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SBL2015 Paper Proposals

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I'm happy that I have had two paper proposals accepted for the 2015 SBL meeting in November. Both are related to my new monograph project on the ideology of English Bible translation, and you will notice the connection between them.

The first is for the Metaphor Theory and the Hebrew Bible section, who called for papers on "Translating Biblical Metaphors." I am very excited to work on this paper. I wrote a paper on this passage for JJM Roberts' Isaiah seminar back in the day, and look forward to revisiting it in light of my current project. The second of these is a practical presentation on teaching translation theory for the Global Education and Research Technology group. I plan to expand it into an article on pedagogy for the Wabash journal or something similar.

Yahweh as the Priest of Human Sacrifice in Isaiah 30:27–33

The richly metaphorical description of God's judgment of the Assyrian king in Isaiah 30:27–33 is a challenge for both translators and interpreters. The text describes Yahweh in theophanic language, with attendant elements of fire, smoke, and thunderstorm. As the deity arrives in anger and overwhelming displays of power, the people hold a religious festival around a central act of ritual: Yahweh's killing of the Assyrian king on the tophet, the altar of human sacrifice. A metaphorical passage such as this challenges notions of "literal" versus "dynamic" translation. All attempts to render these images in English fail, but for different reasons. A formal translation that preserves the original imagery is difficult for modern readers due to their lack of historical domain knowledge. A dynamic translation that unpacks the "meaning" of the metaphors softens the shocking literalism of the text. Bodily metaphors for Yahweh's theophany are difficult enough, but in fact, no English translation has captured the essential nature of the metaphor as a whole, i.e., Yahweh as the high priest performing a human sacrifice. Most versions either transliterate "Tophet" or render it loosely as "the burning place." How does this metaphorical shift change the meaning of the text? When tophet is pictured as a funeral pyre, the metaphor slips into a less precise conceptual domain: Yahweh is angry, the people rejoice, and the Assyrian king dies. However, when "tophet" is translated as "altar of human sacrifice," Yahweh's anger is one element of a classic theophany, the people's rejoicing has the technical elements of a worship event, and the king's death occurs through a pagan ritual of human sacrifice. Why, then, do translators make this choice? In modern religious contexts, this passage is surprising, counter-intuitive, and inconsiderate. Translators have been unwilling to convey fully the significance of this metaphor because of the conceptual boundary between orthodox theology and heterodox abomination. Surely the Lord cannot be part of such a scene! In English translations of Isaiah 30:27–33, he is not.

Using Bible Software to Teach Translation Theory

Undergraduate students often have only a rudimentary understanding of why there are so many Bible versions. An instructor using biblical software can quickly reveal the many important differences in translation, but it is also important to help students understand why translations are different, i.e., what theoretical and practical factors have shaped each version. This presentation will demonstrate techniques developed in a courses titled, "The Digital Bible," in which students use Accordance and free online tools to explore the underlying methods and assumptions behind particular translation decisions. One common motif in treatments of introductory exegesis is the contrast between "formal correspondance" and "dynamic equivalence" approaches to translation, popularized by Eugene Nida and now usually presented as a spectrum between two poles. Students are taught, for instance, that the NASB is one of the most "literal" Bible and the Message is the most "dynamic," and they are asked to decide which version is "correct." However, translation theory in recent decades has moved beyond these two categories in order to emphasize that all translation is interpretation. Translators participate in power-laden interpretive frameworks, and all translations function within a web of reader expectations and needs. Students should recognize, for instance, that every translation of controversial passages related to gender (e.g., Ezekiel 23, 1 Timothy 2) is constrained by particular social, political, and theological goals and assumptions. By using tagged texts, lexicons, translator's notes, etc., students can gain a richer understanding of the translation process and why it matters to interpretation. Rather than casting one translation as more "accurate" or "faithful," this exercise shows how translation is always already an interpretive act.