Monday, March 3, 2008

John the Baptist: Troublesome Translations

He said to the people who were coming to be plunged, "You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming fury? Change your ways if you have changed your minds." --Burton Mack's translation of Luke 3:7-8

Enough already with this John the Baptizer or John the Dipper or John the Plunger or John the Dishwasher. Let the man remain John the Baptist.

I agree that defamiliarizing biblical terms may be useful in some cases. Yes, it is instructive to point out that the New Testament Greek word we normally translate "church" actually meant, more simply, "gathering." Likewise that the Greek apostolos did not quite refer to what is invoked when we speak of "the Twelve Apostles": the Greek term meant simply emissary, and so Jesus sent out his "emissaries." That the tradition misconstrued apostolos as an office of sorts, a title applicable only to "the Twelve," has led to much confusion. Paul, after all, uses the term to refer to others besides the twelve, and used it to refer to the woman Junia, which fact was not well received in the medieval Church.

Another example can be taken from my epigraph above. I do dislike the use of plunge for baptize, but notice the last sentence: "Change your ways if you have changed your minds." In the NIV, this verse is rendered: "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance." It is the term repent or repentance that concerns me. Mack has done well to defamiliarize the concept because the English word repent carries a heavy baggage that may not really be there in the Greek, which meant something closer to change your mind or even, simply, turn, as Reynolds Price often renders it in his brilliant, stripped down translation of the Gospel of Mark:
After John was handed over Jesus came into Galilee declaring God's good news and saying "The time has ripened and the reign of God has approached. Turn and trust the good news."
This is Price's version of Mark 1:14-15. The NIV has it like this:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"
As one can see by comparing the passages, Price's goal is to reproduce the starkness of the original Greek. Such efforts may bring us closer to what the Gospels are telling us.

Yes, it is indeed useful to point out what Greek terms really meant in the Greek of the time. It helps us recognize how our own reading of Christian roots may be skewed by centuries of doctrinal accretion. But an integrity should be recognized in the English names of biblical figures, and Jesus become Yeshua does nothing, in my mind, to help us rethink Jesus' meaning. Even worse, John the Baptist become Yohannan the Plunger risks pushing the biblical text to impertinence. Baptism needn't be so defamiliarized, and a plunger, for me at least, is something to unstop a clogged toilet, not the man who was for a time Jesus' mentor.

As for a dipper, another term that has been used for John, I'm not sure if that's a constellation or a rich retiree wading into his lukewarm pool, or if it's maybe somehow meant to echo the adjective dippy, as in: "I think crystal healing is pretty dippy."

And what's the sense of a scholar like Marcus Borg renaming John the Baptist as John the Baptizer? Really what's the sense? Baptizer simply means baptist--using the word gains nothing in terms of striking readers with a more primal sense of John's practice. It's merely a cumbersome novelty.

We've learned much from recent scholarly translations of the Bible. But translators must always balance the need to bring out the strangeness of the ancient text against the need for a readable text in English. John the Jordanian Splasher? John the Remedial Swim Coach? Let the man remain John the Baptist.

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