11 August 2010

Being literal

Maybe one of the reasons I won't take up translation studies formally is because, sooner or later, the Bible has to come into it. In Britain, and in protestant countries, I think the question of translation was crucial in the development of the church. It was as much a mark of divergence and identity as the quebecois translations Annie Brisset talks about claim to be.

Jerome and Nidal have already raised the question, but what underlies it is the whole question of the possibility of translation. Muslims, as I understand it, learn Arabic so that they can read the original Q'uran. But the original - like all Arabic - is written without vowel symbols, which have to be inferred, which must mean that in some cases there are genuine, plausible alternatives in literal meaning, which, I assume, the authority of scholars is required to elucidate. (I apologise if I have misunderstood this, and would be grateful for correction.)

I'll return to the Christian Bible, with which I'm slightly more familiar. I've been listening, for amusement rather than education, to broadcasts on Premier Christian Radio of mainly American evangelists. This started with a months-long series by Dr David Jeremiah, explaining the Book of Revelation chapter by chapter. He takes what would usually be called a literal view of the text. He sees it as prophecy of actual physical events to come (pretty soon). This is in contrast to more mainstream Christians, who, if they respect Revelation at all, see it as a moral allegory, or as an encoded polemic against the Roman empire.

I want to come back to that, because I think it can be used to argue that there is no such thing as a literal reading. Actually I'm not sure that's really a novel or difficult-to-argue view. It's basically a restatement of the view that texts don't have an independent life; they can never be read naively.

I'm taking an easier target today, a preacher I heard last night, who was arguing that one's attitude to God is more important than one's actions. It's not the praying and the tithing that matter, it's the spirit in which you do it. Unless you do it out of pure disinterested love for God, it doesn't really count. There are numerous attack points in the argument, of course, but what interested me was his style of quoting biblical authority.

He used a range of quotations from both testaments, unlinked by any narrative within the Bible, linked only, in fact, by his argument. As far as I know, each individual quotation was accurate, but as we well know, putting items into an ordered collection gives them a meaning that may be greater than, and maybe different from the sum of their parts. Choosing and ordering these verses is an act of interpretation. It may give a good result, but it's not the direct transmission of divinely inspired writing, which is what I believe fundamentalist preachers aim at.

Another thing I heard, and I'm not sure who said it, is that divine revelation stopped with the New Testament. I think for Protestants this means that the writings of the Church Fathers, for example, are purely human. But, curiously, all these guys seem to prefer the Authorised Version of the Bible. I don't really know why, but if they think it's because those translators had divine inspiration, their position is inconsistent. But my exposure to this kind of Christianity is having one major effect on me, in making me think the whole basis of the religion is inconsistent. But that's nothing to do with this blog.

1 comment:

Andrew H said...

Mostly differences in (English) translations of the Bible don't matter a great deal; it is the sense that come across which is important. But when a preacher picks on a word or two in quote, and puts the whole meaning of the sermon on those words I sometimes worry (or even know)that there are different translations which, if used, would produce a different sermon.

The Christian fundamentalist's problem is unless you are working from the Hebrew/Greek original your choice of text dictates your position. If all of the text is the true word of God how can you say “… and some translate this word as X and some as Y” – as after all God presumably knew what she meant.

And as for plucking verses from here and there I want to cry “context is all!”