Translation – Resistance is futile 1

I make no bones about it, I am no linguist. I do not derive great joy (and usually, no joy at all) from hours spent trying to decipher and understand grammar. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when I have developed language skills and believe it is vital to read any text to be studied in its original language. (And I am really not that bad.) But I don’t get the great and deep satisfaction out of the linguistic aspect of the whole enterprise. My interests are exegetical, which require keen knowledge of the language, but not grammatical and linguistic. Thus to translating any text, in my current case, Targum Ruth, is vital to a project of understanding an ancient exegete’s interpretations. So I was late last night pounding my head against TgRuth 3:12 (thank you James Tucker for diving into it with me via twitter!)

This morning I awoke to find my good friend John Hobbins, who is an excellent linguist, writing about Translation. My translation of TgRuth should be done later today. Look for it here!

Turning now to the languages of the Bible: the bulk of the Bible is written in a vernacular: ancient Hebrew. Never mind that standard biblical Hebrew in particular was also, quite probably, a lingua franca relative to spoken dialects of Hebrew, regional or otherwise, in the late First through Second Temple periods, in the land of Israel and (as time went on, very importantly) in the diasporas of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic periods. The point here: at the same time, and of utmost importance relative to the cultural confrontation of which ethnoi then and now are vehicles, standard biblical Hebrew was a vernacular.

Not just the content expressed in “classical” Hebrew, but the written language per se, form part of an anti-colonial project, in opposition to the culture and propaganda of which (the neo-Assyrian version of) “standard Babylonian” was the vehicle – assuming that (some of) the scribes who gave us the Bible were literate in that language and the “course” or curriculum to which it gave expression (the thesis of people like David Wright and Bernard M. Levinson); in opposition to (content expressed in) the more pervasive (and perhaps less insidious, though one should never forget Jeremiah 10:11, to be read in strict conjunction with Ps 82) the more widely used (and still often unknown, or poorly known) lingua franca of the Assyrian empire, Aramaic. These facts form part of the background of a comment like that found in Isaiah 36:11 and the style-switching that Gary Rendsburg has noted.1 On “the invention of Hebrew,” on Hebrew as a vernacular and vehicle for culture expressive of oppositional political theory (a theology), see the volume by Seth Sanders of that title, introduced here.

Still don’t understand why the difference between a lingua franca and a vernacular is a big deal? Try this article on for size, by Tim Parks (HT Charles Halton for the link). The title alone is worth the price of admission: “Your English is Showing.”

via Why biblical literature resists translation – Ancient Hebrew Poetry.


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