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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Translation and Narrative: Transfiguring Jesus

Scott S. Elliott

A text is a machine conceived for eliciting interpretations …

Interpreting means making a bet on the sense of a text, among other things.

Umberto Eco, Experiences in Translation

The only difference between the original and the translation is that the translator’s referent is visible, a text against which the translation can be compared, and the author’s original is invisible or at least unarticulated, the text of so-called reality or some elusive, mediated, perhaps banal, conception of that reality.

Edwin Gentzler, Translation and Identity in the Americas

Almost any textual feature can be renegotiated at the local or global level to reconfigure the relationship between participants within and around the source narrative.

Mona Baker, Translation and Conflict


Since its emergence following World War II, the field of translation studies, like so many other academic disciplines, has undergone significant expansion, increased diversification, and critical shifts in focus.[1] Its scope has broadened to incorporate theories and methods from a range of fields and disciplines related to and influenced by the work of translation. No longer concerned primarily or solely with equivalence or fidelity, modern Translation Studies now attends to frames of reference, ethics, ideology, identity, and so forth. The result of this diversification and reformulation is a field rife with potential and bursting with energy, but also one difficult to pinpoint. As one writer puts it, “Translation Studies is not a single field but a composite, interdisciplinary network (some say tangle) of data, methods, theories, and hypotheses from fields as diverse as cultural studies, modern language studies, post-colonial studies, gender studies, cognitive linguistics, anthropology, sociology, brain research, semiotics, and media and communications studies.”[2] In a word, the role of translation in the processes of human cognition, identity formation, and cultural mediation is rapidly taking center stage.

Narratology—once the structuralist-inspired theory of narrative discourse attending to matters of nature, form, and function regardless of medium[3]—has experienced similar shifts over the same period. What began as a “scientific” enterprise fueled by the “rage for order” that marked the period of its rise, classical narratology has given way to postclassical narratologies that focus on a variety of areas in which narrative plays a fundamental role (e.g., in constructions of gender, identity, culture, and history),[4] not merely as a genre or an instrument of representation, but as a discourse that produces and fashions what it purports to render. In the words of one author, speaking specifically of postmodern narrative theory, narratology has moved “from discovery to invention, from coherence to complexity, and from poetics to politics.”[5] That is to say, narrative theory has become increasingly concerned with narrative as a particular mode of discourse, an unstable rhetoric rife with intertext and never perfectly in control of the story it ostensibly tells.[6] Hence, there has surfaced an invigorating assortment of interdisciplinary combinations, such as feminist narratology, cognitive narratology, and cultural narratology. Many of these reorientations have come as a result of the same things that prompted the aforementioned shifts in Translation Studies, e.g., recognition of narrative’s ubiquity and of the inextricable and symbiotic relationship between readers and text.

The purpose of this article is to explore the intersection of translation and narrative discourse in relation to Bible translation, and particularly with regard to literary characters. Jakobson identified three types of translation: intralingual, interlingual, and intersemiotic. These entail rewording or paraphrasing within the same language, rendering a text from one language to another, and interpreting verbal signs in terms of a nonverbal sign system,[7] respectively. To these, George Aichele adds a fourth type of translation that he labels intermedial, which involves the translation of speech into writing.[8] It is this fourth type that I want to take up here.

Aichele notes that the New Testament gospels are already translated texts in their “original” state. They render in Greek words of Jesus historically spoken in Hebrew or Aramaic; although traces of the Hebrew and Aramaic remain in the Greek text, no original Hebrew or Aramaic script is available. On one hand, this would be an “ordinary” instance of interlingual translation. On the other hand, however, Aichele points out that “a double translation” has occurred. Not only have Hebrew and Aramaic words been translated into Greek, but speech has been translated into writing.[9] I think there is another dimension to this intermedial translation. In the gospels, Jesus himself is translated into a character, a literary figure, as he is discoursed through narrative. In this third translational trajectory, it is not only the utterances that have been transcripted into written dialogue, but the person himself has been transfigured into a character, a “paper person,”[10] a “creature of discourse.”[11] In the process, we are left again with an absent and inaccessible original.

