Aw Shucks! Classifying "Cotton Patch Version" and Similar Renderings as
Listen to a reading from the Scripture:
Now during the fifteenth year of Tiberius as President, while Pontius Pilate was governor of Georgia, and Herod was governor of Alabama, his brother Philip being governor of Mississippi, and Lysanias still holding out over Arkansas; while Annas and Caiaphas were co-presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention, the word of God came to Zack's boy, John, down on the farm. (Luke 3:1-2 Cotton Patch Version).
Cotton Patch Version: A Brief Analysis
Clarence Jordan's work in the late 1960s was described by his publisher as "a modern translation with a Southern accent, fervent, earthy, rich in humor." Typically, the label "translation," especially as it relates to Scripture, is tied to issues of canonicity and historicity. The Cotton Patch Version (CPV) is far removed from these benchmarks. What is the usefulness of such a product?
Reasons for the CPV
From the introduction to Paul's Epistles, here are the stated reasons for the Cotton Patch Version:
- Jordan determined to translate the events of Scripture, not the words. Quoting him: "Translations have left us stranded in some faraway land in the long-distant past. We need to have it come in our tongue and our time. We want to be participants in the faith not merely spectators. In the story of the Good Samaritan, we need to participate in the story, so we change Jerusalem and Jericho to New York to Boston, or our hometown to the next. Change the setting from 1st century Palestine to 20th century America."
- He determined to take the Scriptures out of "the classroom and stained glass sanctuary and put them out under God's skies where people are toiling and crying and wondering, where the mighty events of the good news first happened and where alone they feel at home."
- He pointed out that "the locale of these letters [i.e., translated ones, not original ones] is the South. Cotton has figured prominently in the problems of this region—problems to which the letters eloquently and pointedly and compassionately speak."
- The main reason for his translation is found in his reflections on his life spent on the farm in southwest Georgia, "where I have struggled for a meaningful expression of my discipleship to Jesus Christ." His co-workers in the fields were "like their predecessors in the Bible, humble people, I have longed to share God's word with them. So in making the translation, I have kept in mind the little people of great faith who want to do better in their discipleship but have been hindered by big words they don't understand or by ancient concepts they don't grasp." Some insisted to Jordan that his translation was not "elegant, dignified, or even nice." He has let the earthy NT participants speak for themselves, which is why he used "hell no" and "damned bastard." He said there was no overt "intent to shock, offend, or startle—or please—anyone." He did not want to shield anyone from the blunt, vigorous language of the book.
Some Characteristics Of CPV
- Anachronisms galore!
Consider how they occur in the following subsections.
- Geographic place names
He generally substituted biblical names for names of southern USA locations: Alabama, Mississippi, Atlanta, Washington, Selma, Columbus, Smithville, AL. Jordan said these were chosen at random, without reason. The name had no significance other than stage setting.
- Personnel references (which are not only anachronistic, but for the most part, US-culture specific)
Examples from the book of Happenings-Acts-1:12ff: Rock, Jack, Jim, Andy, Phil, Tom, Bart, Matt, Jim Alston, Simon the Rebel, and Joe Jameson.
Another example, this one from 2 Timothy 4.19: "Say hello to Prissy and Adrian and to the Butterfinger family. Hank stayed on in Atlanta. I left Troy sick in Meridian. Please try to get here before winter. Rube and Dan and Len and Claud and all the brothers send their regards."
- Lexically, very expressive:
1 Atlanta (1 Cor) 15:33: "Don't make an ass of yourself. Such shoddy thinking destroys decent conduct."
1 Atlanta 1:18ff.: "To the so-called practical people, the idea of the noose is a lot of silly talk, but to those of us who have been let in on its meaning, it is the source of divine power. It's just like the Scripture says: I will tear to bits the dissertations of the Ph.D.s. I will pull the rug from under those who have all the answers. Then what becomes of the 'bright' boy? What does this do to the 'egghead'? Where does the worldly-wise professor wind up? Hasn't God made human reasoning appear utterly ridiculous?"
