Conferring a degree

When Nick Bailey asked if I would be on his doctoral committee, I leapt at the chance.

I have known Nick for about 25 years now. The story is long and somewhat complicated, but suffice it to say that we met in Germany through a mutual professional acquaintance, and only later discovered that we shared mutual church friends in the Bay Area. Over the years I have visited Nick and Denie in Germany a number of times. Nine years ago we both taught at SIL in Oregon.

Those connections alone would have been enough to rope me in. But I might have opted for the participation-at-a-distance option they suggested, except for one thing. Nick was getting his degree at a Dutch university.

So, you say, what’s the big deal with Dutch universities?

Well, it’s the thesis defense — or maybe you’ve already surmised this from my post about it last month.

You see, the Dutch really do up a thesis defense.

At Berkeley, you just submit your thesis to the graduate school, and when your committee has signed off, you are done. You can mail it in — and many grad students do. Not very satisfying (except for the fact that Berkeley linguistics PhDs do exceptionally well in the job market).

At Michigan I had to publicly defend my thesis. The room was one of those well-appointed meeting rooms in the Rackham Building where the graduate school is housed and the proceedings were quite formal, but we just dressed in coats and ties. It was a rite of passage.

But the Dutch take it to another whole level and I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity once in my life to participate in a formal thesis defense dressed up in my academic garb.

The pictures of Nick’s promotie are in, and he has graciously allowed me to post them.

The process of the defense is somewhat complex. All the parties had weeks to read the thesis. When we gathered for the defense the committee met first in camera. This is to get straight the rituals of defense, when to have our tams on and off, what special phrases have to be used, how we were to address the candidate, what the order of questioning was to be, a check to see that we weren’t going to ask the same questions, etc., etc. Then the candidate — officially the defendant — was brought in and charged. When we were all ready and the advertised time was upon us, the department beadle led us out into the aula. She was followed by Prof. Michael Hannay, who was standing in for the rector, followed by the promotors, Prof. Lourens de Vries (VU, Theology), Dr. Rutger Allan (co-promotor, VU, Classics), and the opponents.

And at the end of the processon come the defendant and his two supporters. (You might note that the defendant wears tails.)

The defense starts with an introduction of the defendant by the rector and his presentation of a summary of the results of his thesis research.

Then the faculty, the rector, the promotors, and the opponents take their seats in the front and the defense proper, begins moderated by the rector (or in this case the rector’s stand-in).

Here we all are. Acting for the rector: Prof. Michael Hannay (VU, Linguistics). Promotor: Prof. Lourens de Vries (VU, Theology), Co-promotor: Dr. Rutger Allan (VU, Classics). Opponents: me, Dr. Dejan Matić (Max Planck Institute-for Evolutionary Anthropology), Prof. Albert Rijksbaron (Univ of Amsterdam, Classics), Prof. Bert J. Lietaert-Peerbolte (VU, Theology), Prof. Gerard J. Boter (VU, Classics) [off the edge of the picture]. This is Nick answering the questions. (Note his supporters seated on either side of him.)

When the hour for questioning was over we all processed out. The committee met and decided that it was a worthy thesis and adequate defense. Then we processed back into the aula and the results were announced.

At that point the promotor signed the degree parchment and presented it to the defendant.

The defense ended with a reading by the promotor of the laudatum, a summary of the achievements of the newly created doctor.

Then the rector’s stand-in pronounced a doxology and beadle led us out in a recessional.

As is traditional Nick and Denie treated us all to dinner that evening. Here are some pictures in the restaurant afterwards.

Nick and Denie

Lourens de Vries , professor of Bible translation, Nick’s advisor (promotor), and Gerard Boter, professor of Greek language and literature

It took a bit of reflection after the fact for me to realize what the logic behind the Dutch ceremony was. After all this is the kind of thing that most would write off to a quaint cultural difference between the Dutch and everyone else and miss the deeper connections to ways of doing things that we find more familiar. The touchstone between the Dutch thesis defense and the ways theses are defended (or merely filed) in American universities has to do with the conferral of the degree. In American universities, after they have completed all the degree requirements, all the degree candidates gather at the end of the semester, or at the end of the academic year, dress up in academic garb along with a collection of faculty and “graduate”. That is, we confer the degrees, at least ritually, all at once. At Berkeley, there are points in the graduation ceremony when the dean or department chair bids all the candidates for each particular degree stand and recites the formula “By the powers vested in me by the Regents of the University of California I grant you the degree of  …” The graduates move the tassels on their mortar boards from right to left (or is it left to right?) while parents and others present clap and cheer.

So the real difference with the Dutch system is that the degree is conferred at the end of the defense. Everything else follows logically. When a degree is conferred the faculty should be in academic garb, and the candidate should be formally attired.

I wonder how much of the oft touted cultural gap between modern western culture and Roman era Palestinian culture is like this.

One of the arguments that is used to support the translation of the Bible more literally is that Biblical culture was so foreign to us so the language should signal that. I, of course, reject that premise, while at the same time fully recognizing that the most egregious misapplications of dynamic equivalence occur when translators overreach trying to bridge cultural distance.

But my Dutch experience got me thinking about how much of the distance between us and the culture of the Scripture is simply a sensible outworking of differences in how things are packaged. In such cases the challenge in translation is to figure out when to make the adjustment in translation and when just to say what is there.

