One of my favorite questions as a Bible-scholar-lady is “So, what’s the best translation?” I love this question not only because it opens the door to substantive discussion that can last for the better part of a class period… no matter how long the meeting. But I also love it because we get to talk about paradox: The best translation is precisely not the one. Rather, the best translation is a whole mess of ’em, side by side, allowing a reader to see the varieties of ways this ancient text can mean (and sometimes revealing the biases of whoever’s behind said translation). So even when I disagree with some version’s particular word choice, turn of phrase, or punctuation, finally I say bring it on. Give us a new translation, and keep them coming. Come they do.
So it was only a matter of time before the Bible would be translated into Emoji (even writing that feels weird). Sure, there are problems. Hosts of them. Still, I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit full-up on the problem front for the time being. So I was delighted to stumble upon a particularly unique upside to the Emoji Bible project. (Actually, there are at least two; but I’m tired, and I bet you are, too. So, let’s stick with one.)
God. Again, it bears saying: there are some real problems with that haloed smiley face that stands in for “God.” But one of the things I absolutely love about this Emoji version is how it’s devoid of gender/sex association. This is not a man-God or a woman-God. This is… well, again, some problems. But the image takes care of a particularly challenging aspect of translating the Bible.
Let’s stick with Genesis for a sec, the Bible’s opener. In the very, very beginning of the Bible, we meet God as a disembodied voice calling the world into being (seven days, “let there be,” and all that). When this God gets around to human beings, we read that God creates the human simultaneously male and female in the image of God. (Don’t be fooled by “Adam,” if that’s how your translation reads. Hebrew doesn’t capitalize, and the word behind this translation is a generic term for which a super common meaning is simply “human being” or “human beings.”)
So, according to the explicit theology that launches the whole scriptural business, God is both/and, female/male. And that’s a problem – for translators, anyway.
I’ve been bumping, nay – slamming, into this a lot lately. I just finished working through copyedits for a wee book of creative nonfiction on God and “nature,” religion and ecology, in which I ask what if Jesus is also the nonhuman natural world around us? What happens if Christianity allows for a Jesus not limited to the guy who walked around the Middle East 2,000 years ago, but who is also “of earth” both over and constituted by the natural world in which we live? So this is expansive God-stuff. Narrow terminologies will not do.
In God of Earth I use the word “God” a lot, but sheesh sometimes a person just needs the respite of a decent pronoun or two. Alas, we’ve nothing that quite works. There is no gender-neutral pronoun in English. We’ve got “him” and “her,” “she” and “he.” I guess we’ve also got “it”; but wow, how impersonal for a biblically personal God is that? Finally, I simply toggled between the masculine and feminine. Readers are smart. I figure they’ll figure it out. Nevertheless, using any (gender-specific) pronoun for God always leaves me a bit unsettled.
Some of you may rightly protest: But the (original) Hebrew uses masculine pronouns! Yes, yes it does. Consider for a moment, however, a couple of additional things: Like English, Hebrew has no neuter pronoun. When referring to mixed company, Hebrew defaults to the masculine version. Consider also that the Hebrew Bible (pretty much all of it, even over the many centuries of its composition and collection) comes out of a patriarchal context. Power, authority… We’re going with God-the-guy, those ancient folks might say.
But notice how right here at the outset of the Bible, whoever came up with Genesis One made perfectly clear that God is neither one sex or another but is all of that. Which, when you think about it, makes sense. We’re talking about God here right? Limitless, anyone? (Still, I find it rather incredible, and have to hand it those responsible for the Bible’s opener given their context and everything, that we see such blatant sexual both-and-ness in God here. Wow.)
Yeah, the Emoji Bible introduces a bunch of translation problems, and the haloed smiley-face comes with a few of its own. But that little golden sphere with the universal smile just pulverized one of the most enduring problems of Bible translating… without breaking a smiley-face-with-blue-drop-on-left-brow (sweat).
This blog piece first appeared on The Huffington Post.