In the New Testament gospels particularly—but equally so in the epistles, as well as in the narratives of historical reconstruction that biblical critics relate, and the narratives of theological reflection and homiletical discourse proclaimed from pulpits generally—the figure of Jesus is variously characterized. Questions concerning the identity of the “real” Jesus and of how, if at all, the narrated Jesus differs from the historical man have consumed biblical critics for decades. Such questions are grounded in the same conceptual understanding as the source and target dichotomy that, until recently, was so central to translation studies and practice. But narration is a translational act, an act of reading fully executed to the point of writing.[12] In the process, any “original” or “source” ostensibly lying behind the narrated or translated text, any person, event, or supposed story that either claims to recount, is in fact lost and reinvented in the very act of re-presenting it. Neither narratives nor translations provide us with unmediated, unproblematic, or transparent access to their source; rather, they are themselves the entirety of what we have available to us. The narrative is not something “in” the written text. What has been translated in the gospels is not a pre-existing, easily locatable, stable, autonomous “story”; rather, as translations and transfigurations, the gospels reflect interpretive experiences that can never be perfectly recreated. Any effort to uncover and extract the thing that is thought to be behind the narrative or the translation will only result in another act of telling/translating.[13]

On the surface, the Gospel of Mark tells a story about a character named Jesus whose narrative life begins[14] at the moment when he sets out teaching publicly and gathering followers and continues until he is put to death and placed in a tomb. Below the surface, it might be argued that it tells other stories as well, whether historical, theological, allegorical, etc. But no matter how similar the story told looks to anything historically verifiable, anything we claim to know is true, anything counting as reality, it is fundamentally and inexorably a narrative. The point seems obvious, but casual and critical readers alike often overlook it. George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, provides a useful illustration. The city of “London” in which the story is set only seems more real than the larger super-state of “Oceania” of which it is a part because there is a homologue of the Nineteen Eighty-Four “London” in our world, but both are equally storied within the narrative discourse. Perhaps someone will grant that this is easy to accept in an obvious case of fiction. But how does one distinguish, within the narrative of Mark, for instance, between “the Mount of Olives opposite the temple” (13:3) and “a deserted place” (1:35; 6:10, 11, 31, 32, 35)? The degree of precision that accompanies one description, while absent in another, no more guarantees its actuality. And if this is true of places, it is equally true of characters because both occupy and operate on the same narrative level. Therefore, when we attempt to distinguish between purely literary characters and historical persons and divine entities, for example, we both run up against the way a story’s discourse (i.e., its narration, its telling) always potentially undermines the story and prevents it from being told, and manifest our role as readers actively engaged in writing.

If the gospels are translations of a now-absent original and if translations are no longer primarily assessed in terms of fidelity, then something is lost or overlooked when we talk about whether or to what extent the gospels reflect, represent, portray, Jesus (or the disciples, the religious leaders, Jews, Romans, even the early church, gospel communities, and so on) in an accurate fashion. Because the figures that populate the gospels—real or otherwise—come to us through narrative, they are forever inseparable from discourse and narration. This is not only because they come to us in specific narrative discourses (e.g., the gospels in the case of Jesus), but because we encounter, understand, and conceive of them narratively. They are not simply creatures of a discourse, but are rather discoursed creatures.


Patrick O’Neill identifies translation as a specific instance in which “the story of the literary text is taken up and reshaped by readers who also function simultaneously and very overtly as writers.”[15] Referring again to Jakobson’s categories, O’Neill states, “in the end translation, whether interlingual, intralingual, or intersemiotic, is in all important ways simply another name for reading—which in very important ways is another name for writing.”[16] The author summarizes in broad strokes three approaches to translation practice. He begins with traditional models that were based on a sort of master-servant relationship between original texts and their translations, or between original authors and their translators, the latter never being on equal footing with the former. The goal was transparency on the part of the translator, which O’Neill suggests reflects a wider understanding of reading in general, wherein language itself was to be as transparent and unobstructing as possible in order to allow free access to an author seeking to express her or his unique work.

