Lost and found in translation: an energising encounter with Dr Joel Hoffman

Review by The Venerable Dr Colleen O'Reilly AM

Lost and found in translation: an energising encounter with Dr Joel Hoffman

As Jewish readers will know, Limmud is an organisation that fosters learning, as the Hebrew word says. Those from CCJ who gathered on 19 June to hear Dr Joel Hoffman speak in Melbourne, fresh from his teaching at Limmud Sydney certainly learnt from a stimulating and informative presentation. Dr Hoffman began by drawing parallels between the development of Rabbinic Judaism following the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the emergence at that time of what later became early Christianity.

He explored scriptural texts which have been adapted by both Jewish and Christian communities to meet the purposes of new contexts. He also explained how such changes in texts can occur when translating from one language to another. Since all translations from one language to another no matter how closely aligned linguistically, are also interpretations, textual changes can become embedded in new translations and contribute to new understandings, or possibly misunderstandings. The same kind of process occurs in the creation of words for liturgical use.

Dr Hoffman challenged his hearers to consider the different types of verifications we use to believe something to be true or good. Good science for instance is objective and verifiable. Good art is subjective and apprehended when an artist is consistent in what they produce over time. Good religion however is ‘authentic’. It must resonate with believers in the context. This is why the actual words of a text are what people recognise as ‘theirs’. 

The same words can have different meanings in different contexts. Dr Hoffman gave the familiar example of the word ‘young woman’ in Isaiah 7.14: ‘The Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.’

A young woman can also be described as a virgin, in the same way that teenagers can be called high school students. Similar meanings are conveyed through the one word. This Hebrew text was translated into what is called the Greek Septuagint translation, and ‘young woman’ from the Hebrew ‘almah’ became ‘virgin’ or ‘parthenos’ in Greek which became a way of speaking about the birth of Jesus to a young Jewish woman named Miriam of Nazareth who became the Virgin Mary of Christian piety.

Dr Joel Hoffman provided a very stimulating afternoon for those fortunate enough to attend. This was yet another experience of the dialogue across texts, contexts, scholarship and faith which CCJ Vic makes not only possible but so energising and productive of deeper mutual understanding. 

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