Gilbert Meilaender on Losing Him in Translation
Recently I had occasion to read again portions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship. It is known to many English readers as The Cost of Discipleship, the title of an earlier English translation published by Macmillan. But as volume four of the English Edition of Bonhoeffer’s Works now being published by Fortress Press, it is simply Discipleship (translating Bonhoeffer’s German title, Nachfolge).
That is all well and good, and the English edition of the Works contains useful introductions, footnotes, and bibliographies—each of which helps readers more fully to understand the text. In this way the scholarly life makes progress.
The Progressive Limit
For human beings, though, progress seldom moves in a straight line and is seldom divorced from the unfortunate limits of a particular age. And, as I read along in Discipleship, I was struck by a certain kind of limit—indeed, a limit that appears precisely where the editors and translators no doubt assume themselves to be most progressive. Moreover, this particular defect results in ugliness. Let me illustrate.
Here are just a few sentences from the new translation in the English edition of the Works:
God once created Adam in God’s own image. In Adam, God sought to observe this image with joy, as the culmination of God’s creation, “and indeed, it was very good.” In Adam, God recognized the divine self.
Here are those sentences in the earlier translation, published by Macmillan in 1963:
When the world began, God created Adam in his own image, as the climax of his creation. He wanted to have the joy of beholding in Adam the reflection of himself. “And behold, it was very good.” God saw himself in Adam.
Now, imagine reading page after page of Discipleship, translated in the style of the first of these translations. After a while one just wants to say, “Enough of God—no more please.” To be clear, the issue I raise here is not accuracy of translation. The issue is, first of all, ugliness.
Suppose we talked and wrote this way not just about God but also about others. “Ugly” would be too weak a word to describe the product. Consider the following sentences from a scholar who is a master of English prose. In his biography of St. Augustine, Peter Brown writes:
The emotional tone of the Confessions strikes any modern reader. The book owes its lasting appeal to the way in which Augustine, in his middle-age, had dared to open himself up to the feelings of his youth. Yet, such a tone was not inevitable. Augustine’s intense awareness of the vital role of ‘feeling’ in his past life had come to grow upon him.
Suppose we wrote of Augustine the way Bonhoeffer’s translators write of God.
The emotional tone of the Confessions strikes any modern reader. The book owes its lasting appeal to the way in which Augustine, in Augustine’s middle-age, had dared to open up Augustine’s self to the feelings of Augustine’s youth. Yet, such a tone was not inevitable. Augustine’s intense awareness of the vital role of ‘feeling’ in Augustine’s past life had come to grow upon Augustine.
And then imagine reading Peter Brown’s entire biography written in such a style. Few would want to endure it. Yet, theologians and preachers now routinely subject us to such prose when speaking of God. If they are not read, whom shall we blame?
A Lost Capacity
We know, of course, why the translators of the new edition proceed as they do. They tell us in their introduction that they “have kept the language as gender-inclusive as possible when Bonhoeffer’s reference is to human beings in general and as gender-free as possible when the reference is to God.” Here I attend chiefly to the second of these: the attempt to speak of God only in gender-free language.
Someone might argue that good theology requires that the sheer ugliness of such speech be endured. God is not a sexual being in the way we are and is not a male. True enough (though a bit more complicated than we might at first think, since in Jesus God has a body). Our culture’s now almost routine tendency to use terms of gender when terms of sex are really needed means, however, that we have nearly lost the capacity to distinguish between characterizing God as male and speaking of God as masculine.
In relation to Israel the Lord is not only Maker but also the lover who woos her and the husband who remains faithful to her. And in relation to the church, the love of God shown forth in Jesus serves as the paradigm for the love of husbands for their wives.
That is, we know the meaning of our masculinity and femininity (terms of gender, not sex) in the marital relation only by analogy to the more robustly gendered way in which Christ loves the church. To try to talk about the relation between God and the people of God in gender-free language subverts our ability to narrate the biblical story of their love for each other—which suggests that something beyond aesthetics alone may be at stake here.
In fact, the editors’ distinction between gender-inclusive language (for reference to men and women) and gender-free language (for reference to God) may not, in the end, be much of a distinction.
Together they express an attempt to envision a world not finally significantly marked by gender distinctions. And that, of course, would be a world in which the biblical God need not be spoken of as the Father of Jesus Christ, as our Father, or as bridegroom of the church.
Rather than understanding our language about men and women as in faint analogy to the primary biblical language identifying God and the church, we come to regard all language about God as mere projection of human experience. Change that experience to transcend—as we think—gender distinctions, and the language about God can and will change as well.
Our Best Hope
It may be that our best hope lies where I began: in aesthetics. The sheer unnatural ugliness of gender-free language about God means that considerable effort is needed to socialize us into such patterns of speech. Perhaps Beauty may come to the aid of Truth.
In any case, the practical import of these reflections is clear. I’m not getting rid of my tattered copy, its binding broken, of Macmillan’s 1963 paperback edition of The Cost of Discipleship. For certain purposes I will, I guess, use and refer to the new translation in Bonhoeffer’s Works, but I cannot imagine living within it in any serious way. There’s just too much “God” in it, and the ugliness that results is more than a man or a woman can bear.
Gilbert Meilaender is the Duesenberg Professor in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University. His books include Neither Beast nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person (Encounter Books) and Should We Live Forever?: The Ethical Ambiguities of Aging (Eerdmans). He is a Lutheran.
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