Excerpt #8 — Jeffrey Richards on Historical Liturgical Scholarship

An amusing little bit I wanted to leave here — amusing because it is so very accurate: Continue reading

On Flattening Historical Distance


There is a widespread –and likely perennial– habit of flattening historical distance to assimilate everything to one’s own parochial universe.  Children are like this. The Piglet is like this, for he

lived in a very grand house in the middle of a beech-tree, and the beech-tree was in the middle of the forest, and the Piglet lived in the middle of the house. Next to his house was a piece of broken board which had: “TRESPASSERS W” on it. When Christopher Robin asked the Piglet what it meant, he said it was his grandfather’s name, and had been in the family for a long time. Christopher Robin said you couldn’t be called Trespassers W, and Piglet said yes, you could, because his grandfather was, and it was short for Trespassers Will, which was short for Trespassers William. And his grandfather had had two names in case he lost one – Trespassers after an uncle, and William after Trespassers. [A. A. Milne, The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh (New York, NY: Penguin — Dutton Children’s Books, 1996), 32]

(It is not at the center: the Piglet’s house is, in fact, on the southwest edge of the Hundred Acre Wood according to the map drawn by Ernest Shepard, the official illustrator.) Attention to historical detail requires attention to how the object under question is an artifact that, though it can be variously used by us, comes from a world that is, at least in some degree, different from our own.

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An Example of Historical Distance & Difference: Πειρασμός, Historical Drift, and Reappropriating a Mutation as the Original

In an earlier post, we looked at the Greek word “χάρις“, namely, the way that the historical sense of this word is bound up in a very stratified social setting, and how translating it almost always ends up becoming a proxy war for different confessional agendas (I should add that it is difficult it is to think past these agendas, because they are rooted in a history of interpretation generated by reflection on the original word through various cultural contexts and historical epochs).

Perhaps I should also add: ignoring this history-of-interpretation ignores some of the latter fallout of this word, ignores at least part of the history of its effects, and so neglects to treat properly the word itself.

Here we shall look at another Greek word: “πειρασμός”, nearly ubiquitously mistranslated as “temptation”. Continue reading

An Example of Historical Distance & Difference: Χάρις, Linguistic Singularity, and Confessional Projection

Translators are confronted with numerous choices when rendering ancient Greek words into English, and one of these is how to bridge the distance between the world of the text and the world of the reader.  This historical distance can be notoriously difficult to see when one engages with a text that has already been translated, and which arrives in the world of the innocent reader as pre-chewed food. (A recent post on the shift in words we translate as “happy” reminded me of the need to write something on this more specifically.) This highlights a central feature of the secularity of our modern world: historical distance, the autonomy of historical epochs and local worlds, and the seeming worldliness of every bridge or road we might build to traverse them. Continue reading

Excerpt #4 — R. H. Barrow on the Christianization of Happiness

There is much of tectonic significance for ancient cultural shifts that is lost in translation, smoothed out with equivalent terms for the convenience of the contemporary reader, or simply difficult to recover because the associated cluster of ideas –such as the genii— we no longer have as part of our cultural vocabulary, and generally have a hard time taking seriously, let alone understanding. Our modern words lie on this side of these transitions, and so we translate, across time, elements from another world into elements of our own. On some (uncommon) occasions this is done to whitewash; far more often this happens without anyone intending to make it happen at all, because escaping our context and entering the foreign country of another time and place is so much work. Continue reading