Monday, October 12, 2009

Ideology and translation of biblical texts

(With apologies for some html problems below)
I was amazed, even amused, to discover the Conservative Bible Project recently (thanks to Fred Clark at Slacktivist). I thought all manner of bizarre possibilities when it came to the biblical texts. But this one takes the cake. According to the good folks behind it 'Liberal bias has become the single biggest distortion in Bible translations'. This Liberal bias is 'the largest source of translation error' And it seems there 's only one way to rectify it - 'conservative principles to reduce and eliminate' this translation error! They list 10 some of which include:

  1. Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias
  1. Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, "gender inclusive" language, and other modern emasculation of Christianity

  1. Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity; the NIV is written at only the 7th grade level
  2. Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms: using powerful new conservative terms as they develop; defective translations use the word "comrade" three times as often as "volunteer"; similarly, updating words which have a change in meaning, such as "word", "peace", and "miracle".
  3. Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms for it, such as "gamble" rather than "cast lots", using modern political terms, such as "register" rather than "enroll" for the census
  4. Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.
  5. Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning
  6. Exclude Later-Inserted Liberal Passages: excluding the later-inserted liberal passages that are not authentic, such as the adulteress story

As Fred points out these are people who

self-identify not just as Christians, but as "Bible-believing" Christians (that is, Real, True Christians) -- people who proudly differentiate themselves by declaring their "high view of scripture."

The irony here is that they are just as keen on taking the scissors to the scriptures as any historical critic and use the same basis that the problematic texts are apparently additions to an authentic original. In their translation points they cite the pericope of the woman taken in adultery as an example of one which should be excised forever from the New Testament, no doubt because the central principle is mercy rather than retribution. These people don't seem to like the concept of mercy. Perhaps they believe they are without sin (and sadly all too many Real True Christians seem to labour under that delusion) and so eagerly want to pre-empt God by casting the first, second and who knows how many stones.

Reading further through the project blurb it appears they want to excise this verse from Luke 23.34
Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

They say that "most authentic manuscripts omit this verse" and then add that "some of Jesus persecutors did know what they were doing". So presumably some first or second century Liberals set out to corrupt the Gospel account. It appears that this conservative Christianity is not a religion in which forgiveness is central. The whole of Christian tradition says otherwise but of course Real True Christians don't know tradition let alone care about it. They probably wouldn't know that newly Christianised Kiev abolished the death penalty 1000 years ago and had a go at some sort of social support scheme for the poor. This latter point shows, too, that the tradition does not show much sympathy to the free market principles these conservatives claim are the key to the parables of Jesus.

As Fred Clark observes:

The American right wing's ability to make parody redundant has gone from being a bitter joke to being a bitter cliché. It's an observation so frequently made because it's so frequently true...
Consider what that joke means. Satire works by exaggeration, but it can't be arbitrary exaggeration. It's only effective (or funny) when it adheres to the trajectory of the idea it lampoons. The target of satire offers a series of points in succession and the satirist ridicules these ideas by continuing down that line, racing ahead to the next logical points in the established progression and demonstrating the inherent absurdity of those ideas by taking them to their logical -- and necessary -- extreme conclusions.

The satirist and the extremist are thus in a kind of footrace. And, as the Conservative Bible Project demonstrates, the extremists these days are winning. They're getting there first -- beating any would-be satirist to the finish line and the punch line.

Thus we have Poe's Law, which states, "Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won't mistake for the real thing." The Internet provides dozens of illustrations of this, Web sites that come to function, simultaneously, as parodies and as earnest expressions of the beliefs of extremists. The intent of those sites' creators may not even matter because, if the satirist is doing her job well, she will wind up at precisely the same point further along the trajectory at which the extremist will, sooner or later, arrive. Or vice versa. To paraphrase Flannery O'Connor, all that descends into absurdity must converge.

The CBP is a fine example of this. It reads like parody, even though it isn't. It presents an exaggerated, extreme view, but that extremism and exaggeration is not the product of a satirist's mockery. This makes it unintentionally funny but also, more importantly, it makes the CBP useful as a herald of what is to come. Soon. The CBP illustrates the inevitable destiny of the religious right. This is where things are headed, where things are going, possibly faster than you expect.

The CBP is a self-parody in part because it's not even a real translation but appears to be a paraphrase. They use as their base text the King James Bible (without the so-called Apocrypha, these are Real True Christians after all) and then paraphrase the bits they don't like or are too old to conform to such recent concepts as free market principles. So in other words this is a rewriting of the biblical texts to get rid of everything that doesn't fit, that is ideologically unsound, that is challenging. scary, disturbing... Other .

Indeed, this is a far more ambitious attempt at taming the text than anything proposed by the Jesus Seminar. These conservatives don't want a text that is alien at all. What they want is a text that functions as a mirror, a text in which they can see themselves all dressed up in the God drag and bow down before themselves. As Clark says this is idolatry through and through.

If you want to sample a translation that respects the otherness of the text then check out these two posts at The WOMBman's Bible. In the first one, Mother Eve, Anthropos, J K Gayle translates from the Greek Genesis:

And he it created: the god made the mortal human

According to God's likeness, he it created: that person
boy and girl, he them created: those persons

So Adam knew Eve, that wombman of his

and taking it together she

birthed offspring, that Cain,

and said,

I've gotten out a mortal human

through that God

Then in Ancient (Divine & Gendered) Radical Translating Gayle does some very interesting stuff with the Sarah/Hagar/Abraham narratives, this time translating first from the Hebrew

And Princess, the wombman of Father Exalted, bore no babe.

And she had a slave-girl, an Egyptian, named Fly-Away. . . .

And she called the name of Yes-He-Was-Here (who spoke to her) “God sees.”

because she said “'I see him here following him seeing me.”

And then from the Greek "by Jews translating back in Egypt, where Egyptian women are all around. Imagine"

Sara, however, the bride of Abram did not deliver for him.

There was, however, her girl-servant, with the name Hagar. . . .

And Hagar called called the name of Master (who is speaking to her) “You’re the God who Says things to me”

because she said, “And, in fact, in front of my eyes I have seen.”

This is wonderful stuff. The text remains alien, other, and yet hauntingly so. There is also beauty here and an openness that the people of the Conservative Bible Project would suppress. After all they want an ideological text, a text all wrapped up in the cocoon of their circumscribed perspectives. But Gayle plays with and releases the text from such straitjackets and allows it to be revelation no matter how uncomfortable that might be.

That Gayle works with both Greek and Hebrew texts of Genesis is a reminder, too, that there is no such thing as a pure pristine text - there is no original. A pruned-back reconstructed text does not represent such an original, it is merely a pruned-back rec0nstructed text. To play with Bible/Scripture means recognising and working with the multiple texts, their insertions, additions, 'corruptions' all.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you very much for the links, even more for the kind words and the astute analyses!