Thursday, December 8, 2011

Of booties and killing

“Thou shalt not kill.” Seems obvious, right?

It isn’t. Not really. And let me explain why.

As you may have guessed, I’m fascinated with words. I’m not a trained linguist, just a logophile with access to the virtually unlimited resources of the internet and a little too much time on my hands. But I’m also in a continuing study of my own religion, as a revert whose religious formation was spotty and arguably mismanaged, and as person fascinated by the cultural and philosophical richness of the Catholic faith.

As I explained the other day, semantics is calling a spade a spade because it isn’t a shovel. The application of sound to concept may be socially constructed; but it doesn’t follow that you can therefore mean whatever you want with words. In fact, it’s precisely because they are socially constructed that you have to mean what the rest of society means by those words in order to be understood. Failure to do so is failure to communicate your thoughts and emotions, which is what words are supposed to accomplish.

The last couple of years have been full of stories concerning translation, about how specific words and phrases are rendered into good or poor English. The biggie, of course, was the most recent Latin Missal translation, with various people getting into Web donnybrooks about the replacement of “one in being” with “consubstantial” and the reintroduction of “ineffable”. But there have been lesser tempests in smaller teapots.


One such kerfuffle occurred when it was revealed that the Revised Edition of the New American Bible had replaced with “treasure” all references to “booty”. Depending on whom you talk to, it was an example of either overbearing prissiness or an unconscious, patronizing assumption that the reader is too dumb to understand the word in context. Or both.

For my part, I just shrug; since the NAB’s translation has been guided to a certain extent by dynamic equivalence, why didn’t the translators use “swag”? Was it perhaps too colloquial? But moreover, I’m concerned that the translators were concerned that “booty” was too misleading but never thought to wonder the same thing about the use of kill to translate the Hebrew word in Genesis 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17 (sorry, I can’t reproduce it here).

First point: Many if not most people who read the Bible will never learn biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek or Latin; I barely have a passing acquaintance with Greek koine myself. This sad lack of scriptural polyglots would be not much cause for mourning if it weren’t having a seriously deleterious effect on Bible studies, as even Ph.D.s rely on vernacular translations for their arguments, as well as allowing scholars in non-religious disciplines — especially non-Christian scholars — to misinform themselves on matters for which the Bible is the only written source.

If you think that’s bad, and you understand that my own powers are minimal, think of what happens when someone less skilled and logophilic than I am reads a word translated with a misleading modern-English equivalent! Do you get maybe a sense of why sola scriptura and unguided Bible studies may not be such hot ideas?

Second point: Many people find reading Shakespeare a pain in the neck. Oh, his plays are written in plain English; the problem is, it’s the plain English of the period between 1590 and 1615. Same problem with the King James and Douay-Rheims versions; not only do many people not see the beauty of the language, they can barely make sense of it. The Canterbury Tales? Beowulf? As they say in Brooklyn, “Fuhgeddaboudit!”

That’s why the Bible needs periodic re-translation even when done with care and precision: vernaculars are in a constant albeit slow state of change, as neologism becomes colloquialism becomes standard becomes old-fashioned becomes archaic becomes obsolete; as what has been yclept the cyning’s English morphs into what’s called “the Queen’s English”.

“To kill” is too broad to translate the Hebrew word translated by phoneuō in Greek and occidere in Latin. Not a few people have pointed out the inconsistency of a God who commands slaughter of whole cities and permits hunting for food then says, “Don’t kill … you’ll go to Hell for that!” However, the sense intended isn’t just intentionally causing death, but committing murder, or unjustifiable homicide if you will. It was neither the Jews’ nor the Church’s understanding that God intended to proscribe self-defense, hunting and fishing, livestock slaughter, judicially-imposed capital punishment or just wars.[*]

Doubtless people will insist, “It’s wrong to kill anything for any reason!” It’s not my purpose here to debate whether such a position is reasonable or whether any particular act of killing can be justified. I only wish to make three points:

1) Other translations use “murder”, such as the New Revised Standard Version and the New International Version. The USCCB, the body ultimately responsible for the NABRE, ought to adopt it, too, since it fits better with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the bulk of Church doctrine.

2) Relying only on vernacular translations is an intellectually risky business, whether you’re doing homiletics or history or feminist studies or what-have-you; it increases the probability that you’ll end up speaking damned nonsense … literally damned nonsense.

3) We can voluntarily narrow our range of justified, permissible killing as an overall “good thing” without necessarily inferring that we’re more moral than the Hebrews of 4,000 years ago … let alone that we’re more moral than God.

In fact, considering how acceptable lying, adultery, dishonoring one’s parents, coveting and taking the Lord’s name in vain are today, I doubt very much we are more moral than those long-dead Hebrews. It takes more than just refraining from killing to be moral.


[*] I don’t know whether Jewish oral tradition forbade abortion at any point prior to Christ’s mission; I only know that Christians explicitly taught against it right from the beginning (see Didache 2: “…[You] shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten”).