On the Moral and Ethical Responsibility of Language in Culture

“Monday Musings’ for Monday March 14, 2016
Volume VI. No. 11/271


Thinking Things Through
Translating, Moral and Ethical Responsibility
The Bible and Polyglossia

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon) DLFAPA*

A reader asks about Asian wisdom and several other topics. Here is my reply:

Thank you for your kind if not extravagant words. I am humbled. You have brought up several topics. I will cobble together a brief reply for each issue and avoid rambling aimlessly.

Unfortunately, I do not know much about Japanese and Chinese philosophy and cannot offer a scholarly opinion. I only superficially know the work of Buddha and Confucius to the point that there is much Buddha in Sufism, and much Sufism in Freemasonry (1717). And Mozart knew about both! However, I know of several things:

I have been involved with the art and craft of polyglossia and translation and interpretation. There are vast ethical and moral implications and responsibilities in this profession/craft. I used to work for the CIA while in medical school (usually after midnight translating documents at Langley) and UN during the summers of my pre-med years (as a simultaneous translator). I have seen consequential errors and inaccurate translations that endangered the fate of an important ongoing discussion. Permit me to cite one example of what could go wrong in translation. This is from the press: In 1977 the then US President Carter on an official visit to Poland gave a talk. President Carter’s use of the word “love” was translated to erotic/conjugal love. Here are some of the lines: “Are you from Poland? Then President Jimmy Carter wants to sleep with you.”  That’s what his translator told the then-Communist country of Poland. Carter said he wanted to learn about the Polish people’s desires for the future; the translator said that “Carter desired the Poles.” Carter said he was happy to be in Poland; the translator said “Carter was happy to grasp at Poland’s private parts.” Carter talked about leaving the U.S. to go on a trip; translator said that “Carter had abandoned America forever.” This example demonstrates the moral and ethical responsibility of translation. At the hand of an unskilled and unprincipled translator things might go dangerously wrong.

Back to our discussion of the Bible: I know that quite a bit of the Bible translated from the original Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, and the language of the Synoptic Gospels were written and later translated into Greek, Latin, German, and finally English (King James Bible 1611: the Old Testament: 39 books, 593,493 words; the New Testament, 27 books, 181,253; total 774,746 words) are full of errors, most likely unintentional, that in some instances radically and universally change(d) the meaning of the message. Not to mention innumerable other Bibles such as Vulgate, Wycliffe and many others which have multiplied the number of errors. The faithful readers of this space recall my review of the book Secretaries of God in which I pointed out some of these errors. I also know that William Scott Wilson about whom you asked, is an ethical, knowledgeable, and accurate translator who does not sacrifice translation for more attractive interpretation. Therefore, I fully sympathize with Kaibara Ekiken or Ekken, the remarkable scholar of neo-Confucianism and his assertion that folks should have read his work in the original Chinese.

As an aside, just for the fun of it, Shakespeare’s collected work, 118,406 lines, has 884,647 words, almost one hundred thousand more words that the Bible. Makes one wonder if Shakespeare knew more words than God!

I maintain that if one really loves the opera, it is a moral imperative to learn Italian or the original language the opera composer used to write the libretto, and ignore the inadequate and “artificial” subtitles! Even though he was a blatant amoral psychopath, I’d rather listen to the words of genius Lorenzo di Ponti as they were minted in his fascinating brain in the original Italian (he wrote in Latin also), and not to some accommodating Joe Blow who commercially created the subtitles. Finally, I agree with the content of the essay about prevention. Prevention should come first. On a panel discussion in a town meeting, I asked the NC Secretary of Health and Human Services what percentage of his vast multi-billion dollar budget is spent on prevention. Answer: less than one half percent, mostly for inoculation, etc.

You probably have read my contentious pieces about Sufi “authorities” who are phony in that they cannot speak Farsi. These charlatans use the sheer force of marketing to gain the reputation of being an authority. I have written extensively about Fitzgerald who translated Omar Khayyam, and yes the well marketed translator of Rumi, both of whom knew/know nothing about Farsi language, Persian culture and the essentials of Sufism, they pose as experts merchandising their ignorance. Permit me to give you one example of Fitzgerald total ignorance of the intention of Omar Khayyam by offering an explanation of one quatrain: Khayyam said “two years old wine and fourteen years old beloved are all I want…” The literal translation paints the picture of a pedophile drinking two years old wine and submerged in sinful acts…Well, for those who know Farsi and the Persian culture, what Khayyam was referring to as two years old wine was the time it took for Prophet Mohammad to receive Quran and fourteen years old beloved is reference to the Prophet himself in that at age forty (four tens and not fourteen) he began Islam. So, Khayyam’s moving and reverential quatrain is the description of Prophet Mohammad who at age 40 began Islam. It took two years for him to complete receiving Quran from Angel Gabriel. In fact the quatrain is a summary of the history of birth of Islam in one quatrain. What a genius was poet-astronomer-polymath Khayyam; and what an ignorant but clever merchandiser was Fitzgerald.

One last observation:

Having had a fascination for languages and translation ever since childhood, I have wondered about Biblical references to polyglossia, and speaking in tongues, as recorded in the Bible, Acts 2:1-47, Acts 2:4, 1 Corinthians,  14:1-40, 1 Corinthians 14:27-28, Mark 16:17 just to quote a few. The idea that people will speak in unknown tongues yet communicate has puzzled me throughout my life. I recall in the1970s when I went to China on several occasions, I took with me a Polaroid camera and tape cassettes of Beethoven and Vivaldi’s music. I would take pictures of little babies and children with my Polaroid, and let their mothers look at the pictures developing in front of their own eyes. People, especially mothers would throng around the camera in awe, and often end up crying with joy cherishing the pictures of their youngsters. Similarly, when I would play a piece of music such as Four Seasons by Vivaldi, the reaction was the same. The developing pictures of the babies and the joyful sound and rhythm of the music was a common language that no one knew, yet everybody understood and responded to with exultation. It is beginning to make sense to me that the polyglossia of the masses is music and the arts. And I am satisfied that Saint Paul’s exhortation in Corinthians is an act of encouragement to let the arts influence our lives. More on this later.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association; Life Member, American Medical Association; Life Member, Southern Medical Association; and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012).

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