Vanitas Vanitatum, Omnia Vanitas

 What’s in a word? Turns out, plenty.

A recent piece I wrote, Why Write? Finding Undiscovered Places, sparked some enthusiastic discussion. In the piece, I quoted a line from Ecclesiastes 1:9.

“What has been is what will be,
and has been done is what will be done;
and there is nothing new under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9 (at least in one translation)

One reader, Dan Walsh, a former high school English teacher with a significant influence over my love of reading and writing, commented that his favorite quote from Ecclesiastes is,

“Vanitas Vanitatum… All is vanity. All is chasing after the wind.”

Ecclesiastes 1:14

My five years of Latin—which today seems to have been taught to me just shortly after the language went out of style—is rusty, but the Latin phrase seemed straightforward, if incomplete. Summoning the Oracle of Google, I searched for the entire phrase.

The full phrase in Latin is “Vanitas Vanitatum, omnia vanitas” which translates to “Vanity of Vanities, all is Vanity.” This gave me pause as I wondered where the “all is chasing the wind” part came from.

Back to Google to search the phrase in Ecclesiastes. This led me to and sparked this piece.

Listed on are thirty English translations of this same verse. Thirty English interpretations of the same line. If there can be so many interpretations of English, how many versions are there from the original?

Ekklisiastés is the original Greek (actually Εκκλησιαστές is the original, original) predecessor of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is the Greek translation of the Hebrew name קֹהֶלֶת–Qohelet. So the path of translation, jagged and fraught with variations and interpretation, of just this one line started with Ancient Hebrew, to Greek, to Aramaic, to Latin, to German, to Old English, to Modern English.

If we do simple math, allowing for fewer numbers of literate people able to do the translating in ancient times, one version in Ancient Hebrew X 5 versions of Greek X 10 versions of Latin X 20 versions of German X 25 Versions of Old English X 30 versions of Modern English means there are possibly 750,000 translations since the original. Mathematical progression is unrelenting.

So those who would argue the Bible is the inerrant word of God might need to revise that view since there are so many versions. If one argues the underlying meaning is unaltered, it still opens much to interpretation.

This reminds me of an old joke. 

A well-respected Cardinal retires. He is invited to an audience with the Pope.

Pope: “So, my son, is there anything I can do to make your retirement more meaningful?”

Cardinal: “There is, your Holiness, I’d like to have access to the Church’s archives so I may spend the rest of my days in deeper understanding of the foundation of the faith.”

Pope: “Then you shall have full access with my blessing.”

Several months later, the Pope wanders into the archive to check on the Cardinal. He finds him in tears, sobbing, an old manuscript beneath his hand.

Pope: “What troubles you, my son?”

The Cardinal looks up from the manuscript, points to a word and says, “The correct translation is Celebrate, not Celibate.”

I’m just saying…


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