A definition. A primary document is the document being translated from, a source document. For this blog, the primary documents are mostly in Hebrew or Aramaic.
That gets around something somebody threw in my face once. If I point you to Torah in “its original language” that isn’t precise. We don’t know what language some stories were first told in. As I pointed out earlier, some of the motifs go back to 4000 BCE when Akkadian might not have existed, let alone Hebrew. So I have to talk about Torah as “the primary document,” meaning it’s the one all the translations ultimately come from; the written version existed only in Hebrew until about 23 centuries ago.
The other reason it’s important is that documents sometimes go through multiple drafts. We know of multiple drafts of the Declaration of Independence. All of them first appeared in English, and all of them are primary documents for purposes of translation. There’s not a lot of use in translating the drafts, however, unless you are explaining the differences between them to people in a country where English is not the first language or even an official language.
The oldest translation of Torah that has survived is the Septuagint. The definition of the Septuagint is the Greek translation about which there is an urban legend that it was created under Ptolemy II of Egypt, son of the general of Alexander II of Macedon. When Alexander died, his will split up his empire among two generals and his posthumous son; Ptolemy got rich, storied Egypt. Cleopatra was his descendant 7 generations later.
The Septuagint is not just written in Greek. It’s written in a Greek which uses words in different ways from all the Greek classics. The urban legend is that this is a Jewish dialect of Alexandria in Egypt, which had a large and influential Jewish community. One of its best-known members was Philo the Jew, AKA Philo of Alexandria, who went on an embassy to the Roman Emperor Caligula to try and get his help stopping anti-Jewish riots in Alexandria. I’ll get to Philo later.
At the time the Septuagint was written, the Ptolemies had control of Judea. Because it was a rich province and a buffer between Egypt and Syria, the first two Ptolemies apparently felt it was expedient to know something about its culture. So actually Ptolemy I commissioned the Greek Torah translation, and his son had the rest of the Jewish Tannakh translated later.
As a political expedient, the Septuagint might have been a good idea.
As a translation, it was a disaster.
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