This morning I participated in a discussion with other translators on how to turn a persuasive source text into an equally persuasive target document. The text under discussion was an interview given by Jean-Marc Jancovici, a French expert in energy and global warming, published in the September 2022 issue of L'Hémicycle.
A tenuous but potentially promising train of thought came to me a few hours later, triggered by an article (Translating the Bible is a vexed task, as a new book shows) that I had read recently in The Economist. The passage of interest is:
"In the Old Testament, Isaiah said an almah would give birth. Today most scholars agree that it probably just meant “young girl”. The translation of Isaiah’s Hebrew into pre-Christian Greek (in the Jewish text known as the Septuagint) rendered it as parthenos, or “virgin”. For Christians, this bolsters the idea that Jesus’s birth fulfilled a prophecy."
My train of thought will, I'm sure, sound provocative to many, but I see here a compelling example of an extraordinarily persuasive mistranslation that will, I trust, interest my colleagues who asked if I could provide any examples of persuasive writing and translation.
I recall learning from other articles and from a translation conference that included a paper by a member of the team working with Natân André Chouraqui (1917-2007) that one reason the Aramaic almah was rendered in pre-Christian Greek as parthenos (παρθένος), or virgin, was to align the translation with the target readership's strong preconceptions regarding the birth of deities and the like, and in this way make the text more persuasive. See, for instance, Translation for Transformation: André Chouraqui and His Unique Contribution to Interfaith Dialogue and Friendship.
Pause now to think for a moment about the impact of this decision on Christians, world history and goodness knows what else over the past two millennia. If ever there was a persuasive mistranslation, this is it.