Sunday, January 04, 2009

babble from Babel 3

This series on Babel, in Gen. 11, has been on my mind for a very long time. This is one of my favourite stories in Genesis, full of rhythm and alliteration. It was not chosen to highlight any gender aspects of the language, but that has become a unifying theme for this study. It is important for readers to keep in mind that I am writing commentary, not theology, and this should be read for the fun of it.

I am looking mainly at the differences between Jerome's Latin and Pagnini's Latin. Pagnini's translation from the Hebrew, in the early 1500's, became one of the four or five reference texts for Coverdale and subsequent Bible translation into English.

I pass now from the disconcerting opening, here and here, from the finding that the people were of one lip - and no tongue - to the third verse.

Here we read that "they spoke" or is it "he spoke" one to another. This raises many questions for each lexical item. Here are the contrasting texts,

    Dixitque alter ad proximum suum Jerome

    Dixeruntque alter ad alterum Pagnini

    καὶ εἶπεν ἄνθρωπος τῷ πλησίον

    וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל-רֵעֵהוּ

There we have it - some sort of singular "they or rather a plural "one." The verb in Hebrew "to speak" is plural and the subject ish (man or person) is singular. Of course, it is not singular at all because this phrase represents reciprocal action - reciprocity in grammatical construction. Each person spoke to another person, who spoke back in return, and they said to each other, let us bake bricks and burn them black and build ....

(but I get ahead of myself and slide into the alliterative future of the ba ba ba the babble of Babel before its time.)

I stop and ask myself, for the sake of this verb, if women also make bricks. Can wayyomaru ish mean that men and women spoke to each other and said "Let us make bricks."

We don't know who spoke in this line, but we do know that women made bricks. Brickmaking was the task of slaves and the lowest people in the group. But here it seems that they all took it on, they made the bricks voluntarily because it says, "Let us ..." and they spoke to their neighbours, their peers, let us make bricks.

Now here is a story of a woman and her bricks - and her baby.

    "Come, let us build us a city and a tower." Many, many years were spent building the tower. It reached so great a height that it took a year to mount to the top. A brick was, therefore, more precious in the sight of the builders than a human being. If a man fell down and met his death, none took notice of it; but if a brick dropped, they wept, because it would take a year to replace it. So intent were they upon accomplishing their purpose that they would not permit a woman to interrupt her work of brickmaking when the hour of travail came upon her. Moulding bricks, she gave birth to her child, and tying it round her body in a sheet, she went on moulding bricks.
    -- Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews
It's not that women want to make bricks, but don't let anyone tell you that women did not labour side by side with men. They did, and they do.

So wayyomaru ish, which one could argue is literally "the man spoke," seems more suitably translated in a gender neutral way - perhaps "and they said to one another" would do just as well. It turns out that even the most conservative and literal of Bible translations, check yours out, the translations of great transparency, do not translate this word ish with man, but translate it as "they said to one another."

Looking back to the Septuagint, it supplied anthropos for ish, the gender neutral human being for ish, which some say is "man" only. But "man" disappears in the Latin and we read alter, or "other." So, "other said to other" or "they spoke other to other." Let's stop this post now and each of us find our other.

I invite you, if you want to understand that ish may be anyone, man or woman, who puts a hand to a brick, to read the articles on this page by David Stein.


David E. S. Stein said...

Thank you for spelling out your thought process. My analysis of this verse turns out to be very close to yours. More important, you prompt me to make explicit a few important distinctions between various logical elements in the analysis: the Hebrew wording used to refer to humans; the referential force of that wording’s grammatical gender; the gender of the humans being referred to; and how to translate all that stuff into English.

In our verse, the Hebrew text uses impersonal and non-specific language. In other words, it is not concerned about the speakers’ gender. Therefore, whether or not women in the ancient Near East regularly made bricks is (in my view) an interesting question, but for the purposes of translating the Hebrew into English, such societal realia turns out to be beside the point.

