On the inspiration of Scriptural translations

There is a tendency among scholars to see the the real meaning of the Scriptures as what is contained in the Greek or Hebrew texts. This is an immanently reasonable but properly Islamic opinion of Scripture. The properly Christan opinion is that translations are every bit as inspired and as original language texts. We are forced into this rule from the Scriptures themselves, because New Testament scriptural references are usually taken from translations. The same rule also follows reasonably: the Christian scriptures are not written for a single race or culture, and therefore it would be unreasonable and unfitting to expect them only to be fully accessible to those who share a single language and field of semantic possibilities.

The consequence of this rule are not always easy to flesh out. Clearly translations are only valid insofar as they translate, but by any standard of good translation, one has to accept the reality that there will be many unshared meanings between the word we translate from and the word we translate to. At this point, one is tempted to set down the rule that the word we translate into is valid only in those meanings that can be verified in the source word. If a word picks up a new meaning in a translation, that new meaning is not to be seen as truly Scriptural. On this account, the source text becomes the richest possible text- the best a translation can hope for is to have the same field of meanings as the source text. This rule, however, is contrary to the Scripture itself. The New Testament speaks of a virgin that will conceive a child, even though the source word could only mean “young woman”. Clearly virgin says more and yet both words are clearly scriptural.

(I am aware that this is not the usual way this “virgin vs. young maiden” argument tends to get used, but I use it here as I do in order to point to what I think is the root fallacy of the dilemma: the idea that meanings are only really or fully to be found in the source text. My claim is that the translation need only be good, and a good translation allows or the possibility that the word will pick up new meanings that are to be seen as inspired.)

1 Comment

  1. Fred said,

    December 24, 2007 at 12:07 am

    Thank you very much for this post.

    I did my senior thesis on Bible translation, and while I haven’t exactly tried to keep up with the subject since then, this post of yours is surely the first really “new” take on this subject that I’ve seen in over 20 years. Bless you.

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