Take the association of chairs with wealth and power in the middle east as in Matt. 23:2-3.

2“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. (NIV)

2Ἐπὶ τῆς Μωυσέως καθέδρας ἐκάθισαν οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι. 3πάντα οἶν ὅσα ἐὰν εἴπωσιν ὑμῖν ποιήσατε καὶ τηρεῖτε, κατὰ δὲ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν μὴ ποιεῖτε, λέγουσιν γὰρ καὶ οὐ ποιοῦσιν.

The question is: do we translate the phrase ἐπὶ τῆς Μωυσέως καθέδρας ἐκάθισαν as:

(1) [they] sit on the seat of Moses

(2) [they] bear the authority of Moses

The former translation is more literal. The second renders the intended sense more clearly for a contemporary English speaking audience. In a previous post I discussed several reasons why (2) is better. But I want to raise a grammatical point here that I hadn’t noticed before. The verb has a plural subject. This is odd if the reference were literal. Maybe the High Priest physically sat in Moses’ seat, but not the scribes and Pharisees. (And what about the Saducees?) The plural agreement strongly supports the view that the intended reference is to Moses’ authority, not to his chair.

6 thoughts on “Conferring a degree

  1. Dru says:

    I haven’t posted any comments for some time. Thank you for that. It was interesting.

    Last autumn I had brief stays in some monasteries. If you are my age, English and have a slightly old fashioned background, it is strangely and profoundly familiar to be eating in a large hall where the abbot and senior monks processed in and out at the beginning and everyone sits in rows at tables. It is how meals were done when I was at school and university over forty years ago. And yet the degree of historical difference between an old fashioned English school and a foreign monastery is several centuries.

    Modern youngsters, though, would not experience this resonance if they are used to eating cafeteria style.

    What happens in Holland if the candidate fails their defence? Does it happen very often?

    On your point about the ‘seat of Moses’, I actually find ‘seat’ a more trenchant translation than ‘authority’. I think it is because it is a more concrete word. Also, authority figures, such as judges, chairmen or monarchs sit on seats. Perhaps though, ‘bench’ or ‘in Moses’s place’ would be a suitable compromise.

  2. Gary Simmons says:

    The thesis defense sounds fascinating.

    As for Moses’ seat, you make a good point. How much of foreign cultural metaphors can we retain? I had a similar thought last night about the ten “these are the generations of” statements in Genesis. Perhaps it would be best to translate it as “this is the legacy of.” Although the first occurrence at 2:4 would still be strange, it sure makes the other nine clearer. Thoughts?

  3. Rich Rhodes says:

    I’m afraid the younger generation only has the English dining hall experience vicariously through Hogwarts.

    No one ever fails their dissertation defense. The advisor doesn’t let it get that far. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t a hazing of sorts. The questions are tough and sometimes (minor) revisions are asked for. But nobody fails.

    As for the translation question, I’m not sure that there is a compromise. There are really just two possibilities.

    1) Jesus meant to refer to a particular chair/bench/seat with the idea that his audience would infer authority.

    2) Jesus meant to refer to authority and chose to use an epithet to do so.

    If you believe 2), then there’s no question, you translate authority because the epithet doesn’t work in English. If you believe 1) the problem is more complex. I was giving a straight textual reason for believing 2).

  4. Rich Rhodes says:

    The question about retaining “metaphors” is the key question.

    (I put metaphor in quotes, because I think we can’t answer the question without a much more nuanced understanding of the kinds and uses of figurative speech.)

    In a nutshell, my position is that the primary reference is paramount. If the use of figurative speech in the target language interferes with a target language speaker’s understanding of the primary reference, then you have to dump the figurative speech.

    But, as John Hobbins would quickly point out, such an approach has two problems:

    1) It “flattens” the text. It tends to drain all the literary niceties out.

    2) There are plenty of places in which the primary reference is unclear. Is the primary reference the literal reading of the figure of speech or is it to the conventional implication of that wording.

    Matt. 23:2-3 is a standard example of problem #2, and I’m pointing out that the case isn’t clear as is generally assumed.

    BTW, my answer to #1 is avant garde to say the least. Secular translators of literature often supply figures of speech at other points in the text to make up for the missing figures of speech at the points where the wording just doesn’t work. Doing a corresponding thing in Scripture is a bit scary because people tend to be so oriented to the original wording. In a backhanded way, what I’m suggesting is a version of what Peterson did in the The Message. He peppered the text with colloquialisms unsupported in the original to make it sound colloquial to the English ear, but he went completely overboard. (And he assumed that the whole text should sound colloquial — a point I dispute.) I should work up a sensible example some day.

  5. Dru says:

    Rich, what I’m saying is that ‘seat’ still works for me. This may be because I’m a bit old fashioned – as boys, my generation ate in the style of Hogwarts though without the spells – or it may be because I speak a different dialect of English. It may not necessarily be the wording I would choose if I was expressing my own thoughts rather than translating someone else’s, but until you’d pointed it out, I probably would not have noticed that it is a metaphor. Certainly I would agree with anyone who said that converting ‘seat’ to ‘authority’ flattened the text. I also tend to prefer, and use, visual or physical imagery in preference to abstract concepts. I find it easier to understand.

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