Sunday, March 18, 2018

Gadamer on Translation and Living in "Dead" Languages

The following excerpts are ripped from their context in Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method and applied to two issues that Gadamer does not directly address, but that I care quite a lot about: why those who view the Bible as authoritative should learn the biblical languages, and how they should go about learning them.*

"[E]very translation," Gadamer declares, "is at the same time an interpretation." This is now a cliché, and Gadamer, surely, was not the one who coined it. In class, I like to quote the saying attributed to the Israeli poet and translator, Haim Nahman Bialik: "Reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your bride through a veil."**

Gadamer goes on to say that those who read a translated text can only engage in an interpretation of the translator's interpretation, not the original. In the somewhat stilted prose of Gadamer's translators:
[H]aving to rely on translation is tantamount to two people giving up their independent authority. Where a translation is necessary, the gap between the spirit of the original words and that of their reproduction must be taken into account. But in these cases understanding does not really take place between the partners of the conversation, but between the interpreters. ... The requirement that a translation be faithful cannot remove the fundamental gulf between the two languages. ... Every translation that takes its task seriously is at once clearer and flatter than the original. Even if it is a masterly re-creation, it must lack some of the overtones that vibrate in the original. ... [T]ranslating is like an especially laborious process of understanding, in which one views the distance between one's own opinion and its contrary as ultimately unbridgeable. And, as in conversation, when there are such unbridgeable differences, a compromise can sometimes be achieved in the to and fro of dialogue, so in the to and fro of weighing and balancing possibilities, the translator will seek the best solution--a solution that can never be more than a compromise." (pp. 386-8)

When he turns to learning a foreign language, Gadamer sets the bar higher than is normally done in your typical Greek or Hebrew language class:
"To understand a foreign language means that we do not need to translate it into our own. When we really master a language, then no translation is necessary--in fact, any translation seems impossible. ... For you understand a language by living in it--a statement that is true, as we know, not only of living but dead languages as well. Thus the hermeneutical problem concerns not the correct mastery of language but coming to a proper understanding about the subject matter, which takes place in the medium of language. Every language can be learned so perfectly that using it no longer means translating from or into one's native tongue, but thinking in the foreign language. Mastering the language is a necessary precondition for coming to an understanding in a conversation. ... Everything we have said characterizing the situation of two people coming to an understanding in conversation has a genuine application to hermeneutics, which is concerned with understanding texts." (pp. 386-7).
In other words, understanding the subject matter requires mastery of the language, and real mastery means living in the foreign language long enough to be able to think in it.

By this measure, I have a way to go before I reach fluency in Biblical Greek and Hebrew. But the limited progress I have made convinces me both that the effort is worth it and that we can do a better job learning and teaching the biblical languages if we make this sort of fluency the goal and then adopt best practices in second-language acquisition.

For helpful reflections on what this can look like, I heartily recommend Seumus Macdonald's blog, The Patrologist.

 *For some of my other posts on learning Biblical Greek and Hebrew, see here, here, and here

**What Bialik actually said was either "He who knows Judaism in translation is like one who kisses his mother through a veil" (Michael D. Schwartz's translation) or "He who knows Judaism through translation is like a person who kisses his mother through a handkerchief" (Liran Yadgar). The original Hebrew saying can be found here.

Friday, March 16, 2018

On Delusional Optimism

"I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success: I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers." - Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (Penguin: 2012)
 Is the statement still true if you cross out "scientist" and write in "biblical scholar"?

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Free "Productivity" Apps

Memorion - My quest to re-acquire Aramaic this year began inauspiciously with a frustrating and time-consuming review of Android flashcard apps. What I wanted, I realized, was a mobile version of my friend Ken M. Penner's powerful, but now very dated, Flash! Pro XP Windows Program, along with the elegant algorithm that I used to study Hebrew and German in grad school. Spaced-repetition flashcard apps, such as Anki, are now very common, but they require you to trust their "scientific" algorithm and conform your learning style to their arbitrary requirements. I finally settled on Memorion. Although it does not let you adjust the algorithm, it reviews words more frequently than most of the other spaced-repetition alternatives I tried, and it has lots of other helpful, powerful and flexible features.

