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Alexander Gross on Hermes the God of Translators and Interpreters(1999).
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Abstract of a NYU paper to be presented in March by the author.

Hermes--God of Translators and Interpreters

Alexander Gross
language@sprynet.com


Abstract

The case for Hermes as the god of translators and interpreters is a clear and compelling one.  While some European translators have campaigned for St. Jerome as the patron saint of translation, there are probably some good reasons, with all due respect to the translator of the Vulgate, for having a god of translation rather than a saint. First of all, in global terms Asians and others outside of Europe are more likely to respond to ancient Greek traditions than to Christian ones (as they do when they attend the Olympic Games), since similar "gods-of-the-road" are revered in Japanese, Chinese, and even Mayan culture. 
 
Furthermore, the circumstances surrounding the "divinity" of Hermes may open the way to some surprising new insights into translation history and broaden the scope of Translation Studies as a whole.  Hermes was par excellence the god of interpreting, of quick-wittedness, of wily improvisation, while translation, like writing itself, was a later development.  Several current schools of Linguistics have their grounding in ancient Greek works on grammar, but as we shall see, the Greeks themselves, following Plato, looked to two authorities where language was concerned: grammarians AND interpreters.  While grammarians have until recently rooted their quest for rules and their sometimes dubious claims of universality in the structure of a single language, interpreters have necessarily always been concerned with at least two or more languages and the frequently jagged interface between them.  And as will be explained, the tale of Hermes can also open up unexpected vistas onto the _prehistory_ of interpreting, an area usually regarded as beyond our study, and perhaps even help to unravel the mystery of the origins of language itself.
 
It should be added that Hermes of course also acted as divine messenger, presided over commerce and travel (both clearly linked to translation), and was the tutelary god of all the arts and crafts, including magic and matrimonial match-making.  We may perhaps forgive him if he was also the god of thieves and deceit, since this function may spring somewhat naturally from some of his other attributes respectively.

 


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