Saturday, July 4, 2009

Material Language

"If no word in a language is exactly the same as any other word in a different language, and languages are reciprocally incommensurable, either translating is impossible or it consists in freely interpreting the text and recreating it. At this point what interests scholars is no longer the relationship between source and target but rather the effect of the translated text on the target culture. Such research is undoubtedly interesting for studies in comparative literature as well as for studies on the evolution of a given national culture." - Umberto Eco, Experiences in Translation (Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 2001), p. 21.

I have commented elsewhere in this blog that I am deeply suspicious of appeals to "original language" as a means to settle interpretive questions regarding a text in dispute. My suspicion, as stated before, has to do with the notion that the "original text" (e.g., a Hebrew or Greek critical text) somehow gains us a privileged access to the past and not, as I argue is actually the case, a mediated reconstruction of the past in the present. It may seem a trifling point, if one trusts one's reconstructions. For me, however, such attempts at reconstruction will always and inevitably be marked by the interests and concerns of the present.

There is no correction for this bias, furthermore, because it is built into the very fabric of that with which we are dealing: language itself. Language comes with an insurmountable local bias.

Take, for example, this recent essay by neuroscientist Lera Boroditsky, entitled "How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?"

Boroditsky's research points out that "quirks of grammar, such as grammatical gender, can affect our thinking," and she goes on to claim that, "Such quirks are pervasive in language; gender, for example, applies to all nouns, which means that it is affecting how people think about anything that can be designated by a noun."

Which might mean that, contrary to the claims of proponents of so-called "Cartesian" or "generative" grammars (Noam Chomsky, John Searle, and others), there is no shared meaning "behind" the various languages spoken in our Biblical versions. When we translate into English what was a Greek translation of an Aramaic statement (as is the case with the Gospels), it is not a matter of hanging different signifiers upon the same "background" meanings. Rather, the very meanings expressed in each of these iterations - Aramaic, Greek, and English - are inextricably bound to the materiality of the structure of that particular language itself.

These differences in language are not minor. In Boroditsky's research, which she discusses here in an interview with NPR's Here and Now, she demonstrates how the linguistic connection of the cardinal directions to the life of the aboriginal Pormpuraaw affects the manner in which they conceive time itself. In another example, the interview discusses the relationship of direct and indirect language attribution with regard to events to the formation of memory and blame (a fact that would have stark implications for such Christian doctrines as sin and atonement).

Adopting such a position into one's hermeneutic methodology would, of course, make the notion of verbal plenary inspiration quite difficult to maintain. That is to say, even if God dictated, word for word, the contents of the "original" Bible (which some extreme versions of verbal plenary inspiration assert), this by no means indicates that we, as English speakers, can obtain to the weltanschauung at work in those "original" words. Put another way, it is not a matter of simply translating language, but an entire metaphysic surrounding and interpenetrating the language, that is required.

In pointing out this implicationof Boroditsky's claims, some might argue that I have now pulled the rug out from under any veracity to Scripture at all. I do not think this is the case, however. Scripture has managed, through the ages, to "mean" and "have meaning," despite this non-transparent mediation that does not actually access the thought-schemata of the past. In other words, the book still works, despite its not working in the simple manner we thought it did.

For me, this is fascinating. When Boroditsky describes the Pormpuraaw manner of dealing with time, social interaction, and indeed all facets of life through the medium of the four cardinal directions and the path of the Sun's travel, I attempt in my own mind to imagine what that sort of weltnaschauung would be like to have, instead of the very Western "left-to-right" schemata I am hardwired with. Inevitably I will fail at fully imagining this difference, of course. Our wiring is tenacious. The trick, as in all translation, is not to get it "right," but to get it wrong in a useful and compelling way.

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