There’s a remarkable pairing on the obituary page of this mornings' New York Times. On the right, spread over four columns, we have Bruce M. Metzger, a translator of the Bible, and an authority on the New Testament in its original Greek. On the left over two columns, perhaps more of a niche player but no less worthy, Mordkhe Schaechter, as the Times calls him, “a leading Yiddish linguist.”
In another time, there used to be an academic discipline called “philology”—okay, there still is, but not what it used to be. Anyway, “philology,” in the classic sense of the “love of language”—its grammar, its syntax, its evolution, but inseparable from its literature. Language matters, “it makes us different from the beasts,” it is culture, it is what we are.
Both Metzger and Schaechter qualify as philologists in the grand sense, but with provocative differences. Schaechter’s life was an essay in preservation, or retrieval: he consecrated himself to the task of sustaining Yiddish as itself a sustaining force. Metzger’s career presents a different aspect. No doubt about his achievement in language, nor his ability: “besides Greek, Latin and Hebrew,” the Times recounts, he “knew Coptic, Syriac, Russian, German, Spanish, French and Dutch, among others.” A formidable portion of his formidable achievement was dedicated to Getting it Right—to assessing and evaluating the famously refractory corpus of Biblical manuscripts.
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.
--W. H. Auden, In Memory of W. B. Yeats d. Jan. 1939
Fn.: The Times obit of Metzger includes a couple of amusing examples of translational lacunae in the New Testmant. I admit I like these Biblical word games. Abraham needed a computer and Isaac asked him where he would get the hardware. “God,” said Abraham, “will provide the RAM.” Does the Bible mention fleas? Yes, God told Joseph to take his wife and Son and flea into