Thursday, February 17, 2011

Pissing Against the Wall

If you know your history of Western Civilization, you know that Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German was a watershed moment. Not only did it make the so-called Holy Scriptures accessible for the first time to the ordinary Joe – OK, not the ordinary Joe, but any Joe who could read – thus challenging the power of the church leaders who, up till that time, could tell you anything they wanted to about what the Bible said, and you just had to believe them. But Luther created virtually single-handedly a composite version of German out of many dialects, which eventually morphed into a single standard language. No mean feat.

I was raised a Lutheran, so I learned to respect the fellow early on. Not idolize. Just respect. He was always talked about as an imperfect human being. The Lutherans I knew were literate people and everybody knew about his anti-semitic ravings and was embarrassed by them. At some point I remember being told that Luther was "kind of earthy". I knew that adults used "earthy" to mean vulgar, and when I came across a certain line in the Book of Kings one day, I found what they were talking about.

In the Luther translation of 1 Kings, Chapter 16, Verse 11, one reads:
Und da er König war und auf seinem Stuhl saß, schlug er das gantze Haus Baesas und ließ nicht uber auch der an die Wand pisset, dazu seine Erben und seine Freunde.
In English (my translation), that is:
And when he became king and sat on his seat (throne), he struck down the entire house of Baesas and didn’t leave alive even him who pisses against the wall, including his heirs and his friends.
When you're a kid and are taught that the Bible is "the living word of God," it kind of blows you away to find an image of somebody pissing against the wall.

I read the Bible in German because there wasn't a whole lot in German around to read in those days at my house, and when I found that passage I immediately had to check it out in English.

But in English what I found was:
And it came to pass, when he began to reign, as soon as he sat on his throne, that he smote all the house of Baasha: he left him not a single man-child, neither of his kinsfolks, nor of his friends.
I remembered that when I was reading something today about Luther's "plastic" use of German. Curious choice of words, I thought. Plastic? Does plastic mean vulgar? Or does it mean that he takes liberties?

I decided to look at a more modern German version, and checked out the “Neue Evangelistische” version. It reads:
Als er die Macht in den Händen hatte, erschlug er die ganze Familie Baschas. Weder von seinen Verwandten noch von seinen Freunden ließ er einen Wandpisser übrig.
My English of that:
And when he had power in his hands, he struck down Basha’s entire family. Neither of his relatives nor of his friends did he leave a single wall pisser standing.
That's curious. So it's not just Luther's choice of imagery?

I checked out the King James English translation from the Hebrew. To my surprise, I found it says:
And it came to pass, when he began to reign, as soon as he sat on his throne, that he slew all the house of Baasha: he left him not one that pisseth against a wall, neither of his kinsfolks, nor of his friends.
It would appear the “piss-quote” is not a function of Luther’s “earthiness” at all, but of time.

Look what happens when you open two other modern German translations of that same verse – the Luther Bible translations of 1912 (somewhat analogous to the American Standard Version) and the most recent translation, in 1984, and set them against Luther’s last translation in 1534.
1534 Und da er König war und auf seinem Stuhl saß, schlug er das gantze Haus Baesas und
1912 Und da er König war und auf seinem Stuhl saß, schlug er das ganze Haus Baesas, und
1984 Und als er König war und auf seinem Thron saß, erschlug er das ganze Haus Bascha und
1534 ließ nicht uber auch der an die Wand pisset, dazu seine Erben und seine Freunde
1912 ließ nichts übrig, was männlich war, dazu seine Erben und seine Freunde
1984 ließ nichts übrig, was männlich war, dazu seine Verwandten und seine Freunde.
You see that the only thing they changed in 378 years was to take the wall pisser out in 1912 (and keep him out in 1984) and to update “when” from da to the modern als, and change heirs (Erben) to relatives (Verwandten) in 1984. (Where Luther translated pisser, the two modern versions read “nothing remaining that was male.”)

And if you turn to a modern English translation, you see the same thing.
There is nobody pissing on the wall in the English New International Version of 2010, for example:
As soon as he began to reign and was seated on the throne, he killed off Baasha’s whole family. He did not spare a single male, whether relative or friend.
Since I can’t read the original Hebrew, I am limited to secondary sources. To wit:

The Westminster Leningrad Codex version of Hebrew that is available online, which renders verse 11 thus:
וַיְהִ֨י בְמָלְכֹ֜ו כְּשִׁבְתֹּ֣ו עַל־כִּסְאֹ֗ו הִכָּה֙ אֶת־כָּל־בֵּ֣ית בַּעְשָׁ֔א לֹֽא־הִשְׁאִ֥יר לֹ֖ו מַשְׁתִּ֣ין בְּקִ֑יר וְגֹאֲלָ֖יו וְרֵעֵֽהוּ׃
And the Google translator gives the English of that line as:
And the reigning his daughter about - his chair hit the - all - house of Baasha not - left him urinating against the wall another Gaelic;
OK, so there’s a ways to go yet in machine translation, but the pissing is definitely there, right? And it’s against the wall, apparently, and not just any old where.

