Friday, April 04, 2008

The "Bibel in gerechte Sprache" part 2

In the SBL Forum (Society of Biblical Literature), Susanne Scholtz has a review article on the new German translation: "The Bible in just i.e. fair language" (BigS). There are three other articles which round out this helpful and even exhaustive survey.

She concludes her essay:
In short, then, this new inclusive Bible translation has succeeded in bringing important exegetical and theological developments of the past forty years to the public and ecclesial attention in German-speaking countries, especially Germany. For the first time, journalists, professors, clergy, and a wide array of post-Christian and conservative Christian voices have felt compelled to engage theologically progressive thought, such as feminist theologies, the anti-racist theological debates especially related to the Jewish-Christian dialog, and social justice. This translation of the Christian canon of the Bible has therefore accomplished what decades of scholarly discourse have not. It goes to the “heart” of the theological enterprise—the biblical text—and, as a consequence, a most controversial debate has developed in German-speaking countries after decades of utter disregard and relentless marginalization of progressive theological voices and research, especially within academia and the higher ranks of the churches.

Luzia Sutter Rehmann comments on assumptions, process and goals of the new translation:

Let me illustrate this point with a passage from Gen 2. The creation of the woman from the rib of the man is inscribed in Christian iconography. The story has also justified the secondary status of women throughout the centuries. The new inclusive translation of this passage emphasizes three convictions: first, adam is not exclusively to be translated as “Mensch” (human), and thus cannot only be viewed as a male noun in German. Accordingly, the Hebrew noun is translated as “Menschenwesen,” which in German is grammatically neutral: “das Menschenwesen.” The translation signifies either a sexually undifferentiated creature (Gen 2) or an androgynous human being (Gen 1:27). Second, the translation of Gen 2 refers to God as “she,” which takes seriously that in Gen 1:27 God creates humans in the divine image as female and male. Third, the noun zela is not translated as “rib” but as “side,” similar to other biblical passages in which the noun refers to the side of the tabernacle in the desert, the ark, or the Temple in Jerusalem. The “side” is anatomically indispensable, whereas one can live without a rib.

Gen 2:21-22

Da liess jAdonajj, also Gott, einen Tiefschlaf auf das Menschenwesen fallen, dass es einschlief, nahm eine von seinen Seiten und verschloss die Stelle mit Fleisch. Dann formte jAdonajj, also Gott, die Seite, die sie dem Menschenwesen entnommen hatte, zu einer Frau um und brachte sie zu Adam, dem Rest des Menschenwesens.

The translation of these two verses indicates that the translator, Frank Crüsemann, attempts to do “justice” to the reception history of this passage in the original text and in the translation. It makes a big difference if the woman is created from one of the many bones of the man or from the side of the “Menschenwesen,” which only after the surgery is called “Mann” in Gen 2:23: “Sie soll ‘ischa’ heissen, denn vom ‘isch’ wurde sie genommen.” Only in Gen 2:23 do unambiguous terms appear in the translation (“Mann”); prior to v. 23, it is “ha-adam” in its double formation (“Menschenwesen”). This translation is based on the Jewish medieval debate that recognized the androgynity of the original human (“Urmenschen”). Also, a contemporary Jewish scholar, Pinchas Lapide, explains that the rabbis did not view the woman as the ruler over the man (then she would have emerged from his head) or his slave (then she would have emerged from his feet). Instead, God created her from Adam’s side because they are supposed to live side by side, because she should side with him and he with her.[2] In contrast, the rib makes for a senseless narrative.


Furthermore, the new inclusive Bible translation is unusual for its canonical ordering of the biblical books. It follows the Jewish canon and includes the Apocrypha: “Tora—Prophetische Bücher/Nevvim—Schriften/Ketuvim—Apokryphen/Deuterokanonische Schriften.“ The Prophets are the center in the Jewish canon, connecting back to the Torah and forward to the Writings. Placed accordingly, the prophetic books cannot be read as christological foreshadowing of Christ, the messiah—a long and problematic tradition in Christian Bible interpretations. The inclusion of the Apocrypha is rare in Protestant Bibles and recognizes the inner-Christian dialog between the Protestant and Catholic churches. They are also included because aprocryphal books such as Judith, Tobit, and the Maccabees provide valuable social historical information that has been of particular interest to German biblical studies. The prayer of the remorseful King Manasse is the end in this canonical arrangement and hints at a hermeneutical attitude that challenges institutionalized socio-political and economic power.

Wolfgang Stegemann's essay, "Translation or Interpretation: Intense Controversy about the New German Translation of the Bible" (Translated and edited by Susanne Scholz) deals with gender-justice.

The application of the criterion of gender justice (Geschlechtergerechtigkeit) has received the harshest criticism; it has also created enormous disagreement among German-speaking feminist theologians.[4] Especially the change from exclusive language—i.e., the fact that the Bible uses mostly male grammar for gender-mixed groups of people—has raised many questions and led to numerous disagreements. For instance, many people find it quite acceptable that the Greek text using “brothers” (adelphoi) to address all members of the Christian congregation is translated with the German term “Geschwister” (siblings; e.g., Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:10). The Pauline letters make it clear that the congregations include both men and women so that inclusive language (“Geschwister”) in the translation seems to be justified in the source text. Yet massive resistance occurs when the groups of the Pharisees or scribes (even the tax collectors) that appear only in the grammatical masculine form in the New Testament are translated inclusively. In the public debate the following translation of Matt 23:2.25 is often quoted and debated:

(2) Auf dem Stuhl Moses’ sitzen toragelehrte und pharisäische Leute. . . . (25) Wehe, ihr Scheinheiligen unter den toragelehrten und pharisäischen Männern und Frauen! Ihr reinigt Becher und Schüsseln von außen, doch innen sind sie mit Raub und Gier gefüllt.

