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Monday, June 30, 2008

Scholarly Legends

Well, I guess I’ve been tagged by David. Even though I’m supposed to be packing for the first of my summer travels which start tomorrow, I’ll hold forth on something that has been bothering me for the last week.

In 1991 the most eloquent curmudgeon in the field of linguistics, Geoffry Pullum, a professor at — of all places — UC Santa Cruz, that most laid back of all the campuses of the University of California, published a volume of wickedly pointed, but very entertaining, essays about the state and practice of the the field of linguistics, entitled The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. The essay that gave the book its title can be read online in a rough OCR’ed version here.

Cutting to the chase, the punchline is this: the CW about Eskimos having hundreds of word for snow is hooey. Baloney. The scholarly equivalent of an urban legend.

Pullum draws on the work of a linguistic anthropologist and Mayanist (!) by the name of Laura Martin, a professor at Cleveland State and one time chair of the Department of Anthropology. She traced the growth of this tidbit of CW from Franz Boas’ introduction to the original Handbook of North American Indians, where he cited 4 words, to the full blown legend it is now. In the early 80s she read a paper on the topic at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (I was in the audience) and circulated a long essay meticulously documenting the whole history, but the American Anthropologist would only publish a much reduced version as a research report (vol. 88.2:418-23 [1986]).

But Pullum’s point isn’t really about Eskimo — interesting though that may be. As he himself says:
“[This essay] isn't about Eskimo lexicography at all, though I'm sure it will be taken to be. What it's actually about is intellectual sloth. .... The tragedy is not that so many people got the facts wrong; it is that in the mentally lazy and anti-intellectual world we live in today, hardly anyone cares enough to think about trying to determine what the facts are.” (pg. 171)
Well. I’m here today to grouse about a similar urban legend in Biblical Studies with ugly implications for Bible translation. Dr. Jim West brought it up again last week in a piece called “Why Modern Translations of the Bible Bungle it” and I rankled. The whole piece is based on just a scholarly legend not unlike the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.

The arugment of the piece is this:
The times of the Bible were very different from ours.
The Bible needs to express these differences.
Therefore the language of the Bible in translation should sound different.
I’m tempted to stop here and let the reader work out all the fallacies in that reasoning which should be perfectly obvious when it is laid out as a syllogism. But the fact that huge segments of the church have bought this bogus line for so long suggests I had better be more explicit.

The times of the Bible were very different from ours. This is no doubt true. We have more stuff -- a lot more stuff. I don’t mean that we’re more materialist, I mean that science and technology have given us lots of manufactured goods that either didn’t exist or were only available to the wealthiest people of those days. We have indoor plumbing; they were lucky to have outhouses. We have cars and planes. The had horses and camels, and they walked a lot. We have machines, washing machines, dishwashers, and printing presses; they had slaves and scribes.

But, I ask, just how relevant is that to the message of the Bible?

Hardly at all.

Why does the Bible speak to us today? It speaks to us because it’s about human nature. It’s about loyalty and honor, love and respect, and trusting God. These things (and their opposites) haven’t changed a whit since Adam. (If they have, then, as Paul said, we of all men are to be most pitied.)

The Bible needs to express the difference of our worlds. Here I take issue with the premise right up front. The stuff of the Bible that is of interest are those things about human nature. The differences in the worlds and worldviews is irrelevant, beyond the fact that knowing something about them helps us to better understand the motivations and reactions of the people.

So you can see why I reject the conclusion.

Do I think we should go around changing pigs into sheep? or wine into pulque?

Not at all.

But there is an ocean of difference between substitutions of that magnitude and using language that drops a veil between the heart of the reader and the Word of God (Mt. 25:12):
But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, know you not. (KJV)
But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ (ESV)
Instead of
But he replied, ‘I assure you: I do not know you!’ (HSCB)
(Notice the Message is way off base here, but in a different way:
He answered, ‘Do I know you? I don’t think I know you.’)

Now I don’t think it’s an accident that so many students of the Bible fall prey to the mistake of believing in the essential foreignness of the Scriptures. It has an easy explanation.

