Thursday, May 28, 2009

Interjection on Footnotes and Introductions

I'm sorry for the lack of blog posts recently. I was ill. It's no excuse though. I should push myself. So enough about that, and onto the post itself.

In talking about translating, it occurred to me to discuss one of the more controversial "helps for the reader:" footnotes and introductions. Most modern Bibles have them to one extent or another. General Bibles in the Protestant tradition have very few footnotes, and these only show variant readings like "Cn. Hbr rejoice" to indicate that the text has been corrected, because the underlying Hebrew word would be nonsensical or at least not be as good a choice. I'll discuss that whole issue in another blog post. For now, the question is about the utility and efficacy of footnotes. Protestant Bibles tend to keep footnotes to a minimum for a variety of reasons. One is that they don't want to push a Calvinist or Arminian interpretation on the reader (this was one of the criticisms of the Living Bible, which has extensive footnotes. Calvinists objected to Kenneth Taylor's Arminian take.) There is also a fear of trying to do too much of the Holy Ghost's work for the reader. And there is also the issue of the trouble history that Protestant translations have had with footnotes. The Authorized Version (aka the KJV) was, in part, created because the Geneva Bible (the popular version at the time) had extensive notes of a staunch Calvinist bent that offended many of the high church types in the CofE. There was a huge bust up over the notes, and one of the goal King Jimmy had was to create a Bible translation that wasn't encumbered by the notes. Thus, most translations in the AV tradition (e.g. RV, NASB, RSV, NRSV etc) have very few footnotes to speak of.

Bibles in the Catholic tradition tend to have more footnotes, and often more detailed. This is due to long history of requiring the notes (I'm currently looking for the exact reference, but I don't have it at my finger tips). These notes range from the highly polemical of Bishop Challoner's 18th century notes to the more "higher critical" of the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible. A good blend of the two approaches can be seen with the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. The footnotes on the pages are the sparse footnotes about translation issues, and relegated to end notes at the end of each testament are longer explanatory notes about the theological significance of certain passages. Relegating them to endnotes is not ideal and flipping to the back certainly disrupts the flow of the reading. Still, when compared to other modern translations they are much more orthodox.

Introductions are more common among both traditions. The Good New Bible, the New Living Translation and other Protestant translations have them, and of course the major modern Catholic Translations have them too (as did Bishop Challoner's revision of the Douay-Rheims). Introductions can have many of the same pitfalls and benefits as footnotes. Sometimes they can be used to advance a polemical or doctrinal understanding of the whole book or groups of books. And just like footnotes they can be used to push the higher-critical stance as being the only stance. Ideally, introductions should guide the reader to seeing an overall structure to the book under review and point out major themes. When one is used, as many Christians are, to quoting various Scriptures out of context, it can be valuable to call the reader's attention to work as a whole from which these verses have been excerpted.

Of the Bibles to which I have ready and frequent access, the New American Bible's introductions and footnotes are generally poor. It is clear to me that there were several footnotists, a few seem to have been closet orthodox Catholics, but for the most part the introductions and the footnotes portray Seventies higher critical scholarship as definitive and authoritative. Of course, that also betrays one of the pitfalls of footnotes and introductions, especially that try to shill for the higher critical side: they become hopelessly dated. Also rather than being faith-affirming, they can be faith-denying. One of the footnotes that caused my palm to impact my forehead each and every time I read it is, is the footnote to Jhn 15:26. The footnote rather amazingly reads "Whom I will send: in ⇒ John 14:16, ⇒ 26 the Paraclete is to be sent by the Father, at the request of Jesus. Here the Spirit comes from both Jesus and the Father in mission; there is no reference here to the eternal procession of the Spirit." Alas for the translators, but this is not how this verse has been understood by the Fathers up until the present day. It is true that it does speak of the granting of the Paraclete at Pentacost, but that does not mean it has zero reference to the eternal procession, because specific instance can be done with reference to, in accord with, or because of the more general instance. In his masterly treatment of Pneumatology, St Thomas Aquinas frequently quotes the Fathers who in turn frequently quote this verse (among others) to show the eternal procession. A better footnote might have been to the effect "While this certainly is Christ's promise of the Paraclete on Pentacost, it has also been seen by the Fathers and others as affirming the eternal procession." And then perhaps some salient quotes from the Fathers would be helpful too. The NAB is also too easily enamoured of the documentary hypothesis with respect to the Torah. They also are enamoured of a similar approach to Samuel and Kings.

A better system, but by no means perfect, can be found in the New Jerusalem Bible. They are also somewhat enamoured of these approaches, particularly the documentary hypothesis, but they generally do a much better job of acknowledging that this or that approach us not the only, and that other solutions to, for example, the synoptic problem exist. Unlike the NAB, the NJB doesn't seem to think that much of the evidence for Luke and Acts being of late authorship is any stronger than early authorship. The NAB takes Christ's references to the Temple's Destruction as proof positive that the books had to be after the Seventies AD. But the NJB points out that there's no detail in the predictions that could not have been seen in the Thirties with even a modicum of historical awareness. The footnotes and introductions though still do try to present a higher critical approach, although not as stridently and not as if it is the only approach. The NJB is better in regard over all other translations: explaining the translation choices. They discuss the problems with the Masoretic text and discuss many of the main variants, and usually show by means if vowel changes or different division of words how they arrived at their translation choice.

Of particular note, when it comes to introductions, is the Oxford Catholic Study Bible. I admit I have not yet seen the Second Edition, but I found the first edition to be of mixed blessing. For really exploring things like the structure of the Pentateuch and such it was fantastic. But it was even more deficient in "faith destroying" ways too. For example, there was an article in it about the need to revise the Scriptures and the Lectionary to excise troubling passages from a Feminist and Marxist perspective (e.g. Eph 5:22 and its ilk). Again, palm intercepts forehead.

