on “logos” yet: Protagoras and Logos: A Study in Greek Philosophy and Rhetoric. He severely critiques our modern tendency to reduce to a binary something like Homer’s ‘mythos’ vs. Aristotle’s rational ‘logos.’ But Schiappa shows how, for Aristotle, “logos” was way too sophistic and needed the syllogistic, the formalism of logike, of logic.

    Anne Carson understands. In her introduction to Inger Christensen’s amazing det, rendered from Danish poetry to English poetry by Susanna Nied as it, Carson quickly, briefly, sufficiently stops on “logos” to give this brief word:

    Logos (in Greek) can mean “word, sentence, story, explanation, reasoning, grammar, rationality.” It can also denote “number, calculation, price.” From number derives its reference to “measure,” particularly a “measure of verse or music.” From measure comes its application to “law” and “proportion,” to “arguments” before the law court and hence its sense of “plea.” All these meanings stream and bite and crackle through [Christensen's Danish poem]. Their organization is complex and, as in a great comedy, the effect is a matter of perfectly timed beats.

    She might have called it also “vast.”

  6. November 10, 2012 7:17 am

    Oops! My footnote was also neglected. I meant to rant about the translators of Ephesians 2:12 who all seem to have lost the parallels Paul punched positing the past personalities of these people:

    καὶ ξένοι τῶν διαθηκῶν …
    καὶ ἄθεοι ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ

    Is there any translator who has understood his “strangers [or foreigners even] from the covenants of promise” as also his “atheists”? But then our English lacks the personal-ity for people who are without God to cause the “athoi” to be at least parallel to or with the “xenoi.” And so Paul carefully qualifies them all, of course, not as “happy” which they might have been too, but with the conjoining adjectival phrase: ἐλπίδα μὴ ἔχοντες.

    Without any explanation other than just translation, I’d try that this way:

    ὅτι ἦτε
    τῷ καιρῷ ἐκείνῳ
    χωρὶς Χριστοῦ

    ἀπηλλοτριωμένοι
    τῆς πολιτείας τοῦ Ἰσραὴλ

    καὶ ξένοι
    τῶν διαθηκῶν τῆς ἐπαγγελίας,

    ἐλπίδα μὴ ἔχοντες

    καὶ ἄθεοι
    ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ.

    that you were people
    of yonder years
    absent of the Anointed

    people of another,
    other than of the political constitution of Israel,

    people of foreign places and races,
    hardly respecting the covenant of the promised,

    hope none having

    people of no god,
    in the world

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