Nida: Day 6

Gerald West, “Reading the Bible Between Alterity and Appropriation: Translation for Liberation"

Today we had the privilege of hearing Gerald West talk about his work with Contexual Bible Study (CBS) through the Ujamaa Center at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. I mentioned on Facebook that one hour of hearing Gerald talk about his work generated more excitement and ideas for my teaching than weeks' worth of "pedagogy" workshops. He began with an introduction to liberationist biblical hermeneutics from the 60s until now, and a conversation about the conflicted role of the Bible in Africa both as a tool of colonial oppression and a resource for resistance and liberation.

Gerald discussed the five features of liberation theologies as listed by Per Frostin, having to do with:

  1. Choice of interlocutors
  2. The perception of God
  3. Social analysis
  4. Choice of theological tools
  5. Relation between theory and practice

Gerald's presentation focused on the first of these: the need for biblical interpreters to engage the poor, exploited, marginalized races, and despised cultures (Gutiérez) in their interpretation. In fact, "reading with" is always a by-product of deep involvement, always an ontological commitment rather than an interpretive strategy. In this reading, the Bible is a problem and a solution (Mofokeng), a site of struggle with contending voices discernible within different layers (Mosala), and in vernacular translation, has the power to revitalize indigenous religion and culture (Sanneh).

Gerald then described his work with "contextual" biblical study, that term chosen in the 1980s to avoid censure from the authorities for the word "liberationist." He defined CBS as the "collaborative nexus between the epistemology of the poor and marginalized and the critical capacities of socially engaged biblical scholarship." It is rooted in a "strong sense of epistemological privilege of the poor and a weak sense of ideological hegemony," recognizing the "critical capacities already forged in sequestered sites of organized communities of the poor and marginalized."

CBS is organized around a series of movements between the verbs: SEE, JUDGE, and ACT. Interpreters see what the reality is, bring resources to bear in understanding that reality, and then act when that reality does not match the vision of the community. He gave examples of four Bible studies conducted with contextual groups: reading the rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13 with women; focusing on the construction of Amnon's dominating "masculinity" in that passage with men; the search for redemptive masculinities in 2 Kings 5 (the story of the slave girl who speaks to Naaman), and contending for economic justice in Matthew 20 (the story of the workers and the "just" overseer.)

As I said, the presentation was just terrific. One thing that I had never noticed before was the role of Jonadab in Amnon's rape of Tamar. The first verse of the text says that Tamar was "beautiful" and that Amnon "loved her." This is not ominous in itself, but in the second verse we learn that he "made himself sick" in sexual desire for her. Not great, but at this point he is a normal man who feels inappropriate sexual impulses and chooses not to act upon them. In the next four verses, however, we hear Jonadab refer to Amnon as "son of the king," and encourage him to set a trap to violate his sister-in-law. His male peer has pushed him to assert his masculine domination over the woman and to gratify his desire for this "beautiful" woman by taking advantage of her trust and good will.

Gerald discusses this text with African men as a way of exploring constructions of masculinity that give men encouragement and permission to assert physical dominance over women. It was suddenly clear to me how much this situation is at the root of rape culture on college campuses. Young men need to confront more directly how they place direct and indirect pressure on each other to assert masculine dominance over women.

Lawrence Venuti "Genealogies of Translation Theory: Schleiermacher"

The Nida professor this week is Lawrence Venuti, one of the leading international scholars of Translation Studies, who teaches in the English department at Temple University and who is active as a translator from Italian and Catalan. His first lecture in one sense provided no new insight, but in other way was deeply radical. It depends, I think, on the disciplinary direction from which one engages his arguments.

Venuti argued that there are two basic threads in Translation Studies back to the very beginning. The dominant view has been the "instrumental" model that construes translation as a reproduction of an "invariant" (i.e., a truth, a meaning) contained in or caused by the source text. A second, minority tradition has been a "hermeneutic" model that sees translation as variance, as a variable act of interpretation that transforms the source text's form, meaning, and effect in terms of the receiving culture. Venuti argued strongly that the Instrumental model is "useless," that it cannot offer a comprehensive account of translation. He declared that "there is no invariant in translation," that the Instrumenal model is a "hoax," and that he wants to "kill off" the model.

Included within the instrumental model, Venuti argued, is the "dynamic equivalence" theory promoted by Eugene Nida as well as all "word for word" and functionalist approaches to translation. He then examined Schleiermacher's essay that has been widely analyzed in Translation Studies, "On the Different Methods of Translating." Venuti argued that Schleiermacher presupposes a Hermeneutical model of translation but does not go far enough. He still presumes that the translation of a "well-educated man" will be more adequate to the source text, which loses sight of the fact that even this ideal translator will be shaped by his own linguistic community.

Based on the Hermeneutic model, Venuti argued that translation is communication and is thus always an interpretation. Translation is in critical dialectic with the source text, and each exposes the other. Essentially, his argument was that "all translation is interpretation," and that Instrumental models of translation have pretended as if this is not the case.

I think that he has overstated the profundity of his insight that all translation is interpretation. This seems to be the working assumption of much Translation Studies in the current context, and is a commonplace among literary and philosophical scholars. It was curious to hear him defend that thesis with such passion, when I would think that a theorist could simply assert it now.

However, it does seem that there is resistance to this hermeneutical insight from the functionalists (see the description of Nord's lecture last week). I asked Christiane Nord about the relationship between skopos and hermeneutics and she waved her hand and said that hermeneutics is one aspect of skopos. So perhaps this hermeneutical battle is still being waged in Translation Studies. My colleagues here seem to accept it with no qualms, however.