More recently, theories of translation have come to share in common the notion that “all translation [is] essentially compound discourse, discourse about other discourse.”[17] The consequence of this metatextual model is the displacement of authority and originality, which now no longer rest solely with a “source text” but are resituated in the interactions of individual texts and readers. “A translator … under the new theoretical dispensation,” writes O’Neill, “is nothing more or less than a fully consistent reader, a reader with the courage of his or her convictions.”[18] Finally, it is also possible to think about translation within a poststructuralist framework. In an intertextual model, the person or object translated, or the referent that a translation purports to represent—be it, for example, the figure of Jesus or the Gospel of Mark, in our case—is “an entire shifting system of potentially endless variable readings, the sum, that is to say, of all the translations and readings of [Jesus or Mark] that have ever existed or will ever exist in any language.”[19] In this model, “the locus of authority is dispersed, disseminated, diffused throughout the entire textual system.”[20]

Just as O’Neill arrives at translation by way of narratology, translation theorists also are incorporating elements of narrative theory into their reflections on translation. I am drawn especially to the recent work of two translation studies scholars, both of whom eagerly explore the implications, consequences, and possibilities of reimagining the role of translators and the act of translation, particularly with regard to identity formation and textual subversion.

Mona Baker recognizes that in every act of translation competing narratives intersect and overlap at various levels. Treating narrative not solely as stories we tell but as “the principle and inescapable mode by which we experience the world,” she observes that narratives are “constructed—not discovered—by us in the process of making sense of reality, and they guide our behavior and our interaction with others.”[21] Elsewhere she notes, “people’s behavior is ultimately guided by the stories they come to believe about the events in which they are embedded.”[22] In the process, each reshapes, relativizes, and conditions the other. The potential for silencing or, alternately, vocalizing another narrative is ever present in each translational act. She, therefore, attempts to analyze the subtle shifts that take place in personal and shared narratives in the process of translation, the inescapably political ramifications of those alterations, and the translator’s role and responsibility in negotiating between fundamentally incompatible narratives. Conflict enters the picture because every narrative attempts to supersede others by implicitly claiming to better describe and interpret that which it claims to represent.[23] The crux of Baker’s argument throughout the book is that “translators … face a basic ethical choice with every assignment: to reproduce existing ideologies as encoded in the narratives elaborated in the text … or to dissociate themselves from those ideologies, if necessary by refusing to translate the text … in a particular context at all.”[24]

Edwin Gentzler also explores translation as a specific form of writing and cultural production. Gentzler surveys a variety of instances, including even “translation phenomena that occur but may not be defined as such,”[25] to demonstrate the fluidity of translation, its perpetual open endedness and incompleteness, and the complex ways in which translation is always already at work in every act of reading and of cultural mediation. Gentzler repeatedly draws attention to instances in which translators act quite openly and creatively as writers to subvert the narratives they translate. According to Gentzler, these translators seek “not a reconstitution of any given original, but rather the construction of a parallel fiction, a play, or performance of that story that compliments, supplements, and creates similar but new openings for interpretation in its re-versioning.”[26] He points to such examples as Jorge Luis Borges, for whom “the only difference between the original and the translation is that the translator’s referent is visible, a text against which the translation can be compared, and the author’s original is invisible or at least unarticulated, the text of so-called reality or some elusive, mediated, perhaps banal, conception of that reality”;[27] and to Suzanne Jill Levine whose “subversions” attempt to convey “‘latent truths’ inherent but not explicit in the original” using a strategy of “faithful unfaithfulness.”

For both Baker and Gentzler the question is one of how translation intersects with identity formation. They are concerned not only with what is translated, but also with what is not translated, and with what is always potentially translated. In other words, they are concerned with remainders and supplements. At the heart of the matter is the inescapable problem of selection, the very same issue that is also a primary mark of narrative discourse.[28] Turning again to the New Testament gospels, here we have a literary character by the name of Jesus. Select traits and characteristics, words and behaviors ascribed to him are incorporated into the narrative to serve the purposes thereof. In other words, the narrative dictates the figure. In the very moment that we as readers begin to rewrite the narrative by, for example, surmising reasons for a certain saying or action, or imagining emotional reactions, or inferring history—in a word, participating by interpreting—we are actively translating the figure into a person, while simultaneously resituating that figure into another narrative, which is itself inextricably connected with our own identities. Literary characters and we ourselves are always subjects in the making.

