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Home > Online Magazine > Online Magazine: Edition 48 - August/September 2012 > Lost in Translation II (by Norman Tew)

Lost in Translation II

by Norman Tew

Lost in Translation II - Stories in which the impact is lost due to translation

Just over a year ago I had an article "Lost in Translation" in which I looked at the names of the sons of Jacob and some others.  The material in this article is not new with me, having been canvassed in an article by the late atheist, Jewish science fiction author Isaac Asimov.

The Sydney Daily Telegraph for 25 July this year had as a front cover title "Good Samaritan Bashing", with a subtitle "Headbutted as she rushed to help mate".  Obviously this heading relates to the story from Luke 10:30-37.  Today the word "Samaritan" usually implies a person doing a good deed even if the word "Good" is not used with it.  But that is far from why Jesus used the word in his story.

You may remember that the context of the story was a request to Jesus "Who is my neighbour?".  The crowd had been reminded of God's command to love your neighbour as yourself, and Jesus was asked to define the word neighbour.  Did it only apply to good Jewish people?  Or to put it in a modern context, are our neighbours only our good Christian friends?

So Jesus told the story of a Jew who was injured by robbers.  Two Jewish leaders ignored him but a Samaritan helped him. 

Who were the Samaritans?  When the Assyrians destroyed the northen Jewish kingdom of Israel they deported most of the inhabitants and replaced them with other conquered peoples from elsewhere.  After some calamities the new peoples requested the king of Assyria for help to learn the rules of the God of the land and he sent some Israeli priests to instruct them (see 2 Kings 17:24-29).  But the Samaritans still maintained a mixed religion and when the Temple was being rebuilt after the end of the Babylonian captivity the Jews refused to let them be involved in the rebuilding of the temple (see Ezra 4:1-3).  They built their own temple and maintained a respect for the five books of Moses but not the rest of the Jewish Bible.  Jesus was asked about their temple worship by the woman of Sychar (see John 4:19-24).

As far as the Jews of the time of Jesus were concerned the Samaritans might as well have been heathen.  They would not associate with them if it could possibly be avoided.

Thus when Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan (Jesus did not connect the words together - we have done that since) he was using the Samaritan as an example of the worst of men (who could still do good).  Samaritan to his listeners meant evil people not good people.  Jesus was actually saying that all men are our neighbours, even the terrible Samaritans.  If they are included then everyone ought to be. 

When Jesus asked the question at the end,  "Which of the three was neighbour to the man?" the questioner refused to take the word Samaritan on his lips and just answered "the one who showed him mercy".

There was another story that Isaac Asimov listed in his article.  It was that of Ruth, the great grandmother of David.  She is listed as Ruth the Moabitess.  The story is one of devotion, and Ruth is rightly revered as a good woman.  But again the fact that she was from Moab was not a good thing.

We need to go back a few hundred years.  The Moabites were descendants of Lot, and when the Israelites came out of Egypt God told them not to attack the Moabites.  But the king of Moab employed Balaam to curse Israel, and though Balaam's attempts to curse the Israelites were foiled Balaam did suggest ways to lead Israel into sin.  God in reply said that Israel should avoid contact with the Moabites, in fact he said that no Moabite could be accepted into the temple (see Deuteronomy 23:3-6).

Again because we are not immersed in the background of the story, the full meaning is "lost in translation".  Maybe it is not so much a failure of the translation but a failure to really look at the context of the stories by understanding how people perceived the stories when they were first told.

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