So what you’ve got here is a fussiness that has crept into modern translations of the Bible in both German and English.

I decided to see what I could find about other languages.

Here is the Louis Segond translation into French, from around 1880:
Lorsqu'il fut roi et qu'il fut assis sur son trône, il frappa toute la maison de Baescha, il ne laissa échapper personne qui lui appartînt, ni parent ni ami.
where the phrase in question comes out as “he did not let escape anyone who belonged to him, neither relative nor friend.”

And the “Bible du Semeur” version, the most modern one done in 2000:
A peine était-il devenu roi, qu'il fit périr toute la famille de Baécha, sans épargner un seul homme, enfant ou adulte, dans sa parenté ou parmi ses partisans.
where it is “without sparing a single man, child or adult, of his relatives or among his followers.”

And then I turned to a Jewish translation of the Bible into French, which I assumed, for some reason, might be a tad less prissy - the “Bible du Rabbinat Français.” But no, there the phrase in question is translated:
Devenu roi et en possession du trône, il fit périr toute la maison de Baasa, ses parents et ses amis, sans en épargner la plus infime créature
(i.e., he didn’t spare “even the most insignificant creature”) All three French versions were done in relatively modern times, and all three avoid the wall pisser image.

I decided to keep going. The “Spanish Modern” translation reads as follows:
mató a todos los de la casa de Baasa, sin dejar de ella un solo varón
(killed everybody of the house of Baasa, leaving not a man behind)

But then, when we look at the older version, the “Sagradas Escrituras” version, done in 1569, between the times of Luther and King James, it reads:
Y luego que llegó a reinar y estuvo sentado en su trono, hirió toda la casa de Baasa, sin dejar en ella meante a la pared, ni sus parientes ni amigos.
Which, lo and behold, has the phrase, as you can see, “meante a la pared” - which in the King’s English, of course, is “pissing against the wall.”

Can’t stop now…

The Italian bible, in modern translation, the “Nuova Riveduta” of 1994, reads:
E quando fu re, non appena si fu assiso sul trono, distrusse tutta la casa di Baasa; non gli lasciò neppure un bimbo: né parenti, né amici.
where that last bit,
non gli lasciò neppure un bimbo: né parenti, né amici,
is, of course, “didn’t leave even a child, nor relatives, nor friends.”

Then there is the Russian bible, the Russian Synodal Version, begun in 1813 and finished in 1876…
Когда он воцарился и сел на престоле его, то истребил весь дом Ваасы, не оставив ему мочащегося к стене, ни родственников его, ни друзей его.
where мочащегося к стене, (mochashchegosya k stenye) is, yes, ma’am,

“pissing against the wall.”

OK. One last go. What’s in the Vulgate, I wondered. Probably should have checked that out sooner. I assumed the wall pisser would be there, since the evidence collected thus far is it is only in the 20th century that translators chose to leave it out. Except for the French, who pulled it in around 1880. The Russians still had it in 1876, but that could be explained by the fact they started so much earlier. There's the hypothesis, at least - that bible translator folks started losing their earthiness around 1880, and that this phenomenon is universal.

Anyway, here is the Vulgate:
cumque regnasset et sedisset super solium eius percussit omnem domum Baasa et non dereliquit ex eo mingentem ad parietem et propinquos et amicos eius
My Latin never won any awards, but
mingentem ad parietem
looks an awful lot like the Spanish
meante a la pared
wouldn’t you say? And just to be sure, that Vulgate Version is presented alongside an older English-language version which reads:
And when he was king, and sat upon his throne, he slew all the house of Baasa, and he left not one thereof to piss against a wall and all his kinsfolks and friends.
So there you have it. It turns out it wasn’t that Luther was earthy. It was that he was good at literal translation. It is modern folk who are prissy. All this time I assumed it was because Luther was crude that his bible translation included earthy language. Turns out, he’s not the language twister. The line seems to be not between languages but between the cultures of older religious folk and more recent religious folk, between modern-day religious folk who control translations into modern speech and those of an earlier time.

Nothing new there. If you've got power, you get to determine knowledge, and that includes the power to editorialize and censor.

Nothing is lost in terms of denotation by this prissiness, of course. But some of the Bible's vivid imagery definitely went by the wayside. All because a bunch of prudes decided they didn't like what they found in the original.

So they cleaned it up.

Left the part about God flying into a rage and killing all the women and children, unfortunately.

Can't clean up everything.







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1 comment:

froginblender said...

Excellent blog post, I took the liberty of linking to it in my answer to a question on stack exchange: http://german.stackexchange.com/questions/4233/how-do-you-translate-german-wordplay-into-english/4249#comment9543_4249