Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue?

This post is focused on language. Some are going to read it as a “push back” against Mike Sangrey’s post at Better Bibles Blog entitled “Accuracy-what is it?” I’d like to you consider this post of mine here to be, rather, a push forward towards our ongoing discussion about the accuracy of the translation of just one phrase of the bible (i.e., ἔξ·οδος). Mike and his co-contributors from BBB might have this perception that my post here is (typically) “very focused on rhetoric, feminism and postmodernism.” Well, I confess how I do anticipate some visual rhetoric. But not much focus. This is language.

Let me start with accuracy. Mike asks the general BBB audience and his co-contributors there, “Accuracy-what is it?” But hadn’t we best ask “Whose is it?” And by “we” let us include whosoever might read the Bible (even if that includes longwinded and pushy commenters, even rhetoricians, and feminists, and women too, and postmodernists, and perhaps children, even missionary kids.) Let’s start by ourselves being accurate first. Can we?

Let’s start with accurate language before translation. Then, yes, then let’s ask whose accuracy are we after in translation.

Here goes:

My Texas State driver’s license is accurate. On it, there is a color photo of my face, and in the photo any observer can plainly see that the color of my eyes is blue. Moreover, there are letters, and words, that make this very, very clear. They read exactly as follows (as I duplicate here the upper case CAPITAL letters in BOLD font BLUE FONT and BLACK FONT precisely and, within the direct quotation marks a couple of lines below, with meticulous accuracy):

EYES: BLU

I am not misspelling the word blue as it appears on the license. It is, clearly, an accurate abbreviation. (Moreover, I am not misrepresenting the color of the letters, which are blue in the word EYES and black in the word BLU). The accuracy of these facts is corroborated by the very same data on a duplicate Texas State Identification Card of mine.

So far, you’re just taking my word for it. But take a look at some photographic evidence. My words are accurate. Here are pictures I took with my iPhone and have uploaded to the blog for you to see now:

So, take my word for it. The State of Texas accurately depicts the color of my eyes as blue. Moreover, it also accurately depicts my “SEX” as “M.” Likewise, the State accurately depicts the color of my wife’s eyes as green. In addition, it marks her sex as different from mine.

The difference is important to the State of Texas. The difference is meaningful for political reasons. The difference is marked in language. The difference is noted with precision, with excessive, meticulous “accuracy.”

Now, “we” had best talk about translation. Are we finished talking about accuracy in one language only? “What is it?” Can we talk about “who” we are now? Is our Bible like the State of Texas?

Now, what if I told you this: that when I was growing up in South Vietnam, this sort of State accuracy was irrelevant? That’s right.

Now we get to difference! Now accuracy is important. Now “we” must translate.

I confirmed some of these very facts with my Dad as we spent another fine day together yesterday.

Dad is a changing man, I must say again with some very profound delight. He’s fighting deadly cancer but is very much more alive than I’ve ever seen him. But his eye color was always the same color when I was a little kid. It still is. More than that, my Dad’s eyes are exactly the same color as mine. And this is an accurate statement for which you’re going to have to take me at my word. You can see my eye again here if you like (for there’s not much difference between my eye color now and my eye color then when I was a little missionary kid):

“Dad,” I asked him. “Did your driver’s license in Vietnam confirm the color of your eyes as blue?” And he remembers accurately: “No, of course not. Vietnamese driver’s licenses don’t give eye color. And I still have my Indonesian driver’s license that doesn’t show eye color either.” We both laughed. Everybody in Vietnam and all who need to be counted in Indonesia have brown eyes. For the state to have everyone specify this on their drivers licenses would be a waste.

I’m not saying to record my Dad’s eye color on the Indonesian driver’s license as “biri” would be inaccurate. But what political purpose would such accuracy serve? What personal, political purpose? The word biri is the accurate word in Indonesian language for “blue.” But this would just be plain irrelevant to the nation state of Indonesia.

Likewise, my Dad’s eye color or mine on a driver’s license would be less relevant in Vietnam. In Vietnamese language, the word xanh is the accurate word for “blue.” And yet it’s also the accurate word for “green.” So who would want to distinguish the blue color of my eyes and the green color of my wife’s eyes on our Vietnamese drivers licenses? For whom is such “accuracy” important?

Growing up in Vietnam, I heard and read an awful lot of Bible, and nobody’s eyes were marked with color. The Bible was not, in this respect, as accurate as my Texas State Drivers license and my Texas State ID card. Granted, what I heard and read of the Bible was always and only in translation. First, English in the home. Second, Vietnamese everywhere else. (There was that awful Saul of Tarsus who got scales on his eyes. And “the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth.” And “Every man’s way is right in his own eyes, But the LORD weighs the hearts.” And “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away” because “It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” And only later on did we learn that the biblical βλάσφημος sounded like Πολύφημος and that Poly-Phemus wasn’t so, accurately, Two-Eyed but rather that one-eyed monster Cyclops, whom the hero of the Odyssey named Odysseus tricked with a sound-alike name that means No-Body.) But the point I’m trying to make here is that “nobody’s eyes were marked with color” — not with the Cyclops’s accuracy anyway.

Growing up a little later in Indonesia, I remember hearing a song sung by Crystal Gayle (whose State of Indiana drivers license marks her eyes as blue with some accuracy).

We may want to know, accurately, that this Gayle (not a relative of my Dad’s family) does not have the name Gayle on her drivers license either. And the song that I heard, the one that made her famous has this other sort of questionable accuracy. She’s singing, asking, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue?” In some respects, I think, this plays better in Vietnam and in Indonesia where everybody’s eyes are brown. Whose “blue” is more accurate? So may we accurately call this wordplay? What are we doing with language?

Might we not want more accurately to call this sort of wordplay Biblical language?

Who are we to make the Bible have such political and such state accuracy? Whose ἔξ·οδος are we after? Whose State? Whose state of difference? Whose point of view? Whose power over someone else? Whose accuracy? Who are we?

Nobody’s eyes were marked accurately with color when I was a little kid — not until there was war, rock fights between little Vietnamese boys and little American boys with ghastly eyes, or not until there was evidence of a sexual encounter between a white skinned blue eyed “Mỹ” and a woman (“Beauty” mocked), until there was a mix up, a mixture, a mixed breed. Now we have to sort out the difference. Now we have to be more accurate than the Bible is (even in Hebrew or in Greek) with respect to eye color.

When we find it convenient to make separate categories by language, then it becomes our accuracy.

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3 responses to “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue?

  1. I love it – I think I was trying to write a comment on the subject post, but I am on strange keyboards without spell checkers and with flakey connections so I gave up. But here you put accuracy in its place – a long way down the line of priority. Feel, shape, sound, rhythm, shibboleth, love, and person take precedence. Bless you and your family and special prayers for your father.

  2. That song takes me back. Don’t forget Marty Robbins’ Blue Eyes Cryin’ In the Rain which has a really weird backstory in our family.

  3. Bob,
    Feel, shape, sound, rhythm, shibboleth, love, and person take precedence. amen.
    Bless you and your family and special prayers for your father.thanks.

    And, in your comment at another post here, you say/ask: “Like these stories may not be ‘verbatim’. Does that concern you? Is such harmonization important? Why not or why?” I think “harmonization” is the game of language for us humans. It’s extremely important. But who determines it?

    David,
    Was it Marty or Crystal who also sang “I’ve Cried (The Blue Right Out of My Eyes)”? We’d love to hear the “really weird backstory in [y]our family”!

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