It has taken me several years to realize that in such situations, dynamic-equivalence translators do not need to be certain as to how the ancient audience would have construed the referents’ gender. For with regard to the gender of persons being referred to, English is significantly less specific than Hebrew. So all that we need to establish is that the Hebrew text is employing Hebrew’s version of generic language, without regard to the referents’ identity as men or women.

(This is a good opportunity to note that in many such circumstances, the Hebrew text nevertheless employs the noun ish in equally non-specifically ways to denote members of a male-only or typically male group, such as military troops or a named set of tribal elders. When referring to such a category, a grammatically masculine noun does not specify the referent’s gender, but the situation does. When the referents’ gender is already understood from the context, it seems to be normal in Hebrew to employ a general-category noun. (I am reminded of the term “basic-level noun” as it is used in cognitive linguistics or psychology; such a noun conveys the largest amount of information via the least amount of effort. Generally it is not the most precise possible categorization.)

In English, too, when the referent’s gender is understood, the same recourse to generic terms is common. For example, those who follow sports often use the term "athletes" or "players" to refer to team members who play in all-male or all-female leagues. Once every participant in the conversation understands which league is in view, the referents’ gender goes without saying.)

By the way, in my view, the best single-word gloss for the relational noun ish is "participant." Here it denotes a participant in the conversation.

As for the translation step, Bible translators too often forget a basic fact about English idiom: gender is specified only where germane and not already known. If rendering a grammatically masculine Hebrew category reference into normal English idiom, the translation should mention the referent’s gender only when 2 conditions are met: (1) either the terminology (such as the word zakhar) or context unequivocally requires the exclusion of women, and (2) the contemporary reader would not recognize that fact (due to contemporary cultural assumptions about gender roles that differ from ancient assumptions). In the case of our verse, the germaneness test is not met. Therefore the rendering should be in generic terms.

Some readers may look at the resulting "gender-neutral" rendering and conclude that you mean to say that the speakers in the story include women. Even though that is in fact what you believe, such a conclusion by the reader does not logically follow! For gender-neutral English wording means only that the referent’s gender is not at issue in the utterance. (The referent’s gender may actually be unknown, or known yet taken for granted. In this case, the gender is simply incidental.)

Anyway, so it seems to me.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thank you very much for this. I was careful not to say that women were necessarily included in this conversation. That is, as you note, not relevant.

I wrote,

We don't know who spoke in this line, but we do know that women made bricks.

because I wanted to say that women are not necessarily excluded from being participants in the conversation. Maybe they were and maybe not, but it is not relevant. Brick-making is not necessarily restricted to men only so we don't need to keep this in mind.

On another note, I was reading a book on African-Americans with a grade 4 class. In the book, one man said to another "Hello, Brother."

Once they realized that the two were not actually brothers I asked them what it meant. They all said that it meant "another black person." I even suggested the phrase "he is also a black man, right." But they all rejected "black man" and said that "brother" meant "another black person." Clearly because racial and cultural identity was involved, it felt ungrammatical for them to use a gendered term to explain it. They needed the word "person."

So I asked what he would say if it were a black woman, and they said "sister" of course.

But the word "person" plays an important and necessary role in English.

David E. S. Stein said...

I did not make myself clear, so let me try again:

Even if we were to maintain that women are not in view in our verse, we would still need to render it via gender-neutral English.

(That is why I claimed that concern for whether ancient Near Eastern women were brickmakers is misplaced. The answer makes no difference.)

The point holds to the extent that one is committed to producing a dynamic-equivalence translation.

Conversely, when translators render this verse using male terms, such wording does not necessarily mean that the translator believes that only men are in view. Consider:

Young’s Literal Translation: and they say each one to his neighbour

Everett Fox: each man to his neighbor

Mary Phil Korsak: each to his companion

Arguably the male terms “man” and “his” are being employed in their gender-neutral sense.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

You were clear before but I was just thinking of something else. Thanks for rephrasing it and repeating.

Here is Julia Smith's version for this verse.

"And they shall say a man to his neighbor,
Come, we will make bricks,
and we shall burn to a burning,
and brick shall be to them for stone,
and potter's clay shall be to them for potter's clay.