Anyone who is seriously interested in studying the Bible will study Greek and Hebrew in order to dig deeper. And, as anyone who has learned a second language as an adult can tell you, it takes a very long time before that language stops sounding foreign, even if you are moderately fluent in it. Often you’re a half beat behind as the native speakers rattle on. And they are constantly saying things in ways you’d never have thought of in a million years.

And for languages that you don’t have to actually use in live interaction, the matter is worse. It is the rarest of people for whom written languages become truly alive.

The distance that so very many Bible scholars feel when approach the Scripture in the original languages is not essential to the Scripture. It arises unnoticed as the product of language learning. They feel distance when reading in Greek and Hebrew and think that the distance is in the text. They read passages they don’t fully understand and think that therefore the author was expressing a mystery.

Not at all. The NT is natural in Greek as the Egyptian papyri show. It should be natural in English.

That foreignness stuff, that’s a scholarly legend.

23 Comments:

At Mon Jun 30, 05:41:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

That foreignness stuff, that’s a scholarly legend.

That's not a falsifiable assertion. You are stating opinions here, not scientific linguistics.

 
At Mon Jun 30, 06:59:00 PM, Blogger Bill McReynolds said...

What does CW mean?

 
At Mon Jun 30, 08:11:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

CW or "conventional wisdom" supposedly doesn't exist in such scholarship, which is quite foreign in Korean translation.

Brother Anthony, An Sonjae (Sogang Univeristy, Seoul) writes this in English:

This echoes something Koreans keep telling us: "No foreigner can ever feel the deep nuances in Korean poetry". Vice-versa must also be true, of course: no Korean can possibly feel the deep nuances of English poetry. What precisely is meant by such talk of nuances? They can only be those inherent in every language, part of its specific essence, the features composing that language's "foreignness".

Here is the first stanza of a Korean poem translated by me into English: Kwi-ch'ok-do, by So Chong Ju:

The path my love took is speckled with tears.
Playing his flute, he began the long journey
to western realms, where azaleas rain down.
Dressed all in white so neat, so neat,
my love's journey's too long, he'll never return.

This version bears no direct resemblance to the original in sound or rhythms; I do not see how it can be otherwise, given the immense distance between the two languages. I have not tried to reproduce the onomatopoeia of the first line's "nunmul arong arong", convinced as I am that this kind of sound-play is utterly specific to the Korean language and has no valid equivalent in English, where onomatopoeia is mostly a childish game.

This translation is comprehensible to English speakers as far as the words are concerned. What, though, of the poetic experience that it was written to convey? Even to Korean readers this cannot be an easy poem to feel. The translation is a poem- like paraphrase striving to bring across a few scraps of an irretrievably complex whole that can only exist as such in its original language.

 
At Mon Jun 30, 08:40:00 PM, Blogger James F. McGrath said...

I think there are two issues that need to be separated. One is whether the English of the Bible needs to be stilted and awkward to reflect similar features of the underlying languages. The other question is whether these texts reflect a historical and cultural setting different than most English readers, who when reading the Bible in English translation assume that the characters in their stories, their logic, their values and their motives will make sense if understood as what one might expect from other English speakers.

Are both equally 'scholarly legends'?

 
At Tue Jul 01, 12:33:00 AM, Blogger David Ker said...

Well, getting Iyov and Jim West on the same team is no mean feat!

Thanks for coming out of hiding. Hope your holiday is a good one. We'll try to mop up in the aftermath of the mess you've left behind. ;-)

 
At Tue Jul 01, 10:09:00 AM, Blogger Iyov said...

Funny David.

But, of course, neither West nor I would characterize ourselves as being on the same team.

 
At Tue Jul 01, 10:39:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

FYI, I'm on McGrath's team. (Sorry James). And I think Dave and Rich should team up to translate "no mean feat!" into Korean--one gets the mess, the other its aftermath.

 
At Tue Jul 01, 03:48:00 PM, Blogger Dave said...

I agree with James McGrath, I would think it is almost undeniable that the cultural setting of the Bible is different enough from ours to cause issues. High context vs low context societies, honor vs shame worldviews, etc etc.

 
At Tue Jul 01, 06:09:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

Some say, "it's got to sound foreign to us because the original environment is foreign to us." Others say, "it's got to sound just like Jesus is sitting in my living room." I'd like to ask, "How do we know where we are along that spectrum of possibilities?" As they say, if you don't know where you are, no map will help you.

