Translation and Context: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, Isaiah and Job at Ugarit

Communication involves not just words, but the context, culture, and worldview in which they are embedded. Simple translation of words alone, reading words alone, however “clear,” will fail to communicate the entire message, because this kind of information is tacit and unstated. Sometimes we can tell we’re missing an intangible something, but most often we can’t even tell that, illustrated extensively in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes.

Here are some modern examples.

Teenagers can carry on entire conversations at the dinner table or on Facebook by quoting movies their parents haven’t seen. If it goes far enough, the parents may realize that something beyond the actual spoken words is being communicated. They may not know what the actual message is, because they haven’t seen the movie; they’re unaware of the culturally-embedded context, which carries meaning beyond the words.
If it doesn’t go far enough that the parents catch on, then the kids have communicated a message in plain sight with the parents completely unaware.

Let’s say I’m a college chemistry professor with a poor sense of humor. Let’s say further that there’s an international student with excellent English, but very culturally sheltered. It’s Friday, there’s a big test on Monday. At the close of class on Friday, I intone “Study hard, because on Monday… Ahll be bock.” Said student understands the words that have been said, knows what they mean, but doesn’t understand why they were said with a funny accent or why the class laughed. Of course the professor will be back on Monday, why wouldn’t I be? If the student has never seen any Terminator movies or Saturday Night Live skits mocking the Governator of Kallifownia, although the words are clear, the full intent of the communication is lost.

Or, to make up a textual example, let’s say that zimbu (not an actual word) should be translated as “marriage.” That single-word translation doesn’t tell you anything about the role of marriage in society, the rituals, definition, or connotations of marriage. In fact, without any of that other information, you’re left to fill in the gaps with whatever your own feelings and cultural conception of marriage happen to be. You read the translation, but don’t get much of the information and you have no clue that what you’re reading in is, in fact, a foreign imposition on the text.

Marc Brettler gives some excellent examples of this in his How to Read the Bible (first pages available here), but one episode of Star Trek:TNG makes fantastic use of this idea. In “Darmok” (Season 5 episode 2), the crew encounter a civilization that they can’t communicate with, because they do not share any cultural knowledge.  darmok180At first confused, Picard and crew eventually figure out that they communicate only through mytho-historical cultural references, such as “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.”

DATA: They seem to communicate through narrative imagery by reference to the individuals and places which appear in their mytho-historical accounts.

TROI: It’s as if I were to say to you, Juliet on her balcony.

CRUSHER: An image of romance.

TROI: Exactly. Imagery is everything to the Tamarians. It embodies their emotional states, their very thought processes. It’s how they communicate, and it’s how they think.

RIKER: If we know how they think, shouldn’t we be able to get something across to them?

DATA: No, sir. The situation is analogous to understanding the grammar of a language but none of the vocabulary.

CRUSHER: If I didn’t know who Juliet was or what she was doing on that balcony, the image alone wouldn’t have any meaning.

TROI: That’s correct. For instance, we know that Darmok was a great hero, a hunter, and that Tanagra was an island, but that’s it. Without the details, there’s no understanding.

DATA: It is necessary for us to learn the narrative from which the Tamarians are drawing their imagery. Given our current relations, that does not appear likely.

Through personal experience, Picard learns to speak their language; That is, he learns not just the words (words he already knows!) but the cultural meaning attached to them.

Put otherwise, translation is necessary but insufficient. Clear language is insufficient. Absolutely clear language can miscommunicate, because cultural context must be “translated” and made explicit as well. And where does that information come from? Those who study the ancient languages, cultures, and histories, i.e. scholars.

I promised some Biblical examples where translation alone fails to convey all the meaning a native Israelite would have grasped. I’ve broken these examples into three fuzzy categories. baal

1) Israel is often described in the Torah as a “land flowing with milk and honey.” We probably all have milk and honey in our kitchen, yet not quite what is described here. In the Old Testament, milk doesn’t usually come from cows, and honey doesn’t come from bees. Cattle were primarily used for beef, while milk came primarily from goats, only rarely from cattle. Israelites didn’t raise bees, so honey was likely difficult to acquire. “Honey” was a boiled-down thick sweet syrup, usually made from dates or  some other fruit, though on rare occasion “honey” does seem to clearly indicate bee-honey. Israel, we might say then, was “a land oozing with chèvre and fruit-honey.” This isn’t a particularly important example, just interesting. On this and similar aspects, see e.g. Life in Biblical Israel.

