In which I let Rabassa and Barnstone duke it out about memory, error, and the ethics of translation

In his book If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, Gregory Rabassa asserts lots of interesting and valuable stuff, then this clinker on pp. 61-62:

The completion of work is best done in translation, where the translator can work at things denied the author in his own language, even the way Saint Jerome mistakenly implied the cuckoldry of Moses which Michelangelo then wrought in enduring stone.

In case you don’t spend hours a day considering the history of Christian Anti-Semitism, Rabassa is referring to St. Jerome who mistranslated the Hebrew word for “ray” to mean “horns,” leading to a tradition of picturing Moses with horns coming out of his head, which Michelangelo then made flesh (marble flesh) in his famous statue of Moses. Horns on the head are, in some pagan traditions in Europe, understood to mean than the man wearing them has been cuckolded—that is, his wife has had sex with other men.

That cuckold charge, which is not common when discussing Jerome’s “horns,” is not as important to me as Rabassa’s assertion that the mistranslation which came to be both a statue and a common, enduring myth that Jews had horns was a good thing, a “completion” of something the original text could not say. Huh?? The issue is that the Hebrew “couldn’t say” that Moses had horns, or that his wife/wives were not faithful? Are you kidding me? And that’s without understanding that plenty of Christians see those horns as images of the devil, not images of a cuckold.

While translations do build on each other across time, this is not, by far, always a positive thing. Mistranslations, for nefarious, controlling, purposes, can be introduced into texts and mutate from there until the product people “know” is more a history of prejudice or ignorance than a translation. For a crystal clear example of this, I turn to translator Willis Barnstone’s The Poetics of Translation, to his sub-chapter “How through False Translation into and from the Bible Jesus Ceased To Be a Jew.” While his argument, incredibly well-documented, is lengthy, these little excerpts carry the spine of it:

Since early Christian leaders, saints, and followers were both Jews and gentiles, pursuing the Jewish dream of an announced Messiah, how could two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism be based largely on their Scriptures, that is, on the New Testament, a collection of revolutionary texts born from the depths of the rabbinic tradition?

By sleight-of-hand editing and translating, only certain figures of the Christian Scriptures remain clearly identifiable as Jews—not John the Baptist, not Mary, not Jesus, nor James and Paul: even their names are not Biblically Jewish. This disguise is in place by the time of the Greek Scriptures and is reinforced in translation into other languages. […] The Christian scriptures are different because, in the Jewish world that they describe, all the good people are Christians and the evil ones Jews. […] How could Jewish authors produce such a fearful world of fatal hatreds? They did not. The original stories, in the process of telling and writing, redaction, and translation, were transformed to produce a narrative that excluded Jews from the messianic happenings in their land.

Barnstone continues, showing how yeshua (Joshuah) became Jesus, mashiah became Christ, and rabbi became Master, all intentional mistranslations to erase Jews from the text, and how “Jew” was slyly transformed description to the name of the enemy. Eventually, Barnstone says, the people who are allied with Jesus are just people, while the people who oppose him are “the Jews.” As Barnstone summarizes,

Christian anti-Semitism begins with and derives historically from the New Testament, from the falsifying translations into and out of the Christian Scriptures in which Jesus ceases to be a Jew. The result of this transmission of the history of Joshua the Messiah has been two millennia of hatred and extermination, from diasporas and ghettos to pogroms and holocaust.

So what has that to do with Rabassa’s St. Jerome saying “something” in translating that the original text “couldn’t say”? This: translating matters, and because it matters, it must be aware of culture, bias, social power, linguistic power, prejudice, hatred. To assume that my job as a translator is to say what the author couldn’t say in her/his culture seems dangerously arrogant, especially since I am the citizen of a (declining) superpower and the speaker of a language whose culture is an invasive species, wiping out native tongues and cultures daily. My job is NOT to say what some other culture couldn’t say, but to show, value, bring into my language what their culture CAN and DOES say, know, value, communicate, worship, want, need. The line from scriptural sources to St. Jerome to Michelangelo was not a good thing for my people, the Jews, which is certainly one big understanding I carry into this new skill I am building.

Against Rabassa’s assertion of finishing an author’s work by adding what a different culture knows, I assert Barnstone’s linguistically AND socially responsible analysis of the power of language to be used as a weapon:

The primary method of destabilizing and deracinating a people is to rename them and their land. Consequently, the first strategy of the recorders and translators of the Christian scriptures was to remove Jesus from his Jewishness.


Note from my own political life: one of the first actions of the Zionist government in the new state of Israel was to erase all Arabic village, street, and place names and replace them with Hebrew names, thus trying to physically erase Arab/Palestinian history from the land itself. For more information on this, see the wonderful Israeli activist group Zochrot (Remembering). In the photo below, Zochrot members are restoring the name of a Palestinian mosque in Arabic and in Hebrew.

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