Untranslatable: ‘Hamartanein’

March 27, 2022, 8:28 p.m.

“Untranslatable” is a series on etymology, linguistics and self-expression around the world.

Everyone is a child of God, according to my parents. It’s one of the first lessons I remember learning from them. The worst people — including your enemies — are all children of God. I am not better than any of them and must make every effort to love them and respect them.

Notwithstanding that it can easily turn prescriptive and narrow, there are validating qualities to one’s devotion to Christianity, including the sense of mindfulness and moral frameworks.

In Christianity, many of the worst mistakes you can make have to do with sin. Interestingly, the word “sin” is related to the word “hamartia” — a “tragic flaw,” as written in the dictionary. It’s derived from the Greek verb “hamartanein,” which literally means “to miss the mark.” It was supposedly first used in Aristotle’s “Poetics,” but to my understanding, it was used as an archery term in practice, and it makes sense why that may be the case.

Let’s consider competitors in field archery as a metaphor. If you look only at the target and pay no attention to the source of the arrows, you can observe which shots land where they’re supposed to, which are a bit off and the ones that had no hope of ever landing in the right spot. However, you could not reliably ascertain the identity of any of the archers without observing multiple rounds, for intuitively, if an arrow veers off to oblivion, it’s not always from the worst archer. We intuitively understand that human error is intrinsic, and, therefore, the best archer will miss the mark. He will miss less often on average, but it will happen. When he does make such a mistake, he acknowledges it is his fault and will return to the range later that day to train more. 

No one ought to expect the best archer to get it right every single time. Sometimes your proverbial hands are clammy; sometimes it’s the golden hour and the sun gets in your eyes; sometimes you weren’t mentally prepared enough and sometimes you don’t even know what happened.

An observer still attributes the error to the archer every time, because no one else can be blamed for it, but we know that the point at which a single — or more than one — arrow lands cannot speak volumes to the character of the archer. To put it analytically, there’s not a large enough sample size. The habit or the trend seems to be where the nib lies, not in the instances.

Apply the notion to football, and parallels arise. It’s another clunky and contrived example, but we’re going with it anyway for curiosity’s sake.

If a place kicker makes one 50-yarder at the beginning of the season, fans aren’t going to say, “Wow, he’s an excellent kicker. I bet he’ll be great all season.” If the kicker proceeds to miss 15 attempts following that game, fans are going to forget about that first time when he made it. My set of life experiences is not comprehensive enough for my collected measurements to constitute statistical significance, but in the interim, I have to believe that for the kicker the inverse is likewise true.

And if the Baltimore Ravens are playing, you already know it’s a darn good bet that Justin Tucker will make the field goal.

Of course, the axiom of “errare humanum est” has been around for millenia, and Alexander Pope propelled it into the English canon in 1711, so what I am saying is not new. But what would be the use of this lesson if it is taught only once?

Ah ne’er so dire a Thirst of Glory boast,
Nor in the Critick let the Man be lost!
Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join;
To err is human, to forgive divine.
— “An Essay on Criticism,” lines 322–325

By accepting failure and imperfection as inevitable steps in the greater process of human growth, the common vernacular of emotions that we share with one another can thrive.

One’s enemy is also an individual with quirks, features, insecurities, hopes and dreams, and even disembodied concepts, figures and equations have stories. The edifice of knowledge itself is built from bricks of humanity. The devices that I use, textbooks that I read and food that I eat on a daily basis are grounded in the contributions of so many people, most of whom I will never know. It is a noble exercise to assert that their lives are as worthy as any.

If you would like to contribute to “Untranslatable,” please pitch or submit work to thegrind ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

Matthew Turk ’24 served as the Chief Technology Officer for Vols. 262 and 263, as well as a Grind Managing Editor, Data Director and Desk Editor in News, among other roles for The Stanford Daily. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a minor in mathematics.

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