As I stated earlier, the RSV-CE has generally orthodox notes, but they are too few in my opinion and relegated to the end. As I said, endnotes are not ideal as they disturb the flow of reading. Still, of all of the footnotes, they are the best.

Of the more Protestant translations, the GNT is decent when it comes to introductions. Although I often detect a subtle phenomenon. The sort of .... "I am being diplomatic here about higher criticism; in reality, I believe it, but I am going to couch my words so as not to upset you."

As a segue into my next post, I will do a little aside about the penchant in some translations to move bits of scripture around. I will discuss this a bit more in the next post, hence the segue. But take Job 24:18-24. I'll discuss the passage more in the next post, but the NJB moves this passage into Bildad's speech (placing it at the end of Job 25). I find this very annoying, because it is not always clear where various sections came from or why they were put there. The footnotes are spotty at addressing this. The GNT does a better job by putting a little note and saying "the text isn't clear who is speaking in this section, but it is often assigned to Bildad."

Sunday, May 10, 2009

On Translation Part I

First, I do not have any great claim to translation mastery. My Hebrew and Aramaic are awful, and my Koine is ... well, what it is. Still, I do have some experience translating French to people, although there too, I can hardly consider myself an expert.

I had occasion to think recently about translation as a general concept. Recently, I discovered all of my Biblical translations, as well as a few scholarly tomes. And I compared all of these translations to each other, sometimes finding surprises. I also found my grandfather's Bible, he the Lutheran Pastor. I believe this one he used to prepare his sermons. And this had me thinking about the value of translations especially when we consider sacred texts.

Before I talk about translating the Bible, we have to consider translation itself. When I translate from French to English, or vice versa, it's usually a pretty simple task to simply tell the auditor what the other person said or wrote. But what happens where one comes upon an idiomatic statement? Does one translate it word for word, or convey the meaning? In spoken language the latter is preferable. But what about sacred texts where the words will form the basis of doctrinal and dogmatic assertions? Now the task of the translator is much more difficult. Precision is key, obviously, because the precise words in the original languages become the basis of doctrinal assertions.

A famous example of this, and the usual test to see if a translation is going to be more orthodox than heterodox, is Is 7:14. Most older translations translate the inexact term of almah as "virgin" after the Greek term, parthenos, found in the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX). This is because Matt 1:23 quotes the LXX and sees the Virgin Birth as fulfilling this prophecy. But more recent translations translate it as "maiden," "young girl.," or words to that effect. That's because the word Almah isn't more specific.

Let's look at this more closely to get inside the head of translators and to try to figure out what's going on. Read Chapters 7 through 9 of Isaiah to understand the context, especially the introductory narrative and the parallelism at the beginning of Chapter 8. Then also read Matt 1:23. Now, this text presents us with numerous choices if we're a translator. Do we consider Matt 1:23? The trend lately is to say no ... we're only going to consider each book as a separate work in the Bible. In that case, it becomes a little harder to tell what the prophecy is. Who is the young woman? Some have seen this as a prophecy of Hezekiah, whose mother would have been quite young at the time of the prophecy. But the parallelism of Chapter 8 makes it seem like the prophetess is the "young woman" since Maher-shalal-hash-baz is said to have some of the same characteristics as Emmanuel (especially the reference to "before he is old enough to say "Mommy" and "Daddy," and the references to Emmanuel being connected to his birth). In fact, none of these works perfectly. Obviously, all the prophecies about Assyria don't seem to fit with Christ all that well without stretching them into obscure allegory. What value would they be to Ahaz who was being admonished for turning to Tiglash-Pileser instead of God? This was a specific admonition to which Ahaz was to take a specific lesson. But if Hezekiah is intended, why does he not get a mention at all during the specific verses where Emmanuel is referenced? If Maher-shalal-hash-baz, then this seems unlikely, because is mother had already had a child, and so we'd really have to stretch the value of the word almah to encompass her. Now, one technique is to adopt the thinking of the New Jerusalem Bible and basically cop-out and say that none of the prophecies really belong to one set of prophecies but is a mishmash thrown together because they have similar turns of phrase, but are otherwise unrelated. This seems to me to be an intellectual cop-out. We can't figure it out, so there's nothing to figure out.

We also need to consider how the words were understood by their audience. Although the LXX was translated about 500 years after Isaiah, it does represent an understanding of the text that is important, because it clearly was fulfilled in Christ's birth. It seems to me that a number of things are going on here.There is an immediate meaning that Ahaz was meant to take away: most likely the birth of Isiah's son. While it might seem to stretch almah, almah itself is a rather flexible word. In Psalm 46, it's a musical term. In Songs 6:8 virgins is almost certainly intended a meaning. And in Prov 30:19 I actually think generic "woman" is intended, since there's no special reason why it should mean anything more specific in the verse, and indeed if it did, would break up the parallelism of the other three images. Not to put a fly in the ointment, but parthenos is equally versatile. After all, the LXX calls Dina a parthenos after her violation. So, Maher-shalal-hash-baz's mother, the prophetess could be intended in a proximate way. But Christ is also clearly intended as an ultimate sense. Both are intended here.

Now, how to convey this? That's the real challenge. Most translations have to resort to footnotes. But this can be unsatisfactory. Many dislike the concept of footnotes or notes of any sort in Sacred Scripture. I don't have an answer here, although probably the best method is the one adopted by The Living Bible which is to use the word virgin in the text and then explain the fact that multiple senses are intended here.

Tomorrow I'll talk about other choices in these and other passages that translators are faced with.