The Curse of Assumed Similarity

Near-misses are the bane of the translator’s life and work.

In the same way that a falsehood is more dangerous when it contains a large element of truth, terms or thinking that seem nearly similar between cultures create a very dangerous translation environment.

One handy example of this is the term ‘curse’.

What is a curse? What is cursing? Some people (especially certain pastors) are tempted to consult a dictionary to answer this kind of question. As a sometime lexicographer I have a healthy skepticism about the good that can do for this situation, but in order to satisfy those who run to dictionaries as authorities, here’s my OED definition:

Curse, n

a solemn utterance intended to invoke a supernatural power to inflict harm or punishment on someone or something: she’d put a curse on him.• usu. in sing. ] a cause of harm or misery: impatience is the curse of our day and age.• (the curseinformal menstruation.

an offensive word or phrase used to express anger or annoyance: his mouth was spitting vile oaths and curses.

There’s a certain necessary vagueness about this description and it doesn’t really capture all uses of the term. This is probably because the same word gets used in several different ways depending on the underlying culture and view of the world that the people using the term hold. As I (a European) write this, I have to make things clear by explaining what ‘curse’ seems to mean in the 3 contexts I inhabit: 21st Century British culture, 21st Century Nigerian cultures and Biblical (Ancient Near East) cultures.

Let’s start with what is simple for me, my own culture. In most talk, ‘curse’ is used figuratively as just an intense form of talking about something bad or some downside to something. As P G Wodehouse put it in the mouth of Psmith: “animal spirits, the craze for notoriety, the curse of the modern age.” The other main usage is just curse as a term of abuse: expletives, rude or vulgar language. I don’t think most British people really think about invoking supernatural powers in relation to cursing. Some cranks may get a little obsessed with witchcraft and paganism and start to investigate that sort of thing, but that’s a minority interest.

What is a curse then? Some vague and somewhat impersonal bad thing that might be attached to someone or some situation.

In a Nigerian context, people are very often concerned about curses. In sermons and talk about Christian things you will often hear a lot about curses. What do people generally mean by this? Curses go along with witchcraft. You employ a witch to curse someone and something bad will happen to them. If someone dies unexpectedly then there’s a suspicion that a curse must have been involved. If someone is sick then perhaps someone has cursed them. And so we have a lot of prayer (purporting to be Christian) focussed on releasing people from curses put on them by unknown malevolent persons. (My friend Dr Rick Creighton is writing a helpful paper touching on some of these areas and particularly examining the issue of how we know what we know, which underlies our thinking about issues such as witchcraft and cursing. Hopefully he’ll publish it online somewhere.)

What is a curse then? It’s some kind of personal spiritual attack which has physical effect, placed on people by their enemies, often with the help of a supernaturally-powerful person (a witch).

Very recently a significant tome was written describing the role of curses in the Ancient Near East. A review gives us a snippet from the introduction, explaining how curses (and blessings) featured as part of those societies:

For the ancient Near Easterners, curses had authentic meaning. Curses were part of their life and religion. In and of themselves, they were not magic or features of superstitions, nor were they mere curiosities or trifling antidotes. They were real and effective. They were employed to manage life’s many vicissitudes and maintain social harmony. (page 3)

What’s a curse then? Blessing and cursing (אָרוּר) go together in the Old Testament Law. It seems that despite what we might expect, they are neither primarily associated with trying to attack someone through witchcraft nor are they just impotent insults or vague disadvantages. Instead curses in the Bible at least describe God’s displeasure and opposition to something.

Genesis 3:14   The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 17   And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;

And in the New Testament κατάθεμα and ἀνάθεμα are used in a very similar way. Cursing is something that ultimately God does; humans can invoke it, but God is in charge of cursing and there being any effect. (Confession: I really need to read the book to go deeper.  If I get hold of it then I’ll update this post.)

So let’s stop and take a look at my 3 contexts and what is similar and dissimilar regarding cursing:

  • British culture: impersonal, a bad effect or negative tendency, or an insult.
  • Nigerian culture: personal, an application of magic to cause someone harm.
  • ANE/Bible culture: God’s displeasure and opposition to someone/something. (With bad consequences.)

The point is that Nigerian contemporary culture and any link between cursing and witchcraft can lead people to seriously misunderstand everything about cursing in the Bible. We see the word ‘curse’ in the Bible and we think we know what it means. Unfortunately that leads us completely astray. For sure there are similarities: a curse is something bad. But that is about as far as the similarity goes.

I haven’t yet found a clear context in the Bible where a ‘curse’ is put on someone by a witch and has to be removed by God or someone else. Evil spirits possess people, for sure, but not curses. In Bible cultures a person can’t really curse another person except to invoke some curse that God has already established.

An assumed similarity like this is very dangerous indeed because we carry over all sorts of incorrect ideas and think that the Bible just supports our worldview. The British Christian needs to take curses in the Bible a bit more seriously as a mark of God’s firm opposition – nothing good can come from that. The Nigerian Christian needs to fix his eyes more on God and what he approves of and intends for us than getting too distracted by the power of witches and witchcraft and unseen enemies. Probably some translations need a little rework too.

Bearing in mind this blog is called ‘Incomplete, but still worth sayi…‘ I’ll stop talking about ‘curse’ there. This isn’t complete at all, but hopefully is helpful to suggest some rethinking.

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