(2) On the chair of Moses sit the people who study Torah and are of the Pharisees. . . . (25) Woe, you pretenders among women and men who study Torah and are of the Pharisees! You clean cup and plate from the outside but on the inside they are filled with robbery and greed.

This translation suggests indeed (and the translator, Luise Schottroff, intended it so) that women belonged to the scribes und Pharisees. That is certainly disputed. The opponents of this translation maintain that these two Bible verses do not exemplify the usual linguistic exclusion of women in which a grammatically masculine word is used. They claim that here the androcentric language reflects an androcentric social reality because in the Jewish society of the first-century C.E. female Pharisees (or female scribes or female tax collectors) did not exist.

Of course, the problem is that we do not know exactly if the grammatically masculine noun pharisaioi, which is not a job title but a reference to group identity, also includes women in this group. Regardless of the answer, some commentators consider it already an important success of the Bibel in gerechter Sprache that long-held assumptions about the gendered composition of ancient Jewish society and its various groups are reexamined. Moreover, the strong criticism about the use of inclusive language has raised a fundamental question: Does language have only descriptive or “referential” character, or does it not always already construct reality or realities (“Wirklichkeit[en]”)? If we assume with Wittgenstein that “the boundaries of my language signify the boundaries of my world,” then it would be true that quod non est in lingua non est in mundo. Phrased differently: Repeating the Bible’s exclusive language in modern Bible translations would inevitably lead to repeating linguist reality as it is constructed in the source text; namely, a world in which women played almost no social role. One could therefore ask if the absence of women in a mere mechanical transfer of the Bible’s exclusive language into our language and culture would not lead to a similar absence today, as it did in the ancient society to which the biblical language belonged. I assume that the answer is “probably not.”

A particular concern of this inclusive Bible translation is the translation of biblical references to God. The tetragrammaton of the Hebrew Bible (YHWH), translated by the Septuagint as kyrios, receives various translations in the Bibel in gerechter Sprache. For instance, the tetragrammaton is translated with the female term “die Ewige” (the eternal). In general, the change between masculine and feminine terms for God has led to severe criticism. An important example is the translation of the prayer “Our Father” as follows: “Du, Gott, bist uns Vater und Mutter im Himmel” (Matt 6:9; “You, God, are for us Father and Mother in Heaven”).

Many believe that the text, “Vater unser im Himmel,” is a translation of Matt 6:9, whereas the text, “Du, Gott, bist uns Vater und Mutter im Himmel,” is an interpretation. Yet the term father, the equivalent in the German dictionary to the Greek noun pater, is already an interpretation of the Greek source text. The patriarchal and authoritarian connotations of the Greek word in the Mediterranean cultures of the first century CE are not reflected anymore in the German word Vater. Thus, those who insist on the term “Vater” in the biblical pater hemon would need to supply a term of comparable patriarchal and hierarchical status so that the cultural semantics of the Greek notion of father would be comparable. Yet such a word does not exist in German. In short, when I use the word Vater as the translation for pater, I change the source text by filling it with meaning from my own culture. By using the word Vater, I leave the culture of the New Testament and bring into the text the culture that is connected with that noun. Thus, even the literal translation of the Greek phrase pater hemon with the German “Vater unser” is already an interpretation and definitely a cultural transformation of the source text.

This means that a translation should not only consider the literal words, but also the cultural reality of a text and its words in the translation language. The question is, Can this be done and, if so, how is it best done? Will we ever be able to translate the Greek word pneuma without major cultural loss? The usual translation is the German word “Geist,” a grammatically masculine noun in German but neutral in Greek, and it has created many wrong connotations. The Bibel in gerechter Sprache gives it a try with the word “die Geistkraft.” The Greek pneuma is translated with a feminine noun and sounds less abstract. But even this equivalent does not give us connotations of matter and substance as implied in the Greek word. I also wonder why it is not more appropriate to capture the culture of the biblical languages with words from our own native language. The philological and text-oriented ideals of translation make us forget too quickly that they, too, are the results of cultural transformation because, like the source language, the terminology of one’s own language also has “thick” cultural contexts.[5]


Irmtraud Fischer's essay, Why the Agitation?: The Status of the “Bibel in gerechter Sprache” in Academia and the Churches is here. She points out that there are no paragraph headings:

A Bible Text As It Really Is—Without Rosy Colors

The new inclusive Bible translation foregoes any attempt to outline the biblical text, and it therefore does not include subtitles as reading guides, as they would mold a reader’s assumptions about the text. The original text does not contain any subtitles, which many readers do not even realize. The decision to forego subtitles should be viewed as an act of justice toward the original text. Readers are expected to figure out for themselves what each passage means.

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