The translations produced by the translators Baker and Genztler describe reflect unrepentantly appropriated texts that seem to confirm what O’Neill said about translators being fully consistent readers with the courage of their convictions. These are readings that demonstrate their regard for the source text by their willingness not to faithfully preserve it, but to engage fully and refashion it in ways befitting its afterlife in a new context.


What would Bible translations look like that take the gospels themselves as translations and that understand translation to be an opening for subversion, an act of reading put to writing? My response to this question centers on the figure of Jesus as a narrative character. Translated and transfigured into a character occupying a story, the “real” Jesus is lost. We cannot back-translate in order to check the rendition against the original. As translations of Jesus and snapshots of various reading experiences, the gospels invite—even necessitate—additional translations and adaptations that openly and vigorously appropriate the character of Jesus and diverse readings of him, both ancient and modern, in service to innumerable ends, such that the entire intertextual network factors into every figuring of Jesus. What this means, in part, is that we must attend to translation phenomena not always identified as such.

Hence, contemporary Jesus novels represent a potentially fruitful starting point. Nino Ricci’s Testament,[29] Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt[30] and Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana,[31] and even Gerd Theissen’s The Shadow of the Galilean: The Quest of the Historical Jesus in Narrative Form,[32] all reflect, in both essence and function, somewhat ironic and paradoxical, but no less noteworthy, “gospel imitations.” In fact, they could be said to reflect the natural end of both narrative- and historical-critical quests to embody the ideal reader. In these novels, historical fictions (or fictional histories) of Jesus’s life are narrated to readers in order that they might better understand who Jesus really was. I am not necessarily recommending we attempt that sort of contextual presentation. Nevertheless, to evaluate these novels on the basis of whether or to what extent they are faithful to the gospel accounts of Jesus’s life is to miss the point (though their authors might beg to differ). Such an evaluation is both unwarranted and misguided. These novels rewrite, in an ironic and paradoxical fashion, the gospels themselves, and in so doing imitate, mimic, and at times even parody the evangelists themselves (and certainly their canonical authority), while (unwittingly) destabilizing their accounts.

Similarly, the graphic novels of author-artists like Steve Ross, who produced Marked[33] and Blinded: The Story of Paul the Apostle,[34] and J. T. Waldman, who produced Megillat Esther,[35] represent intersemiotic and intermedial translations that take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the genre to mix text and image in ways that are both novel and complex. The fact that few would identify these productions as translations only highlights the extent to which traditional understandings of translation persist.

Transfigured into a narrative character, Jesus is forever changed. Further translations of him and of the stories surrounding him, therefore, will always be simultaneously both similar and different. The referent is not Jesus the person, an historical man, but rather Jesus the figure, a fluid, literary, “creature of discourse.” Although Jesus is irreversibly created in and by narrative, the figure cannot be allowed or forced to remain fixed within any single narrative thereafter.

Scott S. Elliott, Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship


[1] The following was presented to the Ideology, Culture, and Translation group at the Society of Biblical Literature’s 2008 Annual Meeting in Boston. I have revised it slightly in light of the excellent and very thought-provoking comments of George Aichele in his response to the panel.

[2] Robert Hodgson, “Translation Studies: An Introduction,” paper presented at the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship, 2008. Online:; cf. Edwin Gentzler, Translation and Identity in the Americas: New Direction in Translation Theory (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), 1-7.