2) Several times in Genesis 1, curious circumlocutions appear. There’s no “sun” or “moon,” but “greater light” and “lesser light.” Even though the account culminates in the seventh day, the Sabbath, there’s no mention of “sabbath.” And lastly, though we have the world bifurcated into water and dry land, the “seas” are mysteriously plural. All of these are explainable via polemical cultural context which goes unstated. First, both the sun (shemesh) and moon (yareach) were also the names of those deities outside Israel, just as Ra designated both sun and sun-god in Egypt. We can see echoes of shemesh as the name of a solar deity in Israelite place names like bet-shemesh (Joshua 15:10), ir-shemesh (Joshua 19:41), and en-shemesh (Joshua 18:17), as well as in Sampson or shimshon. Genesis polemicizes against these deities; not only are they creations, as opposed to divine co-creators as in some accounts, but their names are not even mentioned to avoid any hint of polytheism.

Similarly, the name for the sea (yam) was also the name of a prominent deity. Hebrew, as far as we can tell, did not have a full range of words for different-sized bodies as ocean, sea, lake, pond, puddle, (think: Sea of Galillee), so it couldn’t simply substitute another term, but instead pluralizes to seas, yammīm. (The issue with shabbat may be similar, but is more contested.)

3) Here we come to shared background of cultural stories, the most Darmok-like category. One professor of mine described the texts from Ugarit as “the Old Testament of the Old Testament.” (See the classic Ugarit and the Old Testament: The Story of a Remarkable Discovery and Its Impact on Old Testament Studies)

Just as the New Testament assumes knowledge of Old Testament customs, laws, stories, etc., the Old Testament also assumes a particular body of cultural, historical, and linguistic knowledge, which modern readers almost entirely lack. With the discovery and decipherment of Ugaritic in 1928, suddenly all kinds of allusions started becoming clear to scholars.  Here is a summary of one example (and we’re really just dipping our toe in the ocean of this topic.)

Job, responding to God’s treatment of him, asks, “Am I yam or tannin, that you (God) should place a guard over me?” The KJV reads, “Am I the sea or a dragon…?” As noted above, yam was the name of a deity, namely, the sea deity at Ugarit, and represented several things, including chaos. (Job 7:12 lacks the definite article, suggesting the proper name “Yam” instead of general reference to “the sea.”) In the Ugaritic Baal epic, Yam is eventually defeated by Baal (the Ugaritic deity parallel to Yahweh), and Yam’s power and influence are restrained, restricted, and guarded. Job 7:12 alludes to this.

These chaotic waters and their destructive power are sometimes represented by a great sea-monster, alternately known as dragon, serpent, Rahab, Leviathan, Behemoth, etc. Generally speaking, the defeat of chaos/the waters results in order, creation, and the building of a temple for the deity. Allusions to this battle with chaos (aka Chaoskampf)  constitute Israel’s third creation tradition.  We should acknowledge at this point, that this is reflected in Genesis as well, though with one important concept reversed. There are pre-existing waters, tannin are present, and God brings order out of chaos in creating the universe, and taking up residence and rest in his (cosmic) temple on the seventh day. However, in Genesis, there’s no battle, no conflict, no Chaoskampf, which is the emphasis elsewhere.

Isaiah, Psalms, and other passages allude to an Israelite conception of a pre-creation battle with these figures, with God triumphant as king and the waters held at bay. The theme gets adapted as well to describe the destruction of Israel’s enemies (Egypt, etc.) as well as the apocalyptic end.  A small illustrative selection-

Isaiah 27:1 “On that day the LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.”

The twisting serpent is named specifically at Ugarit.

Psalm 74: 12-17 “Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth. You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams.  Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun. You have fixed all the bounds of the earth;  you made summer and winter.”

Note there the association between God’s conquering of the sea and creation.

Psalm 93:3-4 “The floods have lifted up, O LORD, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring. More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters, more majestic than the waves of the sea, majestic on high is the LORD!”

Psalm 89:9-12 “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them. You crushed Rahab like a carcass;  you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm. The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it—you have founded them. The north and the south—you created them;”

Again, God’s taming of the waters is associated with creation.

Psalm 29:3, 10 “The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters…. The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.”

Then there is Revelation 12-13 with its imagery of the Dragon, the beast rising out of the sea, etc. as God’s primal enemy. My professor opined that of all the books in the Bible, Revelation actually has the clearest and most explicit Canaanite allusions to Chaoskamp.

Job and these other passages, then, refer to a body of cultural knowledge shared between the Israelites and the Canaanites, but which we didn’t know about and therefore didn’t understand, until we discovered texts from Israel’s neighbors. These seem to be things Israelites had commonly known (and believed?), but translation alone failed to communicate them because we lacked proper context for understanding.

To summarize: Reading scripture alone, even in clear English, cannot convey the full meaning intended by ancient and inspired authors, and we will not understand the way the prophets’ audiences did. Without scholarship to recover and restore unstated— but crucial!— historical and cultural context to scripture, we misunderstand and wrest it.

Sidenote- Dan Belnap has explored the Chaoskampf/Divine Warrior theme in the Book of Mormon, here.

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