I especially like Pieter Brueghel the Elder's interpretation of the Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel towers high as allegory, as genesis story, as good ol’ fashioned storytelling. Painters have depicted it countless times, and theologians, literary theorists, and linguists have read into it a million ways.
I brought out my Theories of Translation book and read over philosopher Jacques Derrida’s essay on Babel. He writes that Babel as a name is the name of God, yet Babel as a noun (and now as a verb in English) signifies confusion. Here is his thesis, as I read it: “In giving his name, a name of his choice, in giving all names, the father would be at the origin of language, and that power would belong by right to God the father. And the name of God the father would be the name of that origin of tongues. But it is also that God who, in the action of his anger, annuls the gift of tongues, or at least embroils it, sows confusion among his songs, and poisons the gift.” (That last phrase is a pun on the German noun Gift, which means “poison”). Later in the essay he goes on to say, “This story recounts, among other things, the origin of the confusion of tongues, the irreducible multiplicity of idioms, the necessary and impossible task of translation, its necessity as impossibility. Now, in general, one pays little attention to this fact: it is in translation that we most often read this narrative.”
Let’s face it: the stories of the Old Testament are confusing. The God of the Old Testament is especially confusing, full of vengeance and jealousy, enigmatic and indecipherable. He is nothing like the New Testament’s God, a Being who is as equally full of love and sacrifice. And so if we build on Derrida’s thesis, the Tower of Babel story is one of the most telling of the Old Testament God’s character: he sets himself as the origin, as the word, the primogenitor, and yet punishes his people so they cannot speak of him. God becomes unknowable, unpredictable. And so his people must rely on translation, which is anything but reliable.
Adam and Eve in fifteenth-century Italian orchard?
It is thus troubling when religious fundamentalists hearken back to the literal words of a religious text: not only have cultural norms changed over the course of 2+ millennia, the words themselves have most likely been translated. Of course, Muslims consider the Quran to be God’s word, verbatim, passed to the prophet Muhammad in Arabic. There is a standardized compilation of Muhammad’s text that has not changed, and the Quran in translation is technically not the Quran. Even in the case of this holy book, though, words that have remained in common usage have connotatively and qualitatively changed and thus there plenty of subtleties that contemporary Muslims would understand only with the assistance of historical accounts. (Side note: in translation class, we read a relatively long article that spoke only of one particular Italian word that is most commonly translated into English as “orchard;” the point of the article is that “orchard” does not call to mind the images that the Italian word would for fifteen century Italians, and yet the article concluded that “orchard” is the best–and only–possible translation of the word).
Christians who read the Bible in English are reading through at least two translations, and most likely many more: for some versions Aramaic made its way into Greek, and from there Latin, then German, and finally English. If plenty can be lost in a direct translation, imagine the material that is lost in four. And yet some translations are said to be divinely inspired. The Septuagint, the Ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament was said to be created like this:
King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one’s room and said: ‘Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.’ God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did.”
If the Tower of Babel tells the story of the splitting of tongues, the writing of the Septuagint sounds like a miracle of God’s atonement. What He has separated and confused He reunites so that all may speak and know His name. As we Americans say, E pluribus unum.