Layers of Translations: What is Heard?

For many years I taught eleventh graders the novel Black Elk Speaks by John G. Niehardt. If you are unfamiliar with the novel, it is an evocative and beautiful telling of the life of Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota Sioux. The book recounts his experiences as a Lakota medicine man as well as his experiences as a Lakota Sioux during the wars between the US government and the Indian Nations, specifically the Battle of Little Big Horn and the Wounded Knee Massacre.

One of the things I particularly love about the novel is how Niehardt weaves together the historical facts with Black Elk’s religious experiences. I do not believe you can remove one’s worldly experiences from their spiritual experiences because the two are too interwoven, so I appreciate how Niehardt shows us the full life experiences of Black Elk.

After the first time I taught the book, two things became clear to me. 1) My students had very little understanding of the American Indian people either presently or historically and 2) there was scholarly contention surrounding the book. Both realizations, I am sad to admit, caught me off guard. In a classic case of my own filters getting in my way, I had neglected to account for the human tendency to overlook or ignore things that are disagreeable or not of one’s own perspective.

It doesn’t matter how disagreeable one views them, the historical facts are that when this continent was found by explorers, it was already peopled. And the moral and philosophical ideologies of the two groups were in opposition of each other. Simplistically stated, the two cultures placed value on people and things in often diametrically opposing ways. Which, of course, led to the systematic decimating of the American Indian population. John G. Niehardt ends Black Elk Speaks with a particularly difficult scene: the gulches filled with the “butchered” bodies of the women and children running for safety from the US soldiers during Wounded Knee. Regardless of if you think it was the right thing for the US government to do, that is what it did. It killed any and all American Indians who stood in the way of the westward expansion of the European settlers and ideologies.

The novel was originally titled “Black Elk Speaks as told to John G. Niehardt” and later titled “Black Elk Speaks as told through John G. Niehardt.” Some criticize the novel as having too many layers of translation between the Lakotan words of Black Elk and the English words written on the page by Niehardt. I am of the opinion that it doesn’t matter. Without Niehardt, the words would not have been shared. What matters more is that the story is shared and that people discuss it. How can we hope to learn from the events, either beautiful and peace-filled or horrific and brutal if we cannot experience them?

I share these points about Black Elk Speaks not simply because I think it is a great book that more people should read. I share these points because it reminds me of another book that combines historical facts with allegory, parables, poetry, and imagery. This other book has also gone through many translations and editions, each translator and editor making changes to it as he (or possibly she) saw fit. And again, I see the value of the book more in the sharing of its ideas and the conversations that stem from it.  That book? The Bible.

The Bible was written in bits and pieces, first the Hebrew Testament and then the New Testament. The Hebrew Testament is nearly 3500 (or more) years old in parts, the New Testament nearly 2000 years old. Some of the authors are known and some are not. Moreover, as people have come and gone from political power, the Bible has been edited to suit their needs (for example the King James edition).

Again, I come back to the notion that perhaps it doesn’t matter how many translations of the text there have been. What matters is that those long ago stories were collected and that modern people discuss them.

Which leads me to an important distinction between these two books. When Black Elk Speaks is read and discussed, today’s reader is likely to read of Black Elk’s life and the world during his time and know that things have changed since then. In addition, if that reader has been taught to be a critical thinker, that reader would read of Black Elk’s way of life and neither assume it to be wrong nor an indication of how today’s reader should live his/her life. Rather, today’s critical thinker and reader would glean from Black Elk Speaks what was beautiful about his life and life experiences and what ways humanity could benefit from those experiences today. An example of this is the differing view of women’s roles in the Lakota life. It may be easy in 2012 to read that when the Plains Indians traveled, the women were in the back with the elderly, sick and the children and assume that the Plains Indians denigrated women. However, that was not the case. In a culture where the bringers of life were to be protected, the women followed the men so that the men could better protect them. Likewise, the women protected the children and those who needed care. It was a system in accord to their theology, ideology, and philosophy.

When we read Black Elk Speaks today, we must take into account the context of the people, the time, and what they valued. If we do not, we miss the beauty of their life experiences and lose the ability to see how today’s humanity could benefit from incorporating elements of those experiences.

And yet, how many readers of the Bible take into account the context of the people, time, and values of the writers of the Bible?

Moreover, why am I thinking about the role of biblical study?

I’m thinking about the need for biblical study because women have sex.

We all know that the sexual lives of women is a hot topic due to health care, access to health care, and the role of reproductive care in women’s lives. You can Google Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke if you need a refresher course.

But where does all this misogyny come from? I would say it comes from interpretations of the Bible.

The Bible was written in a time and place where women and their role in society was very different that in today’s suburban Portland, Oregon. And if you read the Bible today thinking that women in the Bible lived their lives like the little girls, young women, and women in your life, then you are forgetting one very important thing.

Women were property 3500 years ago.

So if you are wondering why on earth a radio celebrity who has been married four times and had a very public chemical dependency can for the most part without fear of reprisal, slander a young woman who said that women need access to birth control, remember this: today’s population is a product of the mindset that women are property.

If you don’t believe this to be true, look up the role of human trafficking. Today, just like yesterday and tomorrow, there will be girls and women sold to be sex slaves, wives, laborers.

Which means, that for most of the world, women are property still.

