Balinese Citrus, Greek Virgins, Hebrew Dogs: Part 2
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
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.