Friday, July 28, 2023

Age, Pleasure, and Fruitfulness

Translation matters.

The task of a translator is, as I understand it, to best convey the intent of an author while simultaneously conveying a text into the language and idiom of the culture into which the text is being translated.  It's a fine art, a careful balancing between the mother language and the receiving tongue, between one set of cultural norms and another.

Hew too tightly to the forms and expectations of the original text, and a translation can be unreadable and inscrutable.  The geist of the author does not convey.  On the flip side, if you make too many accommodations to the receiving language and culture, you erase the original, smearing one's own desires over that of the author.

Which is what I found myself looking at, as I looked at one of my favorite scriptures about aging.  It's a familiar story, one from the heart of Torah.  Abraham and Sarah are hangin' out in the shade near Mamre, when they are approached by three strangers.  Abraham offers them hospitality, welcoming them to share in a meal.  In return for that hospitality, one of the strangers bears a message: this old, childless couple shall have children.  Sarah, hearing this, laughs softly to herself.  She's old.  Ain't no way that happens.

The verse in which she laughs is Genesis 18:12, and in the New Revised Standard Version, it read like this:

So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?"

It's a polyvalent verse, meaning it bears multiple meanings.  Sarah snickers inwardly for two reasons.  The first has to do with the absurdity of her having a child at all.  I mean, she old.  I'll occasionally joke with my wife about having another kid now that our boys are grown, and she'll roll her eyes.  You idiot, she says, with a smile.

But when Sarah snickers, there's more to it than that.  As my Old Testament and Hebrew professor would say with a wink, it's also because she's sure there ain't no way Abraham is up for that.  So to speak.  Hence the use of the word "pleasure."  It's a sensual thing, and Sarah finds the idea that Abraham can still get it done amusing.

The New Revised Standard Version no longer exists, having been replaced by the New Revised Standard Updated Edition.  Honestly, that Bible name has started to get a little silly.  I mean, at what point does that stop?  Will there eventually be a New Contemporary Amended Reimagined Revised Standard Modified Updated Edition?

I probably shouldn't give anyone any ideas.

Anyhoo, in the NRSVUE, the same verse now reads:  

So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I be fruitful?”

Instead of pleasure, fruitfulness, and honeychild, those are not the same thing.

The polyvalence is squelched, the joke, undercut.  The reasons for that editorial change, as best I can tell, are to "empower" Sarah, and to insert a churchy buzzword.  The laugh becomes only about her fruitfulness as a...cough...birthing person, and the little roll of her eyes at her husband's withered limitations is erased.

It's waay less funny, lacking in the earthy viscerality that so often rises from ancient Jewish culture.  It also doesn't represent the Hebrew word ednah, which appears only three other places in scripture.  It's the feminine form of a word for pleasure, which even the NRSVUE approaches differently in every other location.  In Jeremiah 51:34, it's rendered "delicacies."  In 1 Samuel 1:24, it's "luxury."  In Psalm 36:8, it's "delights."

Delicacy? Luxury? Delights?  That ain't a way any sane person would describe the process of childbirth in the Ancient Near East, kids.  It's about the sexy sexy.  

When we view the aged, that element of their humanity can be muted or forgotten.  It's easy to forget, as we look at the old, how vital and alive they were.  We see them as only old, as if the whole arc of their lives is only defined by our perception of them in the now.  The life and energy still sings in that person, both as memory and as a lingering part of their person.  It's the great madness of so much of progressivism, that willful forgetting of the joy and vitality of what came before.

As we age, we can also forget that part of ourselves, allowing ourselves to assume that we are no longer capable of any joy, or of pleasure, or of delight, simply because we're no longer quite as spry and flexible as we used to be.   All that we once were, we are in God's eyes.  We are still children, full of promise and imagination.  We are still running fast with the sap of youth.  We are still brimming with love and life and promise.  We are wise and well-aged.  We are all of these things before our Creator, all at once.  

[April 19, 2024 Update]

As a caveat to the above: 

Nearly a year later, I found myself digging about in scripture after a semantic change in the NRSVUE Lord's Prayer put another bee in my bonnet.  That got me revisiting this post, which got me looking more intently at other translations, like the JPS and other English language translations of the Torah.  This verse showed high variance of interpretation, because...well...ednah is a hapax.  With only a handful of expressions in Hebrew, you'da thought that would have occurred to me.

One of the Jewish translations used the phrase "no longer have smooth skin" instead of "pleasure," which stirred me to dig a little deeper.  Why "fruitful?"  Because ednah may be related etymologically to several words in other ancient Semitic languages, all of which mean "level field" or "flat plain" or similar concepts relating to growth and fecundity.  It may also, from that common linguistic root, be connected to the word "Eden."

So there are reasons for the use of "fruitful," ones that go to quite solid scholarship, ones that the above post doesn't fully consider.  Seems fair to note it.