He used lynched for crucified, as at 1 Atlanta 1:17: "We go right on proclaiming a lynched [italics by Jordan] Christ." In a footnote he explains: "It may be that 'lynched' is not a good translation of the Greek word which means 'crucified.' Christ was legally tried, if we may call it that, and officially condemned to death. So, technically speaking, it was not a lynching. But anyone who has watched the operation of Southern justice at times knows that more men have been lynched by 'legal' action than by night-riding mobs. Pilate publicly admitted that his prisoner was being lynched when he called for a basin and washed his hands of official responsibility. If modern judges were as honest, then 'lynching' would be an appropriate translation of 'crucifixion.' "
1 Atlanta 15:26f.: "It appears as though God deliberately selected the world's 'morons' to show up the wise guys, and the world's weaklings to show up the high and mighty, and the world's lowly and rejected —the nobodies—to put the heat on the somebodies. So then no human being should puff himself up in the presence of God."
Washington (Rom) 9:29: "And Isaiah cries out regarding White American Protestants..." Footnote: "The word here, as well as in verse 3, is actually 'Israel,' which refers to Judaism both racially and religiously. Even though the WAPs [i.e., White American Protestants] outnumber the sands of the seas, it's those that are left that shall be saved."
Washington 11:1: "I ask, therefore, 'Has God walked out on his people?' Absolutely not. For I myself am also a WAP—a pure Anglo-Saxon and a Baptist. God has not walked out on his people whom he knew from way back. Don't you remember the story of Elijah, how he made a case against the WAPs before God?"
Washington 9:3: "For I would be willing to sacrifice even my own life in Christ for the sake of my native white American Protestant brethren." Footnote: "There is no intent whatsoever on the part of the translator to single out Protestants above any other Christian group. Since Paul was an ex-Pharisee, and the Pharisees were the predominant sect of Judaism, we have brought him over into the modern times of 'cotton patch' perspective as a white, American ex-Protestant, since this group predominates in the United States, particularly in the Southern region."
Jordan adds further justification to his lexical gymnastics in the introduction to the Epistles (1968:9): "There is no adequate equivalent of 'Jew and Gentile.' My translation as 'white man and Negro' is clear evidence of superimposing my own personal feelings, which is the unpardonable sin of a self-respecting translator. But in the Southern (USA) context, is there any other alternative? The same goes for 'eating meat offered to idols,' which I translate as 'working on Sunday.' As strained as this may be, it was just the best I could do."
- Grammatical angles
He used "hell no" to express the Greek phrase me genoito:
Washington 3:3, 4.: "All right, so some of them are hypocrites; does their hypocrisy nullify God's sincerity? Hell no." (Footnote: "Just about the proper strength for the Greek phrase.") This is also used in 6:2.
He was also liberal with the use of italics in numerous references to indicate emphasis. I cite just one example here from Washington 12:19:
- Revenge is my job," says the Lord, "I will tend to it.
--a translation of (sorts of) onomatopoeia:
Jesus' Doings (Luke) 6:20ff.: "It will be hell for you rich people, because you've had your fling." (Footnote on the use of "hell": The Greek word, generally translated as "woe," is the sound of an agonizing groan, "o-o-oh," as from someone in great anguish or torment, as "in hell.")
-- not shy about pointing out grammatical irregularities:
- In 1 Atlanta 9:15 Jordan did not venture far to justify what he felt was a broken or incomplete sentence in Greek. He simply translated it as "For I'd much rather die than—no one is going to rob me of that of which I'm so proud." He then pointed out in the accompanying footnote to the verse: "Paul does not complete this sentence." Compare Jordan's rendering with the NIV: "I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast."
Is It Of Any Use? Of What Use Is A Rendering Such As CPV?
Is it useful for study? Note Jordan's own comments: "Obviously the 'cotton patch' version must not be used as a historical text. The RSV and NEB are excellent for this purpose." It would rank low on the end of usefulness for study (i.e., study that is beneficial for biblical literacy), since the translated text departs so far from the source.
