Passwords to Paradise

Several years ago, I intently tried to find someone who could accurately localize a specific Ancient Greek phrase found in the New Testament. The phrase, in traditional English, is “wives, be subject to your husbands.” However, I was trying to find out if a more accurate modern English version would be something like “wives, do not fall back when things get tough, because your husbands need you then.” If this were true, I reasoned, it could affect millions of “complementarian,” Biblically literal marriages across America. The fourth wave of feminism, born from fundamentalist Christianity. It would have been ironic, to say the least.

The question arose because I noticed that the word hupotasso, which has been translated as “subject to” in male-dominant churches, can be used to refer to how a phalanx functions. A phalanx was the Greek fighting mechanism in which soldiers stood side by side with their shields interlocking and advanced on the enemy as one line of spears. If one person held back, and did not “support” the line, the whole line was in danger. You can hardly come up with a more egalitarian image. And I reasoned that any speaker of Ancient Greek would have been versed enough in the sagas and epics to hear the echoes of this kind of imagery.

It remained a theory only, however, since I was unable to find anyone who spoke Ancient Greek with cultural fluency. But I was reminded of my quest when I began reading Passwords to Paradise by Nicholas Ostler, which considers whether religious texts get changed when they’re imported into new cultures.

The short answer: they do — if they cooperate, and some languages do not. Amazonian Pirahã, for example, does not use subordinate structures, which makes the people who speak it “disinclined to accept stories of a past for which there are no living witnesses,” says Ostler.

However, by and large, religions often underwent larger cultural adaptation when they were imported. Aztec Christianity, for example, followed “the tradition of Aztec power relations,” in which “children would call their fathers ‘dear little brother’ and their mothers ‘dear baby.’” This meant that Aztec converts addressed their new God with a familiarity that would have likely been shocking in sixteenth-century Europe.

“How can a language, a medium of thought and communication formed for one way of life, for one worldview, be pressed into service for another, and what does it do to the character of its new message?” Ostler asks. The book is full of examples, among them how the Catholic Virgin Mary appears in the Aztec language Nahuatl in a work published in 1649. For one thing, her virginity appears to have been glossed over; for “Immaculate Virgin Full of Grace” we have “perfect wondrous maiden,” where the word for maiden, Ichpochtli, would perhaps better be understood as an unmarried girl of marriageable age, a status that did not necessarily speak to sexual inexperience. Additionally, in the Nuhuatl tract in question, Mary was bequeathed the title Tonantzin, “the precise title for an Aztec goddess,” and Ostler notes that the floral imagery of this goddess was also associated with Mary. Notably, this caused a few local Spanish Catholics some consternation.

The idea that Mary was a virgin may have originated not from the initial Hebrew, notes Ostler, but the Greek adaptation of the word. The Old Testament word in question, almah in Hebrew, means young woman. “The Septuagint version… rendered this as parthénos, which does tend to have the connotation ‘virgin,’ as when applied to the Maiden Goddess Athena.” Being conceived by God and born of a virgin has echoes of Greek myths featuring Zeus’ dalliances with mortal women, something that may have been advantageous in winning early Greek converts. Ostler argues that early Christianity seems to have also been influenced by Greek philosophical leanings and devotion to reason, including the first line of the Gospel of John describing Jesus: “En arkhēi ēn ho lógos,” in the beginning was the word — in the beginning was logic, the harmonious balance of things “that mediated between God and brute matter,” which Ostler explains had strong ties to Grecian theories of the world popular at the time.

A large portion of the book is devoted to the spread of Christianity and the linguistic and cultural ins and outs of its developments. Much of the history of Europe, in fact, was influenced by and corresponded with these religious developments. The book progresses through the adoption of Latin, into Orthodoxy, then back to the new world and ultimately back to Europe to the rise of Protestantism. The focus on Christianity is fitting for Ostler’s line of expertise and background, and it is particularly interesting where it ties in with regional pagan and indigenous practices.

For example, Ostler examines one of the earliest existing Anglo-Saxon texts, the “Dream of the Rood,” for its Christian ties to tree reverence. Ostler describes the spear-wounded torment of Odin upon a tree, as well as the prevalance of tree worship, and suggests that the crucifix as a religious symbol was adopted “as a central character in its own right” by or for Northern Europeans.

Later, Islam gets a brief mention, although as the book notes, Islam does not tolerate translation of the Qur’an from its original Arabic, which renders translation transmutations largely null and void. Buddhism also is considered briefly, with a discussion of how, in contradiction to Islam, Buddhism freely embraced writing sacred texts in a variety of languages. In some cases, inaccurate translations may have changed the theology. Such may have been the case in Buddhism with the Chinese back translation for pratyeka-buddha, “one awoken on his own,” a potential mistranslation and new invention based upon the idea of pratyaya-buddha, “one awoken through (external) cause.”

The book is densely populated with references to complex doctrines, but it is an interesting read for anyone curious about the translation of religious texts, particularly Christian religious texts — although those who are committed to seeing religious texts as homogenous, unchanging wholes may find the book offensive.