Duolingo -  Speaking of languages, I started using Duolingo last year to refresh my German and Modern Hebrew. Aramaic has supplanted modern languages for the moment, but I look forward to returning to Duolingo presently. It's a fun, low-pressure approach to language-learning, and it works. Best of all, kids like it too. The Duolingo leaderboard has me at 13,570 XP, but that is mostly the result of s.'s work on French.

LeadTools OCR - As a workaround for a copier that does not generate searchable scanned PDF's, I use the Windows 10 LeadTools OCR app. It requires a few extra steps, but works well. Alas, it is still the case that I make digital copies of essays faster than I read them.

Podcast / Audiobooks at speed - I now enjoy a 20-minute workout at the beginning and end of each day as I ride across Cambridge to and from the Tyndale House library. The exercise is nice, and so is the concentrated "reading" time. (Welcome to the 21st-century, d. miller.) I enjoyed Mike Duncan's "History of Rome" podcast, and am now about half-way through the audible version of Charles Taylor's A Secular Age--a tome outside my field of study that I would probably never get around to if it were not for the daily commute. Pro-tip: You can read faster by increasing play-back speed. Your brain adjusts. I actually suspect I pay better attention to the book, though not necessarily to my surroundings, at a faster rate of speed. HT: Luke Johnson, who usually "reads" audiobooks at 3x speed.  (I've settled in at 1.75 - 2x.)

I could go on. As I've commented before, everyone should be using Zotero. I've switched from Mischief to Microsoft's new Whiteboard app for quick, hand-written notes. And if efficient time management was only a matter of finding the right time-tracking software, I'd be set. (I use Toggl.)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

A Donald J. Verseput Bibliography

In a comment on my post about Donald J. Verseput, Peter Head recommended compiling a bibliography of Verseput's publications.

In addition to his published dissertation, the ATLA database lists 11 journal articles published over a 15-year period, the majority in top-tier journals, including four (!) in New Testament Studies, two in Novum Testamentum, and one each in Journal of Biblical Literature, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, and Journal for the Study of the New Testament.

Verseput's scholarly interests in Matthew and James are obvious. Equally clear is a concern to situate the New Testament in its Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts:

The Rejection of the Humble Messianic King: A Study of the Composition of Matthew 11-12. Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1986.
“The Role and Meaning of the ‘Son of God’ Title in Matthew’s Gospel.” New Testament Studies 33.4 (1987): 532–56.
“The Faith of the Reader and the Narrative of Matthew 13:53-16:20.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 46 (1992): 3–24.
“Paul’s Gentile Mission and the Jewish Christian Community: A Study of the Narrative in Galatians 1 and 2.” New Testament Studies 39.1 (1993): 36–58.
“Jesus’ Pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Encounter in the Temple: A Geographical Motif in Matthew’s Gospel.” Novum Testamentum 36.2 (1994): 105–21.
“The Davidic Messiah and Matthew’s Jewish Christianity.” Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 34 (1995): 102–16.
“James 1:17 and the Jewish Morning Prayers.” Novum Testamentum 39.2 (1997): 177–91.
“Reworking the Puzzle of Faith and Deeds in James 2:14-26.” New Testament Studies 43.1 (1997): 97–115.
“Wisdom, 4Q185, and the Epistle of James.” Journal of Biblical Literature 117.4 (1998): 691–707.
“Genre and Story: The Community Setting of the Epistle of James.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 62 (2000): 96–110.
“Considering the Needs of the Church: A Response to Craig Blomberg.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 11.2 (2001): 173–77.
“Plutarch of Chaeronea and the Epistle of James on Communal Behaviour.” New Testament Studies 47 (2001): 502–18.