What about for preaching/evangelism/discipleship? In approaching this, one would have to determine if it does in fact help one to garner the main idea of a passage. It is interesting to note that Jordan saw this area of usefulness as the basic motivation for his product.
Is it useful for a general introduction to the biblical message? Broadly speaking, it could be considered a bridging strategy (Hill, 2003) for building Scriptural acquaintance within a particular group. As such, it does serve some usefulness in this area. The use as a bridging strategy will be discussed further below.
It is fair to say that the CPV demonstrates a widely published and practical application of a relevance-theoretic approach to translation practice. That is, it is an example of a translation (or a form of translation, which I propose here to be an adaptive retelling) for which the translator filled his product with geographical and personal names, colloquial expressions, and common vocabulary to match the cognitive environment or encyclopedic knowledge of his readers, doing so to immediately reduce the mental load required to process "new information." That was his goal. His success is hard to judge because his primary audience—"my companions along the dusty rows of cotton, corn and peanuts"—would need to be surveyed. However, I believe that the CPV can be classified as an application of successful communication from a relevance theory viewpoint. Although there are no doubt many concepts in relevance theory that could be commented on arising from an analysis of the CPV, I highlight in italics only the following two:
1. Jordan intentionally modified NT vocabulary to reduce the processing costs of his intended audience and thus make the text more immediately relevant. Repeating a quotation from above, Jordan wrote: "So in making the translation, I have kept in mind the little people of great faith who want to do better in their discipleship but have been hindered by big words they don't understand or by ancient concepts they don't grasp." He surely felt that he was doing his readers a favor by modifying vocabulary, even without clear translational theoretical grounds or stated boundaries of acceptability.
2. Following on from the first point, I add that Jordan modified NT vocabulary and used certain grammatical devices because he wanted to take advantage of shared encyclopedic knowledge with his hearers. They could relate immediately to his lexical choices and certain grammatical markers that were inherent in their daily speech. One of the points behind his work seems to be: what do my hearers already know that I can build upon? Taking advantage of shared contextual understanding was certainly a great motivator for him and is one indicator that can be used to judge successful and efficient communication.
One way in which the modified vocabulary could work against Jordan's intention, though, was if the reader/hearer were not aware of the information in his book introduction that the geographical place names he chose did not relate to spatial orientation. He said that he chose them at random. For example, he used Birmingham and Atlanta, but he did not intend to indicate that one of those is larger than the other or that Birmingham is actually west of Atlanta. Thus he did not substitute these for biblical place names in light of this kind of orientation. If readers were left wondering about the significance of the place names, they would lose the author's intent to simply substitute a locally familiar name and press on with the main idea of the story. This would tend to work against relevance.
Jordan was broadly encouraged to share his translation more widely, and that display of enthusiasm led to its publication. This is one indication that it was appreciated by many, initially at least, in the circles in which Jordan traveled. I note that it is still for sale and thus has not gone out of publication or circulation. This kind of market appreciation is significant to note, since it speaks rather clearly that there is an ongoing interest in Jordan's work. We presume that this interest is much more than just a fascination with such a different approach and that readers are actually being helped by it.
Ralph Hill's Proposal: Alternative Language Program Products Used in a Bridging Strategy
I now turn to classifying the CPV and other similar renderings as adaptive retellings rather than as "translations," aligning them with the category proposed by Ralph Hill (2003). After considering Hill's comments, three questions are raised:
a) Are these renderings similar to what Hill intended, or are they too extreme?
b) If they are acceptable as retellings and, as such, legitimate for a bridging strategy for a certain classification of reader or biblical literate, how do the uses compare with those mentioned as possibilities under CPV?
c) If they are too extreme, are there any guidelines we could suggest for bringing them within an acceptable boundary or parameter of "adaptive retelling"? I here summarize Hill's discussion with these key points:
1. New readers/listeners need increased biblical context, or biblical literacy.
2. Scriptural materials, which are not necessarily "accurate translations," can be useful for outreach to unbelievers and for introducing new believers to the gospel message.
br>3. The products can vary in their content (strategic portions, stories selections, etc.) and in their deliverable form (print [within a range of various forms], video, radio, audio).
