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J. Ross Wagner: Reading the Sealed Book


J. Ross Wagner, Reading the Sealed Book: Old Greek Isaiah and the Problem of Septuagint Hermeneutics (Baylor University Press/Mohr-Siebeck, 2014), 308 pages, ISBN 9781602589803.

Reading the Sealed Book aims to bring together the academic fields of Translation Studies and Biblical Studies to help us better understand the choices made by the translator(s) of Isaiah from Hebrew to Greek in the Septuagint Bible. The Septuagint is important for two reasons. Not only is it the earliest written translation of the Old Testament into any other language but, if New Testament quotations of the Old Testament are anything to go by, it was also the Bible of common use in the early days of the church. Understanding the translation choices made by the Septuagint translators therefore offers great potential to bring us closer to the approach to Scripture used by the early Church.

J. Ross Wagner’s argument is that we can apply approaches from Translation Studies to help us interpret these choices, including the translator’s reasons for making them. This would seem a promising approach, especially since most current discussion of Bible translation seems to be still entrenched in debates around types of “equivalence” and the well-worn “free” vs. “literal” debate, which have long been abandoned in Translation Studies. The precise approach adopted by Prof Wagner is Descriptive Translation Studies (DTS), which treats the translation as a text in its own right, only turning to the “assumed source text” (Toury 2012, p.99ff) when and if the particular research questions requires it. This means that it is possible within DTS to study translation choices without any reference to the source texts at all, since this could be done by comparing texts which present themselves as different translations of the same source text.

This is relevant for Wagner’s book not just because he claims to be using DTS in his study but because it suggests a shift in focus from the traditional arguments about accuracy towards understanding how the text was shaped by its community. This is where terms like “acceptability” (Wagner 2013, pp.227–234)[1] come into play, underlining that every translation is created for a person or group of people whose expectations will necessarily be taken into account by the translator. The Septuagint is no exception to this principle.

Wagner’s book follows a very simple structure, introducing the problem and historical background in the first chapter, before providing a clear exposition of the theories involved in the second. The third and fourth chapters are by far the longest and contain a close examination of the Septuagint version of Isaiah 1. Here, readers will find an exhaustive analysis of the translation choices made in this chapter and their possible rationales and effects. Unfortunately, this analysis bears much more resemblance to traditional source/target text comparisons than to what most researchers in Translation Studies would understand as DTS. It is perhaps no accident that it is in those places where the author does lean more towards what would traditionally be thought of as DTS (eg. pp. 216-217, 224-225) that the analysis provides some of the most thought-provoking details on how the translation would have been received by its first readers.

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Category: In Depth, Spring 2014

About the Author: Jonathan Downie is a conference interpreter, preacher and church interpreting researcher living in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is married with two children and is committed to helping churches reach out to their surrounding multilingual communities using interpreting.

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