Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Court Officials for the Kingdom of Heaven

A month or so back, several ELCA pastors found themselves ranting, online, about the abomination that is the ELW psalter.  In the midst of this, one pastor -- a friend and classmate, incidentally -- piped up, praising the said psalter for its inclusive language, and wondering whether the rest of us could really be so deeply committed to the endless litany of "he, him, his and LORD."

On the contrary, we were all swift to say.  Generally speaking, we like language that includes everybody who ought to be included.  That's how most of us speak naturally these days, and how we preach.  The problem is that it is not, for the most part, how the Psalms were written.  And where most traditional English translations may have been too quick to supply masculine pronouns, relying on the grammatically dubious idea of a "masculine neuter," ELW has gone much too far in the other direction, changing person and number at will, effectively rewriting the psalms.

This is, of course, part of the old translator's lament.  Traduttore, tradittore, as they say.  Or, in a funnier but more sexist expression: les traductions sont comme les femmes; lorsqu'elles sont belles, elles ne sont pas fideles, et lorsqu'elles sont fideles, elles ne sont pas belles.

One of the problems with translation -- all translation -- is that imposes the translator's vision of the world onto the text.  There's really no way to avoid this.  When Paul writes to his adelphoi, does he mean -- as a literal rendering would have it -- brothers?  Or, in a language in which the masculine neuter is a reality, can we safely assume that he means brothers and sisters?  The answer, whichever answer one chooses, says a great deal about leadership in the early Christian communities.

One must make decisions about the meaning of a word, or about how to express that meaning in one's own language; and the moment one decides, one shuts off the alternative possibilities, even those which moments ago had seemed nearly as valid.  Like any other editing, it is a painful, darling-killing business.

This creates particular problems in the world of Bible translation, since (unlike many Jews and Muslims) most Christians depend so heavily upon sacred writings in languages they have never learned to read.  Readers and preachers may choose among the wooden literality of the NASB, the politically-compromise-laden NIV and NRSV, or the "decent obscurity" of the KJV.   They may also choose, of course, the free and simplistic renderings of the Good News Version and its successors, those translations most thoroughly committed to the idea of "dynamic equivalence."

In fact, in our own parish, the Contemporary English Version is in regular use for the Old Testament and Epistle lessons.  For most of our regular worshipers, English is a second (or third, or fifth) language, and it seems charitable to give them something they can manage without a lexicon.  The CEV is a Global English translation, generally adequate to the task, apart from the occasional howler (e.g.,  "In the beginning was one who was called the Word").

Sunday's lesson from Acts falls somewhere between "tough decision" and "howler."  It tells the story of the Ethiopian eunuch -- or, as the Contemporary English Version calls him, the "important Ethiopian official."  

Ah, well, one says.  "Eunuch" is a pretty tough word, after all.  One doesn't hear it very often these days, and it probably needs some clarification for the average listener.  Its meaning, unambiguously in either Greek or English, is a man who has been castrated.  But the normal reason for doing such a thing, in antiquity, was preparation for a particular kind of service in a royal court, for which one needed access to the women's quarters.  Etymologically, the word actually comes from something like "bed-watcher," and so refers to one's duties, rather than physique.

Maybe that's right.  It is, after all, his service to the queen that the story seems to highlight; perhaps what mattered to the early Christians was the fact that their religion had spread to Africa in the person of a royal advisor.

The problem, of course, is that "important official" sets the man's body altogether aside.  Is the mutilation of his genitals so unimportant to the story?  Perhaps -- and perhaps not.  Years ago, we heard a memorable sermon by Richard Jeske, which reminded listeners of the Deuternomic charge that no mutilated person, and especially no man who had lost his testicles, be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.  From this, and perhaps from some other texts which we have forgotten, Jeske made a leap to the then-still-common argument that gay sex was inherently wrong because it could not lead to children.  And yet here, said Jeske, is a man who (although possibly able to have sex, under certain circumstances) cannot conceivably bear children, a man forbidden from access to the God of Deuteronomy, but one who nonetheless is baptized and sent forth as a servant of the Gospel.

Whether or not this was the best exegesis of the text is not the point; it was a useful one, and it took seriously the idea that the Ethiopian eunuch matters to us because he was a eunuch as much as because he was a court official -- that his body matters as well as his job.  The CEV translation, ahem, cuts off that possibility.

Incidentally, the CEV goes even further with its rendering of Matthew 19:12.  Those who "have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" become those who "stay single" -- really, somebody should have introduced Origen to dynamic equivalence in time.

1 comment:

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...