Thursday, January 21, 2010

Found in Translation: A Short Essay in Two Parts

Part 1: God as M. Night Shamalyan

If there's one thing the history of religion teaches us, it's that Gods are like movie monsters: the most memorable ones stay hidden.

Take the God of the Old Testament. Other deities of the period lived in knives or trees or mountains, and in this way they acted more like roommates, or perhaps local celebrities, than the gods that we worship today. But for a nomadic and frequently exiled tribe, an unmovable, place-based pantheon was about as useful as an expensive set of furniture. What they needed was something they could take with them, or better yet something that they didn't have to. So they invented (or met, or came to understand) a God who was homeless, like them, and who could therefore be unfolded like a placemat no matter what the terrain.

Seen in these terms God's invisibility is less a random characteristic and more an adaptation, like the zebra's stripes or the butterfly's eyespots. Like any deviation, it must have appeared strange and even freakish upon first arrival; but the interesting thing for me is how the increased "nowhereness" of God, which at first must have seemed like such a reduction, actually ends up expanding his worshippers' sense of spiritual sufficiency. For if God lives nowhere, then really God is everywhere - and if God is everywhere then home is everywhere, at which point look, the world just got significantly less terrifying.

The much-lamented absence of God, then (which after all only increases as the story of the Bible moves forward) is actually a genius move of imaginative entrepreneurship, on par with stuffed crusts and the all-night drive through. Apparently, it caught on. As the philologist Erich Aurbach describes it in his book Mimesis, "[God's] lack of form, his lack of local habitation, his singleness, was in the end not only maintained but developed even further in competition with the comparatively far more manifest gods of the surrounding Near Eastern world."

Anyone who has seen the famously effect-dependent "Clash of the Titans", or better yet watched the trailer for its remake, will be able to attest to the wisdom of this strategy. For all their popularity, the gods of the time were Michael Bay: stuffed with special effects that were big, sure, but also fundamentally alienated from the imaginative needs of their audience. Yahweh, on the other hand, knew the importance of story.

Part 2: Threading the Needle Instead of Pounding the Rock

The good news for those seeking religious clarity is that gods come with instruction manuals. The bad news is that these instruction manuals are usually washed out, strangely-folded, and written in Korean.

The Bible you and I and quite a bit of America know is a sort of hall of mirrors: a translation of an anthology of a set of documents that, written over a very long period of time, were themselves altered, augmented, and annotated by the vast game of telephone that is popular culture. Within this process, translation plays an important part - for with each new version of the books designated The Bible, a new set of the old words had to be found, dressed up, and shoved on stage. Sometimes the things that emerge from their mouths are disappointing. In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, Christ designates Peter as the person on whom his Church will be founded; the statement is not a simple compliment, but a pun that, in ancient Greek at least (the language in which the Bible was written, though not the language Jesus himself was speaking), probably had them rolling in the aisles. In English, however, the effect if not the meaning is lost, unless of course some industrious and sacrilegious translator decides one day to rename Peter "Rocky".

This is just one example; but the truth is that, even if you grant the Bible's origin in God Himself, you're still left dealing with what must be among the holiest of holey documents. Were the Author around to correct our readings, the problem might be "solved" - but it's important to remember that clarifying may mean locking us into rather pedantic clarities. "Trust the tale, not the teller," as D.H. Lawrence said. For example, in the famous eye of the needle analogy:

"And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24)

Like most of Christ's parables, this one benefits from its precise and evocative balancing of particular and abstract terms. In this way it's a lot like an algebra equation, which consists of both actual numbers and placeholding x's. Solve the problem and the equation vanishes, meaning you can stop worrying your pretty little head about it. As translator Robert M. Adams puts it in his book Proteus, His Lies, His Truth:

"Translator-interpreters with well-to-do congregations have been known to explain the passage by saying that there were a couple of tall rocks by a road near Jerusalem known popularly as 'The Needle's Eye'; the space between them was narrow indeed, compared with the surrounding plain, but not so narrow that a fully loaded camel could not pass through quite comfortably..."

Adams's semi-facetious example makes us remember that sometimes more comprehensive scholarship does not necessarily mean a better translation. For those people who speak the "original language", in this instance, a riddle with an intriguing euphony of possible solutions collapses into a comment on local geography. We are left with "the truth" of what Jesus said - though it's important to remember here, as Adams does, that there is no debunking which does not simultaneously rebunk. The solution is self-interested: offered to "well-to-do congregations". One reading is replaced by another, more linguistically accurate, though perhaps less "true" one.

So, in examining the King James version of this parable - which, like many details in the Bible, can be "explained" out of its resonance and into a matter of local and historical fact - we see a clear example of a rather underdocumented (though quite common) process. A significant nuance has been, not lost, but found in translation.

Image: The Last Supper, from The Brick Testament

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