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Biblical Translation: Art, Science, or Politics?

September 8, 2011

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.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2011 4:32 pm

    You sure have raised a lot of questions. What I will take first is your desire to translate from age 11. Lucky you! I did not start translating till I was 61. 50 years late. Yet the same questions occur as soon as one puts the brain in gear in the strange spaces of a lexicon. Those 50 years of mine were spent in science and computer systems construction in several tongues. What one learns is the context of a token and what one manages are bugs. A token ‘means’ something because of where and how it is used. Bugs are unavoidable and are more than errors of commission or omission but rather changes in the problem space – just as politics, piety, history and fallibility are part of the problem space for a translator. If the problem space is going to change then can one build a translation for maintenance as one has to build a system? How can spirit and life be in words that are read by those living in a new age but with mind firmly planted in some assumed and supposed yet non-existent past?

    It is strange that Morton Smith would come up in this conversation. His construction, whatever it is, is too brilliant. One cannot look directly at it without some risk of blindness, yet it might also disappear! Psalm 139 is applicable as long as one does not try and remove the light of the resurrection from this Holy of Holies in the Psalter (we have just come up the steps to the Holy Place, celebrated the arrival in the courts (135, 136), remembered our exile (137), and asked David for an opinion to which he responded: תַּרְהִבֵנִי בְנַפְשִׁי עֹז. You have made me of Rahabian boldness and strength and I accept the invitation to enter.)

  2. September 8, 2011 6:04 pm

    Ah, the Songs of Ascent! “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your Presence?”

    Evangelicals always get fixated on Jesus saying, “You must be born again,” and they forget the rest of the passage: “The wind (spirit, Spirit, ruach) blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the wind (spirit, Spirit, ruach).” In other words, the way to walk the path is to snuffle the air like a dog, searching for a trace of scent on the wind, and to go wherever the wind blows you. To me, that’s a much more authentic depiction of the spiritual life than, say, dutifully obeying a half-understood rulebook.

  3. September 8, 2011 9:03 pm

    This is one of those posts that are difficult to comment on, because the post itself is a gem, perfectly formed. I have to beg forgiveness in advance for the triteness of this comment.

    — —

    Have you ever seen the documentary Trembling Before G-d? I must say that this film woke me — before watching it, I was only familiar with discussions that were either polemical or strangely dispassionate (almost mathematical exercises in halacha). I found the testimony Trembling Before G-d to be deeply poignant — an opening to empathy.

    I know I am not alone in the assessment — a particularly powerful scene in the movie is when “David” meets with Yosef Langer, a prominent Chabad rabbi, and discusses his pain at how Langer counseled him. Langer (who still stays well within the orthodoxy of his denomination) later told me that he regarded this particular interview as the most moving experience of his professional career.

  4. September 8, 2011 9:04 pm

    Yes the Songs of Ascent (120-134). I had often wondered how these fit in the Psalter. Now I have a theory I will try to articulate in a monograph perhaps. It seems to me that the climax of adoration is psalm 119. The ascent begins immediately. The place of 135-139 then seem an interesting appropriation to the entry into the Holy of Holies – even though according to Hebrews, this way is not yet open. The final Davidic series (138-145) overlaps this framing, but it is often that a psalm or a phrase or a word can look both forward and backward in a sequence.

  5. September 8, 2011 9:35 pm

    I haven’t seen it, Theophrastus, but I have heard much about it. I see it’s on Hulu. I’ll try to catch it soon—it sounds very moving. Another film I haven’t seen, but want to, is Treyf. Are you familiar with it? Here is a summary.

  6. September 8, 2011 10:50 pm

    Trembling is a very fine piece of work as is the book Wrestling with God and Men by Rabbi Stephen Greenberg.

  7. September 9, 2011 6:13 pm

    Theophrastus, Yes, a gem.

    Craig, I’ve re-read your post several times now and can’t stop asking the questions you raise. Thank you for writing so beautifully, personally, compellingly.

  8. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 9, 2011 9:48 pm


    These are questions that I have make me toss at night as well.

    When you mention the word abomination, I then think of why it would be wrong to mix wool and linen, and why the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrew shepherds, and why God did not accept Cain’s offering. And why should a woman marry her rapist, but is not to remarry her first husband. And so on.


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