Over the last few days more than my fair share of things have gone wrong in just those little ways which get under your skin. It’s all small stuff, but, boy, it’s been a lot of small stuff.
I’m sitting in my hotel room in Toronto writing this post because I had to come to the Algonquian conference a day early — they put me at 8:30 am, the first paper on the first day, not thinking that that would be 5:30 am to someone from the West Coast.
And that would have been OK, except that because I was leaving a day early, I was up quite late Tuesday night, finishing my last minute responsibilities on email. So we were late getting up and, as my wife was appropriately worried about the commute to the airport, we rushed out of the house before I even got any breakfast.
Then, when we got to the airport and I passed through security, a little bell went off in my head, I looked in my luggage and discovered that in our haste to get on the road, I had left my handouts and the printed full version of my paper at home.
Well, that’s not so bad. This is one of those things that can be solved by the application of a small amount of money. Go to Kinkos with your flash drive, or use the hotel’s services.
OK, but this kind of thing puts us perfectionists on edge.
And in the airport the restaurants were all at the far end of the gate area from my gate, so I didn’t have time to go get any breakfast then either. (As I said, I was running late.)
As if that weren’t enough, when we had all boarded and were queued up for take-off, some secondary communications computer thingamabob malfunctioned, and we sat for nearly an hour on the tarmac before they finally decided that they did, in fact, have to taxi us back to the gate to get it fixed.
In the end we took off 90 minutes late. Well, not so bad for me, but I felt really bad for the folks that had connections. They would be spending an unplanned night in Toronto. Yessiree, been there, done that, and it’s no fun.
Oh, and to add insult to injury, this was one of those flights — 5 hours long, mind you — on which you have to buy your meal at a less than modest price, and all offerings are cold.
Anyway, when I finally got to the hotel, which is on the York University campus (and therefore not close to anything like a real business district with actual food establishments), it was 9 o’clock and their restaurant was closed. Even the student grill next door was half-closed. I ended up eating an $8 cold sandwich.
Gee, thanks, United.
Why am I telling you all this?
Because somehow my recent post went awry too.
I made the mistake of talking about being on the same wavelength as the writers of Scripture and was punished for it. (Note esp. J. K. Gayle’s amusing comment at the bottom.)
I’m teaching the discourse analysis class this semester at Berkeley, and the students there are having the same problem that we’re running into here.
Texts of even modest complexity communicate at multiple levels. We get into trouble when we fail to recognize the differences between these levels. In fact, it takes some significant training to get to recognize the differences between first order communication and second and third order communication. Literary critics, who should know better, are actually the worst. If they understood these distinctions even a little we never would have gotten into this post-modernism mess.
Let me give an example of the difference between first and second order communication.
The first order communication is: “It hurts me.”
But how you use that information to achieve some other communicative end can vary widely. Say it when you hit yourself with a hammer in the workshop where you are alone, and it’s just an expression of pain. It’s just first order. Say it in the middle of a discussion with a group of your friends when one of them has said something hurtful about another, and it can have layers upon layers of meaning. Those meanings are second, sometimes third order. What’s important is that those second order meanings are ultimately dependent on the first order meaning which, in this case, is simply an expression of pain.
Much of the Sturm und Drang in the dynamic equivalent translation debate would be ameliorated by recognizing that most of the communicative impact of Scripture is in the second order communication — the content of story being told is most of the meaning; the way it is being told is far less important. If the primary order communication is not transparent, we get distracted from the deeper second order meaning that is the real point.
Those who cry for a priori literary translations and complain that Scripture shouldn’t sound like a sixth grader talking are missing the point. The first order communication should be as plain or as fancy in English or Swahili or Navajo as it was in Greek or Hebrew. Will some of the allusions be lost? Yes. Is that the part of the second order communication that is at issue? In the vast majority of cases, no.
One way to think about this is to think about what kind of non-Biblical literature translates well. Well, Tolkien does. Why? Because those apparently simple plots resonate. Pace Iyov, it isn’t all that extra stuff that makes LOTR a good story. It’s that, simple though the plotting may be, the story just speaks to our humanity at some deep level, and that transcends the language that is used to express it. It’s no accident that those Icelandic sagas are still worth telling a thousand years later.
I’m arguing that Scripture is like that, too. The stories resonate with the human heart. Tell them like a sixth grader and they’re more effective than if they are told in a stylized 17th century English that was even a touch archaic in 1617. Such language gets in the way of the story. That’s the point that the dynamic equivalency crowd keeps trying to make that the literary crowd and the literal crowd seem not to be willing to acknowledge as a legitimate concern.
Is the GNB a good translation? Well, yes and no. Does it get more of the first order communication right than other translations? Yes. At least in the NT. If I had my druthers would I like to see the GNB upgraded for stylistic appropriateness? You bet. But do I use it? All the time. But then I like first order referential accuracy.
Well, I’ve gone on long enough. I have to go check out the lecture room for my paper tomorrow morning.