Friday, March 25, 2011

The Friday Figure

This week's Friday Figure comes from John chapter 3.  This was the reading this last week in church.  It is the conversation that Nicodemus has with Jesus about being "born again," "Born from on high."

I want to focus on John 3:8.  It reads:
τὸ πνεῦμα ὅπου θέλει πνεῖ καὶ τὴν φωνὴν αὐτοῦ ἀκούεις, ἀλλ᾿ οὐκ οἶδας πόθεν ἔρχεται καὶ ποῦ ὑπάγει· οὕτως ἐστὶν πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος. 
to pneuma hopou thelei pnei kai ten phonen autou akoueis, all'ouk oidas pothen erchetai kai pou upagei: houtos estin pas ho gegennemenos ek tou pneumatos
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
I have included the Greek, a transliteration of the Greek, and the NRSV translation.  The NRSV translation is OK, but it misses some nuances in the Greek.

The first thing to notice is the twofold repetition of the Greek word πνεῦμα (pneuma), and the use of the verb πνεῖ (pnei), which comes from the same root.  The word has three common meanings: wind, breath, and spirit.  The NRSV has chosen to translate the first instance of this word as wind, the verb as blow, and the second noun as spirit, and I think that the NRSV is correct to do so, yet, this obviously misses the wordplay in Greek.   This wordplay is called by a couple of different names in Greek: paronomasia, antanaclasis, eponodos.  Each of these figures means using the same or a similar word in close proximity with different meanings.  In this case, the first instance means wind, and the second instance means spirit. 

In order to capture this figure, English would have to have the same wordplay, which it does not.  If one wanted to try and carry the figure over, they could translate the verse with the same meaning for each word as follows:

The spirit spirits where it wills, and you hear its sound, but you do not know from where it comes and where it is going.  So it is with everyone born of the spirit.

The second figure at use here is that of personification, in which something that is inanimate is given a human trait.  In this case, I think the NRSV misses out.  What they translate as "sound" is actually the Greek word φωνήν (phonen), which is most naturally translated "voice."  Now, phone can carry the meaning "sound," but its most common use is that of voice.  In this case, I think the more poetic translation would be voice, especially since John seems to be playing on the multiple meanings of pneuma as both an animate subject and inanimate force. 

Either way, this is a wonderful piece of language and unfortunately English just does not have the same richness in this instance.