4. Variant forms (i.e., variant from "traditional" or "acceptable" translation deliverable forms) need to be noted as such so that there is no misunderstanding as to purpose.
Hill mentions ways in which context is built into the hearts and minds for the new readers, and asks how much liberty can we take with the text. In discussing this, he suggests a bridging strategy:
"While speaking of context-building strategies to aid in understanding the translated Scriptures, we are also looking into other approaches that we are calling bridging strategies. Bridging strategies involve vernacular-based products and programs designed either to prepare a people group for understanding the Scriptures in the vernacular, or to prepare them to access the Scriptures in the language in wider use by the church in the area."
"We are now asking whether leaders would be more supportive of materials in the mother-tongue if they were designed for evangelism, discipleship, and education of new believers or children; that is, activities where the heart-language communicates most effectively."
Interested readers may well wish to investigate Hill's proposals further, but at this point I will content myself with pointing out a key difference between his original thinking and proposal related to this subject and that which I mention in this paper regarding adaptation and retelling. Namely, Hill suggests that relevant information be freely added as necessary to the biblical narrative. This is information that the first readers certainly knew but about which the modern reader is clueless. The adaptation would in turn be more recognizable as related to the source text than the extreme example of the CPV, but would cross the line of faithfulness since so much information is in fact added. However, this bridging strategy and cognition-building attempt would be more grounded in the biblical worldview and language as a means of context-supply than that of the CPV, which is more emphatically (and unapologetically) geared to the relevance of the modern hearer in his or her own time, space, and lexicon.
Here are a few closing comments and questions that might prove useful for further thinking on this topic.
1. When understood by practitioners and theorists, adaptive retelling is a useful label for identifying "translations" that "go too far." By not labeling Cotton Patch as a translation, but as an adaptation or a retelling, we remove difficulties of acceptance and use inherent in such a publication. We are able to say, "it's not a translation, and should not be judged on the same criteria as those that are recognized as such."
2. As reports have shown regarding the effectiveness and receptivity of publications similar to the CPV, an adaptation or retelling serves a useful place in introducing readers and hearers to the "broad strokes message" of the good news. It is a bridge to further reading, learning, and growth. While probably not particularly useful for study and discipleship (though this was Jordan's hope), these adaptations can set the stage for in-depth and "proper" study of a "proper" translation.
3. Thus, these bridge-like adaptations, which can take various shapes, should not be dismissed as useless or meaningless, but acknowledged as important for an introduction to the gospel. However, the reader/listener should be made aware through an explicitly published statement that this is not an "accurate translation" (the definition of which is, admittedly, still a topic for discussion), but is a rendering done with certain liberties to accomplish a certain purpose. Perhaps it is better classified as a particular "art form" of translation rather than a more "scientific form."
4. Perhaps it goes without saying, but I will state the obvious: I believe the adaptive retelling approach definitely qualifies as a legitimate, useful, and potentially highly successful entry point for delivering God's Word to a language group.
Hill, Ralph. 2003. "Adapting to a Changing Environment." Paper presented to the 2003 Triennial Translation Workshop of the UBS, Iguassu Falls, Brazil.
Jordan, Clarence. 1968. The Cotton Patch Version of Paul's Epistles. New York: Association Press.
_____. 1969. The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts: Jesus' Doings and Happenings. New York: Association Press.
_____. 1970. The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John. Macon, Ga.: Smyth & Helwys
_____. 1997. The Cotton Patch Version of Hebrews and the General Epistles. Macon, Ga.: Smyth & Helwys
Freddy Boswell, email@example.com, SIL, Dallas, Texas
Citation: Freddy Boswell, " Aw Shucks! Classifying "Cotton Patch Version" and Similar Renderings as ," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=362