On Ancient Translations – “Consistently Diverse”

Theodorus Anthonie Willem van der Louw wrote in his 2006 Leiden dissertation, Transformations in the Septuagint: towards an interaction of Septuagint studies and translation studies,

Our survey of thoughts on language and translation in Antiquity presents a consistently diverse picture. The debate between the universalist and relativist views on language (with their implications for translation) went through all linguistic and religious communities we have discussed, not only the Greek, but also – which is little known – the Jewish. From Jewish translations and relevant reflections it emerges that Jewish views of language and translation were much more diverse than is often assumed. They ranged from the particularist notion of the holy tongue to the opposite, universalist language view. Within the latter framework the translation strategy was related to the intended function.
Throughout the Hellenistic period language was professionally studied in different contexts, originating in literary / textual criticism and rhetoric. Etymological, morphological and grammatical issues were studied. Word classes, for example, were known and it is no coincidence that adherence to word classes is an important feature of the bilingual Vergil texts. The professional study of language for the purpose of rhetoric was highly developed. Sophists and orators showed high awareness of the decisive roles of target audience, text type, pragmatic function, style, metaphors etc. The art of rhetorica was applied to translation by the Romans. Most problems arising from today’s practice of translation were already discussed as such by Roman translators. Roman translations range from very literal to very free, depending on the intended function of the texts. Translators, Cicero in particular, used three (not two) translation strategies, depending on the three classical text types and their intended function (historia, poetica, rhetorica).
The practice of translation yielded many insights. People involved in language differences discovered, for example, that lemmas in two languages never overlap (Cicero, Ben Sira’s grandson). In Antiquity there were no advocates of either ‘literal’ or ‘free’ translation. Cicero and the translators of Ben Sira’s Wisdom and the Life of Imuthes were conscious of the determining role of the intended function of the translated text, to which the method of translation was made subordinate. This explains the difference between various styles, ranging from the very free targums to the very literal bilingual Vergil texts, which could exist side by side. Bilingual texts open up a fruitful area in this respect. [47-48]

While students of the Hebrew Bible can’t really avoid it, the Septuagint is not one of my normal abnormal interests but questions of translation, even ancient translation, hang heavily around many areas of my interests. Think of the various Ugaritic texts, largely letters but perhaps treaty obligations and lists of gods also, that scholars identify as translations from Akkadian. Or, if you want to be biblical about it, think of the relationship between The Instructions of Amenhotep and Proverbs 22:17-23:11. The issue the relationship between The Instructions of Amenhotep and Proverbs is far more complex than simply one of translation but translation is surely part of it. Was the style of early Near Eastern translations influenced by functional considerations like historia, poetica, rhetorica and perhaps others? Even if authors and readers in the ancient Near East didn’t articulate such functional distinctions, that doesn’t mean that they weren’t influenced by them.