If the majority of scholars and the hoi poloi come away from the translation with the impression they must understand the details (nuances, if you like) in order to understand the text, then we're too close to foreign. I suggest this is one viable measurement.

I'm not saying the details are not necessary in order to get the translation right. Detail digging produces sound exegesis. I'm saying the reader of the translation shouldn't have to wade through the details in order to understand the text. If they do, then that's bad translation. A conglomerate of accurate details is itself not accurate.

As Rich said, "The stuff of the Bible that is of interest are those things about human nature." If the reader has to shift into linguistic archeology mode (digging deep into the text) in order to understand the text, then the text isn't a text (at least, not in translation). The stuff is at best hidden, at worst, foreign.

When stuff becomes coherent, when the text stops stuttering, when the nuances intermingle, and flow, and mold each other, the details cease being the particles of stuff and the whole gains clear definition.

At that point it becomes redemptive.

 
At Tue Jul 01, 09:44:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

If the majority of scholars and the hoi poloi come away from the translation with the impression they must understand the details (nuances, if you like) in order to understand the text, then we're too close to foreign. I suggest this is one viable measurement.

Well, details matter for understanding literature in English. When I read Chaucer or Shakespeare or Milton or Joyce or Eliot or Pynchon, the details matter. Now, it may be that I am an alien (in the sense of flying saucers rather than INS), but I don't see why you would allow sloppy reading when we read Scripture when it is disallowed in English literature class.

Or maybe you are saying the words don't matter that much, and we should just wait for the movie to come out.

 
At Wed Jul 02, 04:09:00 AM, Blogger scott gray said...

movie's already out, isn't it? and i hear its full of scholarly legends and common wisdom.

 
At Wed Jul 02, 02:12:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

iyov wrote: Now, it may be that I am an alien (in the sense of flying saucers rather than INS), but I don't see why you would allow sloppy reading when we read Scripture when it is disallowed in English literature class.

I'm not advocating sloppy reading at all. I'm advocating that we translate in such a way that people actually can understand the paragraphs.

Here, try an experiment. Pick up (say) the NASB. Flip it open. Put your finger somewhere on a page. Read the paragraph within which your finger rested. Now, I did not say 'study'. Simply read it from the first word of the paragraph to its last word. Having done that, turn to a normal 15 year old and explain what you just read in about two to three sentences. And, after doing that, go back and do your extensive study and ask yourself how accurate you were. Not how precise--there's a difference.

 
At Wed Jul 02, 02:28:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

Scott Gray wrote: movie's already out, isn't it?

(chuckle)

Actually, the movie isn't out yet. However, there's a prequel that's an hilarious farce. It's been been playing at playhouses near all of us for sometime.

The farce is about this guy named Paul who writes a short letter to a group of people who get together every Sunday. The letter is read to the group and the farce really kicks into gear when this group takes an entire year trying to figure out what it says. They even pay one guy a full time, professional wage to explain it to them. He uses a whole library filled with different explanations of the various nuances and multiple ambiguities of all the details.

The farce is unbelievable. Brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it.

Perhaps you've seen it.

 
At Wed Jul 02, 03:43:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At Wed Jul 02, 03:44:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

I heard about that movie. I heard the really funny part comes at the end when a German dude named Martin claims that every 15 year old can figure out those letters for himself with the right translation. Of course, folks bumble all over each other with lots of hilarious meet-ups like the "Thirty Years War." Isn't this movie still raking in the box office take in Northern Ireland?

Imagine the tax savings when we eliminate education for those over 15. After all, if surgery, constitutional law, macroeconomics, quantum physics, and the Bible can't be explained to a 15 year old, we are just making it too complicated.

 
At Wed Jul 02, 04:30:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

Iyov said: Imagine the tax savings when we eliminate education for those over 15. After all, if surgery, constitutional law, macroeconomics, quantum physics, and the Bible can't be explained to a 15 year old, we are just making it too complicated.

I wouldn't link the topics the Bible covers with things like quantum physics, so your irony falls short. But, you've brought us full circle. As Rich said, "Why does the Bible speak to us today? It speaks to us because it’s about human nature. It’s about loyalty and honor, love and respect, and trusting God. Topics which can be communicated to a 15 year old.

