Theses on Biblical Translation:
1. At root, translation is no big deal. Many if not most people in human history lived in linguistically diverse environments; they were either multilingual or had regular contact with speakers of different varieties. People translated every day.. their own heads to express a thought to a family member, to say hello to their neighbor, to offer food to a visitor, to tell a story to a customer. It was only about as profound and problematic as putting on your shoes.
2. How did translation become a profound, soul-searching quest? Two forces are key in making high culture out of our words: religion and monumentality. Wirtz's brilliant 2005 article shows how in religious language, being "untranslatable" is often tied to being otherworldly..
When Cuban Sateria practicioners are possessed by Orichas, participants put great energy into emphasizing the difficulty of translating the possessed's otherworldly Oricha speech, despite the fact that both speaker and audience appear to be speaking the same language (Spanish).
By contrast, while the Santeros' memorized invocations appear to be genuinely unintelligible--containing elements of archaic Yoruba transmitted over centuries which no Yoruba speaker today understands--they are all confident that at least *some* Santero understands it all!
In language, intelligibility is an index of commensurability (if you can understand someone, they are like you), and religious speech typically acts to *manage* intelligibility so as to produce effects of incomparable otherworldliness. Hence her title, from Malinowski:
Thus religious language--as well as incomparably great literature--is a realm "Where Obscurity is a Virtue."…
3. Why do the smartest experts on literature and language act as if translation is damn near impossible when ordinary people do it all day? That's almost its own answer: religious experts, philologists, and translators are all in the *intelligibility management* business...
This is where monumentality comes in-an object (whether a building, a battlefield, or a text like the Constitution or the Qur'an) becomes a monument when a group agrees that it sends a powerful message about a shared past. Linguistic monuments are special in this regard.
While anyone can visit a tomb, we typically see high literature and sacred texts as being exclusively available to people who can understand their meaning. This is why "Literatus" (able to read [Latin, esp. Bible]) was an important, almost sacred status in Medieval Europe.
Other religious cultures such Islam and Buddhism sometimes have less narrowly meaning-based views of their textual monuments: Arabic Suras or Pali Suttas can be considered accessible by chanting and hearing without translation or full semantic understanding.
But European traditions build power and significance around literary/sacred texts and their interpreters by saying that these texts are at once *never fully translatable* and *need to be translated.* This lets their ineffable essence remain the property of the most-educated.
4. As a philologist I am alive to the fact that many ancient texts are difficult or even incomprehensible, but I think the act of *handwringing* about comprehensibility, the effort we put into ranting about incommensurable texts, serves an old, weird, and complicated purpose.
In conclusion, this whole thread would sound stupid in Ugaritic.…
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More from @SethLSanders

19 Feb
@WillKynes To be fair it's from a much broader article: "The Use(s) of Genre in Mesopotamian Literature" Archív Orientální 67:703–17.
@WillKynes Digging further into this, it looks like a typical move to say there are no clear criteria for wisdom literature then to just keep talking about it. From the excellent survey by Beaulieu, it seems as if the Gilgamesh epic, the Mesopotamian flood stories, and even Adapa qualify:
@WillKynes "The son of Shuruppak, Ziusudra, was the Mesopotamian Noah according to the Sumerian Flood Story.. Ziusudra appears again as teacher of wisdom in the Death of Gilgamesh" which "tells us that Gilgamesh, having... reached the abode of Ziusudra..."
Read 4 tweets
16 Feb
Just started reading the new Yale report on the future of its humanities grad programs. Its recommendations might freak people out but from my POV having run a small grad program look like a really helpful response to a bad situation both in R1 universities and overall. 1/
It names a problem that (even!) Yale shares with humanities graduate ed everywhere: "Fewer than half of the humanities doctoral students who matriculate
at Yale obtain tenure-track jobs." It implies that students can be neglected, stultified, or even driven out of programs. 2/
In response it recommends that Yale "evaluate doctoral programs in relation to three major elements: the innovation and inclusion in each doctoral program, the amount of late attrition in a program, and the employment outcomes of a program’s students." 3/
Read 13 tweets
2 Sep 20
Tradition or Memory: What is the Bible made of? Reflecting back on the past century or so of debate I think the stakes here could be higher than they appear.
The biggest arguments in e.g. Pentateuchal studies are over what the building blocks of the Torah were, and how and why they were put together. Similarly in the past couple of decades people have started talking about these building blocks as "collective memories."
In an earlier phase these building blocks were called "traditions" and the early all-but-invisible process of composition, "history of traditions." But in both cases it was treated mainly as referential content, abstracted away from human agency, a quick but shaky solution.
Read 14 tweets
12 Apr 20
In 2020 what are the main issues of a small religious studies grad program? Here are things I thought about while running one. Really only one: given the data, you're doing it against the odds, so every significant decision needs to help set you apart and justify your existence.
This is because in humanities and social sciences the most prestigious programs are typically overwhelmingly more successful than others and tend to hire from each other.… 1/10
Here are the relevant studies on narrowness of hiring in history, comp sci, and business:…
And same phenom in political science… 1b/10
Read 16 tweets
1 May 19
Happy May Day--the ancient Babylonian flood myth describes the first labor dispute in the history of the cosmos, as the lower-status gods slaving to feed the higher-status ones burn their tools and march on the high god's palace…
Meanwhile a scroll from the artisans' village of Deir el-Medina--likely written by a labor leader and not found in official records or royal victory inscriptions--records the first documented strike in ancient Egypt…
The craftspeople who made the tombs that supposedly allowed the rich to live forever were not getting paid. So the workers went on strike, blocking access to the Valley of the Kings so no priests or family could bring food for the dead, starving the rulers in the afterlife...
Read 9 tweets

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