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Translating the Sacred Texts

Dr. Roger L. Hahn
Professor of New Testament
Dean of the Faculty

I’ve been thinking about the way(s) the three great “religions of the book” approach the translation of their sacred writings.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are alike in that they believe God revealed the most precious truths of their faith to their founders.  Further, these three religions believe that these truths have been preserved in a book: the Tanakh for Judaism, the Bible for Christianity, and the Koran for Islam.  But these faiths have very different ideas about the translation of their sacred writings. 

Muslims do not believe the Koran can be translated.  To be sure translations of the Koran exist but they are not sanctioned by either the theological or institutional leaders of Islam.  They believe that the Koran must be read in Arabic because to translate is to lose some of the meaning.  They agree with the Italian play on words, “traduttore traditore,” (a translator is a traitor).  For truths as precious and central to their faith as they regard the Koran to be, one cannot risk the changes in meaning that may come through translation.

Judaism began the written translation of their Scriptures in the third century before Christ, even before their canon of the Tanakh had closed.  The first written translation was from Hebrew to Greek to meet the needs of a large number of Jews who had moved into Greek speaking parts of the world and no longer understood Hebrew.  That has been the motivation for the translation of the Tanakh.  When a large population of Jews no longer speaks Hebrew, their Scriptures will be translated into the language they speak and understand.

But the Scriptures and the prayers derived from Scripture that appear in Jewish prayer books have both the Hebrew text and the translation side by side.  The original language is still honored and read, but access to the meaning is possible through the translation.  Judaism visibly reminds its adherents that the meaning of the Tanakh cannot be allowed to stray very far from that which the Hebrew text communicates.  Translation is not only possible, it is desirable for Jews.  But there is always a boundary to the possibilities of new meaning, a boundary created and maintained by the Hebrew original.

In contrast to both Islam and Judaism, Christianity has translated all or parts of our Bible almost from the beginning.  Parts of the New Testament (its canon was not yet closed either) were translated into Latin and Syriac in the second century and into Sahadic (a form of Coptic) by the beginning of the third century.  The motivation for Christian translation of the Bible was missional.  As the gospel spread in ever increasing ways around the world, translation of the Bible was close behind.  Christians were confident that reading the Scriptures in one’s own language had evangelistic potential in its own right.

That missionary impulse to translate the Bible has continued for Christianity.  Today Christian organizations exist for the sole purpose of translating the Bible into languages which have never had the Scriptures before.  The largest of these organizations, the Wycliffe Bible Translators, now report that some portion of the Bible has been translated into more than 2,500 of the almost 7,000 languages in use on the planet.  Many of the languages that are now having the Bible translated have only existed in oral form in the past.  The translators begin by creating an alphabet, a dictionary, a basic grammar, and a basic reading text before publishing the written portion of the Scriptures in that new language.  Once the Bible is translated into a new language, Christians immediately go to work trying to improve the translation.  To date more than 450 versions of the Bible have been created in English alone.

Such energetic efforts at and the embracing of translation of the Christian Scriptures are not without dangers.  Unlike Islam and Judaism, Christians have given very little effort to preserve the knowledge of the original languages of their Scripture for believers.  The oft-repeated story of the person who greeted the new translation of the Bible into English in the late 19th century by saying, “If the King James Version was good enough for Paul and Silas, it is good enough for me,” illustrates the problem.  The majority of Christian believers have no idea that their Bible was not originally written in their native language.  Even otherwise well-educated Christians do not know that the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew with a few chapters written in Aramaic, nor that the New Testament was first written in the common dialect of Greek that emerged around the “Mediterranean pond” following the conquests of Alexander the Great.

Because translation is interpretation and because Christianity translates its Scriptures constantly, the Christian faith needs scholars to translate and to review our translations of the Bible.  Translation must not be allowed to betray the faith nor the original text that form our Scriptures.  One of the valuable functions of seminaries and universities is to train scholars for that important work.  I would never want to exchange the Christian enthusiasm for translation for the avoidance of translation by Islam.  The mission of God is too urgent not to translate the Bible again and again.  But I am grateful for the faithful work of Hebrew and Greek scholars who ensure that our translations are also faithful.

Reader Comments (1)

Thank you, Dr. Hahn. It is hard for fallible humans to treasure the past and embrace the changes of the present. You provide valuable insight for doing it well with the Bible. I thank God for you.

09.21.2013 | Unregistered CommenterLes Turner

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