Translator’s fatigue in the Gothic Bible

Recently I ran across an old article1 in the journal Language and had to smile at its similarity to a recent topic in the redaction criticism of the Gospels for which I previously noted a parallel in the translations I am studying in my dissertation.

In the Gothic translation of the Bible, at i Cor. xiii 2, we find swaswe fairgunja miþsatjau translating the Greek ὥστε ὄρη μεθιστάμεν (in the English version ‘so that I could remove mountains’). I wish to call attention to the word miþsatjau of the Gothic. One is struck by the inexactitude of the translation. Μεθ-ιστάμεν means ‘to move from one place to another’, or at least ‘to remove’, ‘to move away’. Μiþ-satjau should mean ‘to place with’ or ‘beside’, almost the reverse of the meaning of the Greek word.

Of course the difference is between two closely related semantic fields. Even in Old English, the word wið, which is the source modern English with, meant more commonly ‘against’ than ‘accompanying’. One at first wonders how “with” and “against” could be so closely related. It’s actually quite simple: it comes down to spatial considerations. Spatially speaking, friends who “see eye to eye” and competitors “standing nose to nose” are virtually indistinguishable. One who leans “against the wall” is very much “with the wall”. Many of us (at least in America) will talk of “fighting with” opponents rather than “fighting against” them. This is no isolated incident: it’s decidedly cross-linguistic because of the way the human brain most typically categorizes relationships in a fundamentally spatial sense. For instance, most prepositions in Indo-European seem to have started out as spatial adverbs, most of which have gotten metaphorically used to the effect that I can in a certain sense be with a friend who actually lives across the country in the sense that we figuratively “see eye to eye”. The Greek preposition/preverb μετα(-) sometimes denotes a transfer or change of location,2 analagous to Latin trans– In the verb μεθιστάμεν3 here, we have at root something like ‘stand away from’ to the effect of ‘move away’, which the Gothic translator appears to have misconstrued to mean ‘stand with‘. But this is odd: while μετα can indeed mean ‘with’, it does so much more rarely in preverbs, and this is the only instance in the Gothic Bible in which miþ ‘with’ is prefixed to a verb in such a mistranslation of Greek μετα. Here is Rice’s assessment:

As an explanation of the passage I offer the following: The translator was the victim of a momentary lapse, and, betrayed by the sound of the Greek prefix in the form μεθα– which stood in the original text, he erroneously supplied miþ– in his translation in place of the more or less accurate af– of Luke 16.4. The respective sounds represented by miþ– and μεθα are closer than might at first seem, for the Greek e was close, the Gothic i was open, and by this time (4th century A.D.) θ was a spirant and equal to þ.

So there you have it: translator’s fatigue. It appears Wulfila should have called it a day before beginning chapter 8! _____________________________________

1 Rice, Allan Lake. 1933. A Note on the Gothic Bible, i Cor. xiii 2. Language, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 87-88.

2 As an illustration of my earlier point about the spatial roots of prepositions, one of μετα‘s most common meanings, ‘after’, resulted when ‘a change of physical space’ got metaphorically applied to time. Thus μετα typically covered both the spatial ‘change to a place hence’ and the temporal ‘change to a time hence’.

3 In this verb, underlying meta-(histami) ‘I stand’ underwent a phonologically conditioned change to meth-(istami) before the aspirated consonant h of histami.

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  • You sent me into my distant past!

    I remember well my personal dissatisfaction with the preposition μετα in first year Greek 40 years ago: it’s various meanings seemed contradictory. We demand of language a precision it simply cannot provide due to its evolutionary process.

    • I know the feeling! My natural curiosity about these things always fed my
      curiosity about etymology and language history and resulted in my current
      field of study.

  • Steve, you are doing a doctoral dissertation?

    • That’s the plan. 😉