 
At Wed Jul 02, 04:56:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

Well, that may be our point of difference. I am not so confident of saying what the Bible says or doesn't say. I find many portions of the Bible difficult to understand -- in part, the so-called "hard sayings," but also the highly complex and mystical portions.

What is the first chapter of Ezekiel about? It doesn't seem to be about "human nature, ... loyalty and honor, love and respect, and trusting God".

What is Romans about? It doesn't seem to be about "human nature, ... loyalty and honor, love and respect, and trusting God."

What is Apocalypse about? It doesn't seem to be about "human nature, ... loyalty and honor, love and respect, and trusting God."

What is Leviticus about? It doesn't seem to be about "human nature, ... loyalty and honor, love and respect, and trusting God."

You may as well say that Moby Dick is an adventure novel about a whale, or that Kafka's "Metamorphosis" is a short story about pest control. It is true that those are elements of the work, but they encompass only the most shallow perspective of sublime literature.

 
At Wed Jul 02, 05:02:00 PM, Blogger scott gray said...

oh, mike--

that's not a movie. that's liturgical theater. and there's professionals and amateurs playing all the really interesting roles.

scott

 
At Wed Jul 02, 08:53:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

You mean to tell me that Moby Dick is not an adventure story about a whale?

I put my finger down in Moby Dick: Webster's German Thesaurus Edition, and thought I got the gist. Now I think I'm learning Chinese with Moby Dick: Webster's Chinese-traditional Thesaurus Edition.

"If you are either learning German / or Chinese, or learning English as a second language (ESL) as a German / or as a Chinese speaker, this book / either version/ is for you. There are many editions of Moby Dick. This one is worth the price if you would like to enrich your German-English vocabulary, whether for self-improvement or for preparation in advanced of college examinations. Each page is annotated with a mini-thesaurus of uncommon words highlighted in the text. Not only will you experience a great classic, but learn the richness of the English language with German synonyms at the bottom of each page. You will not see a full translation of the English text, but rather a running bilingual thesaurus to maximize the reader's exposure to the subtleties of both languages."

Of course, the movie's out...in '56, and on tv, on dvd in French, in animation in Japanese (set in outerspace). Then, there's how I learned it: "Mad Magazine published a satire of the [1956] movie, in which they depicted 'Father Maplesyrup, an Ex-Sea Captain' turned preacher, giving a sermon on Jonah and the whale. The magazine comments, 'Right off, they give away the whole plot!'"

Everything's PG rated, which means relevant to 15 yr olds.

 
At Wed Jul 02, 09:05:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

And this group is now translating the Bible from ESL to Korean.

 
At Wed Jul 02, 09:45:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

JK, certainly the most absurd reference point for ESL immigrants is that at some point in their life, they are asked to recite this, with comprehension:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

Compared to this, almost any passage in the KJV is a snap.

 
At Wed Jul 02, 09:59:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

By the way, you'll notice that the annotations for those Moby Dick editions that JK cites were generated entirely by computer and not checked by any actual human. For example, on p. 3, on the first full paragraph, the expression "pent up" appears, with the helpful German annotation "das Penthouse".

 
At Thu Jul 03, 08:30:00 PM, Blogger codepoke said...

Thank you, Richard. I have no right to comment on this blog, and much less after the brilliant comments you've garnered here, but this post is beautiful.

I've been decrying the farce of Eskimo snow words for many of my 40 years, but not the way you have here. I didn't have the skills or resources to learn that the Eskimos don't have 40 or 400 words for snow, but I did realize that English does. I grew up in the mountains, and we had a dozen words for the type of snow coming down and dozens more for the way it effected us.

American is a technically powerful language, but it's powerful in another way. American will always be my native language.

Biblese can never be more than a matronly aunt's tongue to me. I will never feel the warm familiarity of home when I hear it. After weeks in Hungary, speaking my little Hungarian and more often hearing their little English, there was a heavenly letting down of my guard when I heard American spoken by Americans again.

There's no substitute for feeling at home with God's words. God's meaning can be conveyed in "American," and I cannot grasp any reason why the Hebrew or Greek should be translated into Biblese when it can be translated into American with the same effort.

 

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