2015: Advent Religion: Language!

by on December 17, 2015

Translation has been a bit of an issue over the centuries. There was the whole Pentecost thing, and we’re still not unanimous on what that was about and whether it’s over yet. Then there was a whole bit where there wasn’t a single universal church because everyone was still making it up as they went along, often in entirely different languages, and then another whole bit where there still wasn’t a single church but if you were in Western Europe it kind of looked like there was, and it spoke Latin.

After that it all continued to be complicated, but by degrees we ended up with English translations of the by-then sort-of-consensus Bible, culminating in the King James / Authorised Version, which immediately became the canonical English language version by the simple expedient of being the official text of the state religion.

Then it got complicated again, and the churches I grew up in didn’t use the King James at all. We used modern translations, primarily the New International Version. We didn’t believe in any particular translation being authoritative, but the NIV generally had the last word. There are strands of the church who use the King James exclusively because they regard it as the infallible English version. We did think that the Bible was an infallible, inerrant thing, God-breathed and complete and all of that, but we attached the inerrant perfection to the original documents. What we had were just translations, and there could be such a thing as a translation error, and there was often such a thing as a loss of nuance or a misleading turn of phrase. It was very common to hear sermons based on going back to the Greek (or Aramaic) and preaching about the particular meaning of a particular word.

Translating the Bible into new languages was very highly regarded. When I proved to be adequate at German in school, one of the very first reactions was that I could spend my life learning new languages that hadn’t had Bibles yet and doing the translations. Since only the originals had that holy glow of infallibility, ordinary mortals could do genuinely blessed work translating for new language groups or even new audiences – we were perfectly happy with youth-targeted versions and the Message paraphrase – without undue pressure to be inerrant.

This is part of the same belief in universality as the open Communion table. We weren’t all that hot on practical ways to heal the world, but the idea of not having a Bible you could read was an injustice we felt keenly. You had to be able to read the Bible, or else everything you knew about God was mediated through another person, and there shouldn’t be another person between you and God. Everyone should be able to meet God for themselves. So if they didn’t have Bibles, it was our duty to supply them.

One Response to “Language!”

  • This reminds me of the Islamic… law? tradition? thingy? in which any translation of the Qu’ran must have the original Arabic on the facing page, in order to minimise the impact of word choice of the translator on interpretations.
    I’m entirely unsure how well the churches you describe would take this comparison. In fact, that’s possibly a question. How did they feel about Islam and Judaism?

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