[3] New Testament narrative criticism, as it is presently conceived, has no clear parallel in “secular” literary theory. Narrative critics draw on certain elements of “secular” narratology to explicate and interpret the Gospels. But they also emphasize the finished form and fundamental unity of the text, and they endeavor to read biblical narratives as the implied reader. In other words, they treat narrative as a rhetorical device wielded by an (implied) author to portray his subject and to convey his message. Correct understanding depends on properly accessing this message, and therefore, despite their critiques of historical-critical methodologies, narrative critics continue to draw heavily on historical information. See Stephen D. Moore, Poststructuralism and the New Testament: Derrida and Foucault at the Foot of the Cross (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 131; see also e.g., David Rhoads, “Narrative Criticism and the Gospel of Mark,” JAAR 50.3 (1982): 411-34; Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, “Narrative Criticism: How Does the Story Mean?” in Mark and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies (ed. Janice Capel Anderson and Stephen D. Moore; 2nd ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008); Mark Allan Powell, What Is Narrative Criticism? (Guides to Biblical Scholarship; ed. Dan O. Via, Jr.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990); James L. Resseguie, Narrative Criticism of the New Testament: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005); id. “The Bible and Culture Collective,” in The Postmodern Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 70-118.

[4] See, e.g., Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (2nd ed.; New York: Routledge, 2002), 134-49; Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (2nd ed.; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 220-24; and Paul Cobley, Narrative (London: Routledge, 2001). “Postclassical narratology” is a term coined by David Herman and subsequently picked up by others. See, e.g., David Herman, ed., Narratologies: New Perspectives of Narrative Analysis (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999), 2-3.

[5] Mark Currie, Postmodern Narrative Theory (Hampshire, England: Palgrave, 1998), 2, 6; cf. Paul Cobley, Narrative (New York: Routledge, 2001), 171-200.

[6] Patrick O’Neill, Fictions of Discourse: Reading Narrative Theory (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994). To be sure, this represents only one version of contemporary narratology, namely, poststructuralist narratology. Several other variants of what has been labeled “postclassical narratology” exist, among them, cognitive narratology, feminist narratology, and cultural narratology.

[7] Intersemiotic translation is not, of necessity, limited to the transition between verbal and nonverbal sign systems. Intersemiotic translation, or what Eco will refer to as “intrasystemic interpretation within other sign systems” (Umberto Eco, Experiences in Translation (trans. Alastair McEwen; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001; repr., 2008], 102-4), is any “transmutation” wherein (ostensibly identical) content is rendered in different signs.

[8] George Aichele, The Control of Biblical Meaning: Canon as Semiotic Mechanism (Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity Press International, 2001), 61-63.

[9] Aichele, Control of Biblical Meaning, 66.

[10] Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, 115.

[11] O’Neill, Fictions of Discourse, 41.

[12] Ibid., 135.

[13] As O’Neill puts it, “The world of story, what really happened, is and must remain not only an abstraction but also essentially inaccessible to entities external to it. We can never penetrate as readers into this world. Any attempt to isolate the story from its discourse simply results in another telling of the story. All we can ever do as readers, other than theoretically, is paraphrase, re-tell, provide another discourse” (ibid., 36).

[14] Markan “beginnings” is a complicated issue. Mark’s Gospel offers no origins for Jesus, and it disguises its own beginning by marking it with an ambiguous and multidirectional a0rxh" that, in part, explicitly ties the figure of Jesus into a particular trajectory of reading.

[15] Ibid., 132.

[16] Ibid., 135.

[17] Ibid., 139.

[18] Ibid., 140.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Mona Baker, Translation and Conflict: A Narrative Account (New York: Routledge, 2006), 169.

[22] Ibid., 3.

[23] Cf. Bruce Lincoln, Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual, and Classification (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[24] Baker, Translation and Conflict, 105.

[25] Gentzler, Translation and Identity in the Americas, 2.

[26] Ibid., 34.

[27] Ibid., 34.

[28] Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978).

[29] Nino Ricci, Testament: A Novel (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002).

[30] Anne Rice, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (New York: Knopf, 2005).

[31] Ibid.

[32] Gerd Theissen, The Shadow of the Galilean: The Quest of the Historical Jesus in Narrative Form (trans. John Bowden; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987; repr. 2007).

[33] Steve Ross, Marked (New York: Seabury, 2005).

[34] Steve Ross, Blinded: The Story of Paul the Apostle (New York: Seabury, 2008).

[35] J. T. Waldman, Megillat Esther (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2006).


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