I still remember Don commending Plutarch as a rich resource for understanding the New Testament.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Christian Discipleship according to Geoffrey of Monmouth

My wife has been trying out different "histories" as bed-time stories for our 10-year-old. Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain is proving to be a bit too graphic. It is also theologically problematic. This passage, for instance, could have been the inspiration for the hymn, "Onward Christian Soldiers":
"As Arthur said this, the saintly Dubricius, Archibishop of the city of the Legions, climbed to the top of a hill and cried out in a loud voice: 'You who have been marked with the cross of the Christian faith, be mindful of the loyalty you owe to your fatherland and to your fellow-countrymen! If they are slaughtered as a result of this treacherous behaviour by the pagans, they will be an everlasting reproach to you, unless in the meanwhile you do your utmost to defend them! Fight for your fatherland, and if you are killed suffer death willingly for your country's sake. That in itself is victory and a cleansing of the soul. Whoever suffers death for the sake of his brothers offers himself as a living sacrifice to God and follows with firm footsteps behind Christ Himself, who did not disdain to lay down His life for His brothers. It follows that if any one of you shall suffer death in this war, that death shall be to him as a penance and an absolution for all his sins, given always that he goes to meet it unflinchingly." - Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain ix.4 (Penguin 1966, p. 216)

The legend of king Arthur is just that, of course, but the words attributed to the "saintly Dubricius" presumably reflect those of Geoffrey of Monmouth in the mid-12th-century.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Historical Journal and University of Cambridge - Faculty of History Zotero Styles

In my capacity as "private secretary" to a PhD student in the faculty of history at the University of Cambridge, I put together a couple Zotero styles that may be of wider interest.

The Historical Journal style updates an earlier version put together by Julian Onions.

The University of Cambridge - Faculty of History style basically adds a bibliography to The Historical Journal style. It should correspond more-or-less to the examples on the Faculty of History website here.

Both Zotero styles can be downloaded into Zotero from the Zotero Style Repository. Click on the following links to go directly there:

The Historical Journal

University of Cambridge - Faculty of History

P.S. If you are not already using Zotero for academic work, you should. Here's how Zotero describes itself:
Zotero is a free, open-source research tool that helps you collect, organize, and analyze research and share it in a variety of ways. Zotero includes the best parts of older reference manager software — the ability to store author, title, and publication fields and to export that information as formatted references — and the best aspects of modern software and web applications, such as the ability to organize, tag, and search in advanced ways. Zotero interacts seamlessly with online resources: when it senses you are viewing a book, article, or other object on the web, it can automatically extract and save complete bibliographic references. Zotero effortlessly transmits information to and from other web services and applications, and it runs both as a web service and offline on your personal devices.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Stephen Westerholm on Kierkegaard and Scholarship

Stephen Westerholm has a great little reflection on Kierkegaard's Sickness unto Death and scholarship in the latest Expository Times (behind a pay wall). An excerpt:

"From a Christian perspective, he insisted, all scholarship, however rigorous, should, in the end, be edifying, concerned with what it means to live as a human being. And to live as a human being is to live ‘alone with the immense strenuousness, alone with the immense responsibility’ of life in the presence of God. Scholarship that distances itself from the concerns of such a life, that prides itself in its ‘objective’ approach and its ‘disinterested’ results, is marked by an ‘inhuman curiosity’; it is ‘frivolous and vain’. … For Kierkegaard, then, all Christian scholarship resembles the lecture of a teaching physician at the side of a sick-bed: however rigorous the lecture, its character is nonetheless shaped by its location—beside the-sick bed. Christian scholars may well want to expand the subject matter of their studies beyond what Kierkegaard seems to allow. But we would do well to bear in mind what he says of our location." - Stephen Westerholm. “And Finally….” Expository Times 129.4 (2018): 190.

If your library subscribes to the Expository Times, find it, and read the whole thing.