February 28, 2007

Quote of the Day: Augustine on Reading the Bible in Translation

An important antidote to the ignorance of literal signs is the knowledge of languages. Users o the Latin language - and it is these that I have now undertaken to instruct - need two others, Hebrew and Greek, for an understanding of the divine scriptures, so that recourse may be had to the original versions if any uncertainty arises from the infinite variety of Latin translators ... There are certain words in particular languages which just cannot be translated into the idioms of another language. This is especially true of interjections, which signify emotion rather than an element of clearly conceived meaning: two such words, it is said, are raca, a word expressing anger, and hosanna, a word expressing joy. But it is not because of these few words, which it is easy enough to note down and ask other people about, but because of the aforementioned diversity of translators that a knowledge of languages is necessary. Translators of scripture from Hebrew into Greek can be easily counted, but not so translators into Latin, for in the early days of the faith any person who got hold of a Greek manuscript and fancied that he had some ability in the two langages went ahead and translated it.

This fact actually proves more of a help to interpretation than a hindrance, provided that readers are not too casual. Obscure passages are often clarified by the inspection of several manuscripts ...

Because the exact meaning which the various translators are trying to express, each according to his own ability and judgement, is not clear without an examination of the language being translated, and because a translator, unless very expert, often strays away from the author's meaning, we should aim either to acquire a knowledge of the languages from which the Latin scripture derives or to use the versions of those who keep excessively close to the literal meaning. Not that such translatations adequate, but they may be used to control the freedom or error of others who in their translations have chosen to follow the ideas rather than the words. Translators often meet not only individual words, but also whole phrases, which simply cannot be expressed in the idioms of the Latin language, at least not if one wants to maintain the usage of ancient speakers of Latin. Sometimes these translations lose nothing in intelligibility but trouble those people who take more delight when correct usage is observed in expressing the corresponding signs ... What then is correctness of speech but the maintenance of the practice of others, as established by the authority of ancient speakers?

- Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 2.34-45 (tr. R.P.H. Green)

There's a lot more stuff here that mirrors some of the Bible translation discussions that have been had on this blog and elsewhere in recent times, but I got tired of typing. The whole section is a recommended read.

Posted by Kenny at February 28, 2007 2:33 PM
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