Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Church Interpreters 1: Antiquity

There have been interpreters in temples and churches since antiquity. The etymology of the synonym dragoman, like that of its cognates in several other languages (French truchement, etc.) goes back to the Hebrew targum and the third century BCE, and even beyond. The Targums were interpretations or sight translations of the scriptures from Biblical Hebrew into vernacular Aramaic, and they were spoken during worship.

"In the course of the 5th and 6th centuries BCE, Aramaic became the official language of the Persian Empire. In the succeeding centuries it was... increasingly spoken by the postexile Jewish communities of Palestine and elsewhere in the Diaspora. In response to liturgical needs, the institution of a turgeman (or meturgeman, ‘translator’) arose in the synagogues. These men translated from the Torah and the prophetic lectionaries into Aramaic. The rendering remained for long solely an oral, impromptu exercise, but gradually, by dint of repetition, certain verbal forms and phrases became fixed and eventually committed to writing.” (Britannia Online, accessed 8-27-1997)

“The translations may have developed first as an effort to explain specific difficult words – a process that would naturally lead to a full translation... The Targums were designed to communicate the message of the text to the people, and the meturgeman sometimes injected stories, Jewish Haggadic teachings, or Halakic stipulations into his interpretation of the Jewish text." (Brad H. Young, ‘Targum’, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4:728).

How did the meturgeman translate?

“As a translator, he was required to follow accepted practices and a number of specific rules (though our knowledge of these principles from late antiquity is far from complete). For example, the meturgeman was not permitted to translate more than one verse at a time from the Pentateuch and not more than three from the Prophets... Rabbi Judah ben Illai, a disciple of the influential Rabbi Akiba said, ‘If one translates a verse literally, he is a liar, but if he adds to it, he is a blasphemer.’

“Hence the task of the meturgeman was by no means a simple one; it certainly involved much more than an explanation of the biblical text in the everyday language of the people, though the targumist no doubt had his intended audience in mind as he carried out his work.”
(Young, ibid. p. 729)

So we know certain things about his way of interpreting. The mode was short consecutive, indeed very short in the case of the Pentateuch so as to ensure accuracy. There were norms. His translation had not to be too literal, presumably so that it would be understandable to listeners. Additions to the source text were strictly forbidden, although he might embroider considerably outside it.

Was the meturgeman a Trained Translator? Perhaps there was some form of training in a rabbinical school or under a mentor. Or he could well have learnt his skill by following the performance of his elders since childhood and from criticisms by the rabbis. Within his field, Biblical texts, he would then have been an advanced Native Translator. (Notice that I say he/his everywhere. It was a strictly male activity.)

From a later period comes the famous example of… (To be continued.)

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