Friday, November 11, 2016

Fact-Checking the Torah -- "how did they translate..."

Because you should be asking a question, one that I’ve heard before.
How do Jews translate that pesky vav?
Wrong question.  Biblical Hebrew was once a living language spoken on the street.  That ended about 500 BCE.
The people who spoke Biblical Hebrew didn’t translate it.  They understood the source of all the later translations, in the context of how they used the same words and grammar, in similar situations, when they spoke to family, friends, business associates, and courts.
They didn’t think of vav as “and”. “And” is an English word and they are not reading English.  English didn’t exist at the time.  English became an official language in England between 1362 when King Edward III decreed that legal proceedings should be written in that language instead of Latin or Anglo-Norman, and about 1413 when the Chancery Standard made it the language of official government.
The Septuagint translators never spoke Biblical Hebrew; the Septuagint dates after 300 BCE.  They probably didn’t know any Semitic language.  By their time, Alexander had made all the parts of his empire a commonalty that spoke koine Greek.  The Septuagint translators knew of “and” (kai) in their language, and since vav sometimes works as a conjunction, they translated it that way everywhere it appeared as a prefix.  This suggests that they didn’t even consult experts in Biblical Hebrew; Deissman makes a similar point, as I already said.   But remember that understanding Biblical Hebrew at the time did not rest on lessons in grammar analysis; the subject didn’t exist.  The oldest surviving (agh, that word again) book on the grammar of Greek itself was written in the 300s CE by a Roman.  And he  was trying to teach people who spoke Greek to read Latin; he only referred to Greek grammar as an analogy.  Nobody analyzed Biblical Hebrew while  it was the street language, and when analysis did take place, it was on the basis of comparison to Latin and using Latin terminology.
Things didn’t improve much for centuries, until the rediscovery  of ancient Semitic languages like Akkadian.  In the 20th century tools developed to provide absolute dates for the cultures that spoke them, and so did objective ways of examining the relationships between the languages.  In the 21st century we are starting to throw off the shackles of outmoded ways of analyzing languages by looking into how they function in relation to how people think, as opposed to slapping familiar labels onto them.
The label you slap on morphology doesn’t define its grammatical function.
The translation you use for a word doesn’t define its meaning.

So if translations are such a problem, what about commentaries?
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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