A listener wrote us this week to share a passage from Letter 57 of Jerome that captures (with respect to the terrorism of translations) what we said recently about Semitic languages in opposition to Hellenism and what we explain in today’s episode about Semiticized Greek in opposition to imperial Latin:
“Time would fail me were I to unfold the testimonies of all who have translated only according to the sense. It is sufficient for the present to name Hilary the confessor who has turned some homilies on Job and several treatises on the Psalms from Greek into Latin; yet has not bound himself to the drowsiness of the letter or fettered himself by the stale literalism of inadequate culture. Like a conqueror, he has led away captive into his own tongue the meaning of his originals.”
“Like a conqueror, he has led away captive into his own tongue the meaning of his originals.”
The spoken language of a people reflects a practical reality, meaning the way things work in daily life out of what God himself forms in the womb. Spoken language is not manufactured; it is found.
In Semitic languages, this is especially powerful because of the phenomenon of the triliteral root. The special value of a sacred written text, specifically the consonantal Hebrew of the Bible and the Arabic Quran, is that the practical reality of its language at the time of its writing is fixed. To the extent that the biblical text itself concocts its scriptural Hebrew as “a cross of the different (extant) Semitic languages,” it is not so much the Hebrew language as it is the Semitic language of God encoded in the Bible. In other words, the Bible, and ultimately, even the New Testament, is written in God’s Semitic debarim. Combined with the living tradition of spoken Arabic, whose functionality is preserved in the fixed text of the Quran, this fact makes the everyday spoken Arabic of simple people of more value in the study of consonantal biblical Hebrew than the most expensive theological degrees from the fanciest schools. If you do not believe me, just listen to a secular teacher of Arabic from the land—as Jerome said, “led away captive,” explain lexicology and grammar as she teaches Arabic. Even if she is not interested in the Bible or the Quran, she cannot help but teach the Bible and the Quran more effectively than modern religious scholars because of what is found in the etymology of the language, which is itself sacred.
“Translation,” Robert Carrol explains, is a “transformation” that “wrenches the text from its home in the ancient cultures and languages, deports that text, and exiles it in foreign languages and cultures.”
Richard and I discuss Luke 4:16-19. (Episode 496)
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