It is actually a very small part of the world’s population that believes women have a voice that deserves to be heard, that they have a mind as capable as a man’s, that they deserve financial compensation for their work.

But in that very small part of the world which likes to think of itself as being more enlightened, there lingers a thought that a woman is defined by the single role of reproduction in her life.

There have been many translations of religious texts in addition to the Bible. I am waiting for the translation that says all are equal. All are valued. All are loved.

That translation? It has the potential to save humanity from its self.

That translation would be one worth hearing.

7 thoughts on “Layers of Translations: What is Heard?

  1. And that is why I like the philosophy of Nichiren Daishonen; that we are all capable of being Buddhas, we are all capable of achieving enlightenment. We just have to reach for it and have love and compassion for everybody and everything.

  2. Kristina, this is an excellent post, so well-argued. I agree with your points and am so disheartened by how religion is being perverted to suit the political ideations of men who have desire to lead; they want only to rule.

  3. Patty Blount :
    …am so disheartened by how religion is being perverted to suit the political ideations of men who have desire to lead; they want only to rule.

    Patty, That’s what religions are for. To explain things science hadn’t (at the time of the religions invention) covered, and to define and dictate the lifestyle of a people. To assuage fears of the unknown by an explanation of the ideas of the writer, and to share the experiences and ideals of the writer. This, in turn, is taught to the followers creating a common homogeneous world view. Homogeneous world views do two things very well; create communities, and allow control. This marks the difference between a religion and a philosophy.

    Kristina, I do not believe religion will ever be a way forward for humanity for that same reasoning of homogeneous world views, the rights of feelings of the individual are drowned out. More so, I cannot think of a single widely held religion in existence today that doesn’t preach hatred, fear, or dismissal of external world views. They do not seek to adapt but to deny. It is by denial of the world around them that they maintain those explanations that are no longer valid or those ideals that no longer function within a greater society. This denial is as fundamental to these religions as an entity as Constants are fundamental requirements of science. The denial of evidence that is contrary to ones beliefs is faith. In these books woman were property and so that treatment will continue to degrade our society as long as the denial of evidence continues, and religions cannot exist without faith.

  4. Once again Kristina, you have coupled apt comparison with astute observation. Having read both books you mention here I would tend to agree on all points.

    I recall reading, not too many years ago, that those states with the strictest and most “fundamentalist” leanings towards the Bible are also the states with the most reported cases of rape and domestic violence towards women.

    I was raised Christian(Lutheran) and still consider myself to be Christian. That said, I think Christianity as an organized religion has much to answer for both historically and currently.

    I’m surprised none of the current batch of political candidates have yet come up with a variation of Manifest Destiny to justify whatever heinous conquests they will be selling next(which will probably entail some further subjugation of women).

    Thanks for this, Kristina.

    ps the way you continually stand up in the face of popularized cruelty makes me proud to call you my friend.

  5. Christina,

    This is interesting to me on at least a couple of levels. First, my neighbour, Craig, on Whidbey Island, is ¼ Sioux Indian, a heritage Craig did not discover until his father revealed it to him when Craig was about twenty (and shortly before his father died). It took a while, but now Craig takes great pride in his Sioux heritage, displaying artifacts his father left with him, some dating from the early 1800s. (One of his ancestors is the famed Sioux warrior, Crazy Horse.) Craig is also a devout (and tolerant) Lutheran.

    I have never been a religious believer, as far as I can remember, with my earliest memories on the topic going back to the age of 10. It seems pretty clear to me that the being humans refer to as “God” is something we invented, and have been refining and revising ever since. (I would put my thinking in this regard as being fairly close to people such as Christopher Hitchens and less well-known British writer, Vexen Crabtree

    As far as I can tell, the various streams of religious belief from the last few thousands of years of human development are coming together in two main rivers. One might be called “fundamentalism” (as so labeled, for instance by Karen Armstrong, author of History of God and a variety of other books on religions). Fundamentalism seems to focus on fear, anger, condemnation, and on exclusion. There are different flavors. Christian evangelicanism is one. The Catholicism of people such as Santorum and Gingrich is another Christian flavor. Islamic terrorism is another fundamentalist flavor. There are Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and other varieties of fundamentalism.

    The other flavor might be called “unitarianism” (with a small “u” to separate it from the particular denomination). It might also be called “spirituality.” Whatever you call it, this flavor focuses on tolerance, love, generosity, kindness, and inclusion.

    Some of the historical purposes of religion are no longer relevant. We know quite a bit more about how the universe began and about how animals and humans evolved (though some questions may never be answered), so creation myths, as beautiful and entertaining as they may be, are no longer very useful and relevant.

    Also, the delineation I have provided distinguishing between fundamentalism and spirituality is laden with contradictions. Fundamentalists can be very caring and charitable (though they tend to focus it on people who believe as they do). Spiritual people may need to defend themselves against attack, even to the point of using deadly force.

    We are the only animals (we know of) who have developed the power of abstract thinking; thus we are the only animals aware that we will die. In terms of the Christian creation myth, this seems to represent the “forbidden knowledge of the fruit we were not supposed to eat.” Too late! We are self-aware; we can’t put the evils of the world back in Pandora’s box, and it isn’t very nice to blame the whole situation on a woman, whether we call her Pandora or Eve. Perhaps they were really transsexuals. Perhaps we should go back to Plato’s theory in the Symposium about the origin of the sexes.

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