Septuagint Day 2021: Armin Schmitt

I am putting my oar in to help celebrate Septuagint Day. Rather than explaining what the Septuagint is and why it is worth celebrating, or looking at why Septuagint Day is February 8th, I am giving you a paragraph from Armin Schmitt.

I have two reasons for this. First, Schmitt was a German scholar and it is appropriate to indulge translation on a day dedicated to the Septuagint. Second, Schmitt puts his finger on a major reason for my own interest in these texts. The Septuagint translators were after something that we are still trying to do: they “sought to make God’s Word understandable and accessible to the people of its time and world.” Here is the concluding paragraph of an article that Schmitt wrote in 1974:

“These results show that even today we have to wrestle with similar problems that the LXX was confronted with. Every translator of the Bible has this experience by being confronted with the following field of tension: on the one hand, he is strictly bound to the original text; on the other hand, he is expected not to close himself off to the present but to speak the language of his time. The work on the Uniform Translation shows this very clearly. A look at the LXX, which sought to make God’s Word understandable and accessible to the people of its time and world, could be a help for today’s church, which has to face the same task.”

Schmitt says it well and on good authority. During the period when this article was published, he was actively working on the new German Catholic Bible translation. (In the quotation I’ve put in “Uniform Translation” for his “Einheitsübersetzung”, which is the technical title for the version, like “NIV”) His appreciation for the Septuagint was based on the current issues he was facing as a modern translator! I would push a bit farther just to make sure we realize that this task is only just begun when the Bible is translated, but I am in hearty agreement with Schmitt. With that in mind…Happy Septuagint Day!

I have provided a few extra bits below in case anyone is further interested…

Bibliography info for the article:

Schmitt, Armin. “Interpretation der Genesis aus hellenischertischem Geist.” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 86 (1974): 137-163.

A brief summary of the article:

As you may have sleuthed out from the title of his article, Schmitt is looking at the Septuagint translation of Genesis as an interpretation in a “hellenic” (Greek cultural/conceptual) spirit. What he means is that even though this translation seems to follow very close to the Hebrew, in many places Greek Genesis also shows a tendency to shift the text from a Near-Eastern/Jewish framework to a Western/Greco-Roman one. Schmitt gives a number of examples of how “Greek sensibilities” are at work and how the translator works to “dress his version in a way that is pleasing and appealing to Greek readers.” He looks at things like grammar, added interpretative phrases, the ways the names of God are translated, and terminology which belongs properly in Hellenistic Egypt rather than Palenstine. I have not taken the time to work through the details of his article, but even though I suspect some of his conclusions could be refined I think he makes an important and at times neglected point: the Septuagint translators worked with skill and sensitivity within the language system of Hellenistic Greek. The result is a text which brought the Hebrew Bible properly to Greek ears on Greek terms.

The original German of the paragraph I quoted above:

(My German is still (slowly) developing so I used the online DeepL translator and then cleaned up a few bits with help from a friend.)

Diese Ergebnisse zeigen, daß auch wir heute noch mit ähnlichen Problemen zu ringen haben, vor die sich die LXX gestellt sah. Jeder Übersetzer der Bibel muß diese Erfahrung machen, indem er mit fol- gendem Spannungsfeld konfrontiert wird: Einerseits ist er dem Urtext streng verpflichtet, andererseits erwartet man von ihm, daß er sich der Gegenwart nicht verschließt und die Sprache seiner Zeit spricht. Die Arbeit an der Einheitsübersetzung zeigt dies mit aller Deutlich- keit. Der Blick auf die LXX, die Gottes Wort den Menschen ihrer Zeit und Welt verständlich zu machen und nahezubringen suchte, könnte eine Hilfe für die heutige Kirche sein, die sich der gleichen Aufgabe stellen muß.

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