I distinguish between two types of translation: across time and across languages. Geography is another matter altogether.

Any living language is in a degree of flux, gaining new meanings and new uses; over time, words may lose important distinctions (“enormity,” for instance, means “great evil,” rather than “immensity”) or may be appropriated and reshaped for purposes of advertising, trade jargon, or propaganda (“stellar,” legalese, and “gay,” for example). Try reading Shakespeare without footnotes or understanding rapidly changing slang and you’ll see what I mean. Another example: Ancient Greek is unintelligible to the modern Athenian; we know that it was sung, but have no clear idea of what the pitches where or how its meanings were nuanced – and the heroic attempt to revive that practice in classic Greek drama instead wound up creating an art form we know as opera! The Hebrew language itself was lost in the Middle Ages and only later rediscovered.

Across time we also face the danger of projecting conditions from our own era and culture backward into those of the past, a practice that has wreaked its own havoc in our engagement in Bible texts, as feminist scholars have been exposing.

How could this happen? And how might we redress it? There’s too much powerful material here we’d lose at our own peril and impoverishment.


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