Smelly Bible Translations

Many of my college-level ESL students will comment on how America has no smell, is pretty much rid of smells in public. Body odors of residents of the USA? Not really. Distinctive aromas in homes they visit? Not so much. I’ve heard this comment from individuals who’ve lived in and visited various states of the US. Smells are extremes, or so we Americans think. But take a whiff again. Could it be that “no smell” is really something extreme?

I think about this a lot, and thought about it a great deal, when reading through the works of Aristotle. He cautioned or rather extremely warned his students against extremes, and in language against hyperbole. Is there something in America, a melting pot where English is the main and primary language, that borrows from Aristotle? Wasn’t Aristotle preparing his student Alexander for Politics? Hadn’t he himself been preparing for Plato’s and Socrates’s pan-Hellenic Republic? The whiffs of sects and of sophistry and of epic mythic histories were to be erased? The smells of extremes?

Yesterday, I re-read something by Naomi Seidman that got me thinking about this sort of erasure all over again. She’s written a book examining Jewish translation practices, and particularly Jewish Bible renderings, and especially these in comparison and contrast to many Christian practices. It’s called Faithful Renderings. As you read it, you begin to wonder “faithful” to what, to whom?

Here’s a bit:

… in recommending that translation “go to the Jews for the Hebrew grammar and to the [Christian] theologians for the sense,” Martin Luther separated the (Jewish) body of the Hebrew letter from its (Christian) spirit and laid the groundwork for a Protestant approach to the Hebrew Bible unmediated either by the Jews or by Rome. The invisibility of the translator, from this perspective, is no historical accident–it is a politically and religiously overdetermined erasure. The absence of the Jew, as both privileged and suspect interpreter of Hebrew sources, not only is necessary for the Christian appropriation and German domestication of the Bible, it is also paradoxically central to the development of modern translation in the West. (page 33)

I’m quick to think of Martin Luther’s background of scholarship in Aristotle, in Aristotelianism, which he tries to distance himself from. But then I’m interested in how Seidman traces influences of the “erasure” view and practice from the LXX (from which the word “Holocaust” is derived, and she focuses much on Jewish “Holocaust” literature in translation as a kind of sacred writing like the Bible in translation) to Augustine to Eugene Nida. Let me not, then, try to pin “all” on Aristotle.

What I’m trying to get at is there may be something smelly about translations of the Bible that get at just the “communication” or just the “meanings” but “ignore” or “erase” the Hebrew language (or the Hebrew Aramaic or Hebrew Greek for that matter). Sometimes deodorant smells, really stinks, say some of the individuals I talk with.


10 responses to “Smelly Bible Translations

  1. And the vines with the tender roots give a good smell – Song of Songs – re the fig tree

  2. Good job developing the smelly metaphor in this post, Kurk. FWIW, a Philippine friend told us Americans smell of milk, since we drink milk. They do not want to be smelly, so they don’t drink milk.

    I am grateful that the English language is so rich (smelly?!) that it can express a huge variety of writing styles, feelings, pheromones, etc. Some English speakers have such an ability (immersive?) to take on the smells of another language that they can smell of that language while speaking or writing in English. I like that. Could it be that this is some of what you are hoping for in English translations of Hebrew or Greek biblical texts, that they sound more like Hebrew or Greek speakers while yet being expressed in English?

    • Wayne, I love your friend’s observation and the Filippino rationale for not drinking milk then. Interesting, isn’t it, that we can’t smell milk on other Americans or ourselves.

      Yes, I agree with you about English being very very rich. In ESL (and in its teaching, TESOL), we like to talk about multimodalities, as if that’s something biological or psychological and human. But I like to think of that as extended from or even to English too. Ken Pike was convinced of the N-Dimensionality of Language. I wish more often he had made clear it was the Infinite Dimensionality of any language, of languageS, including English. And I do think you’re right! It would be nice, in my view, if we could smell the milk in the Tagalog translation of the American Declaration of Independence. 🙂 Or when we read an English translation of the biblical texts, we could smell them as Hebrew, or taste them as Greek. This is what fascinates me, some, about the Septuagint. It’s Hebraic Hellene, and it clearly resists, much, the Aristotelian clarity and cleanness and antiseptic flavor of Alexander’s Greek in Alexandria.

  3. I preached Matt 7:6 today, a very smelly text and I flubbed it from start to finish. But considering I stand on the shoulders of giants who have been stinking at their interpretation of that verse for 2000 years I find small if not smell comfort.

  4. Pingback: Getting (Bible) Logic and Rhetoric Right | Mind Your Language

  5. On a related issue of Jews vs Christians, I’m trying sort out all of the levels of stereotyping in this article (in a nominally Jewish publication — and when I say “nominally” I mean it literally: the J. Daily Forward.)

    • Thanks, Theophrastus. The article gives whole new meanings to “de-nominations.” If only it were as fun as My Jesus Year, written by a rabbi’s son (the founder/former editor of American J. Life and of J.week) married to the converted daughter of a pastor.

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