Three years of my life as an EU student of English Literature at the University of East Anglia,England.
Here’s an article about the most translated and one of the most famous books in the world — a book that has changed history and humanity, a book that claims to explain creation… The Bible!
I’ve been working on Bible translation over the first weeks of this semester in my Reading and Writing Translations module. I was really excited about it as I’m very interested in religions and the roots of beliefs. Comparing different English (and French) Bible translations, from the King James version to very modern versions, has confirmed one thing I already suspected: time, languages and translators have considerable altered the meaning of the Bible through the centuries.
The “original Bible” was actually written in three different languages, which is something I found very interesting: Hebrew, Ancient Greek and Aramaic — the language supposedly spoken by Jesus. All these texts were compiled and, very early, the Bible was translated into Greek and then into Vetus Latina (based on the Greek version). This translation was overlook as imperfect by Saint Jerome. He thus spent over 20 years of his life translating the Bible into latin, the Vulgate. They explain a lot more about it in Introducing Translation Studies by Jeremy Munday, the very interesting book we use for this module and that I recommend to anyone interested in translation theory and case studies.
Nowadays, translations of the Bible are based on Ancient Greek and Latin since working from the Aramaic or Hebrew is much more complex. The sacred text we all know are thus translations of translations.
As we have remarked in class with our seminar leader, Duncan Large, the Bible has been translated repeatedly and for different purposes. Therefore, translators had to translate some part of the Bible in certain ways in order to convey a certain message: some versions focus on blame, the original sin or on the idea of an almighty god, while others have a more modern outlook on humans and take the blame off them (depending on whether you’re translating for a Catholic, Protestant Protestant etc. audience).
In my opinion, this is an important and even crucial shift in the history of Judaism, for the Old Testament, and Christianity, for the New Testament! Catholics, Evangelicals and Protestants cannot use the same Bibles since they have conflicting opinions, and promote different beliefs. How then, can one claim to have read or to believe in THE Bible when so many different versions have been published and used?
It is very clear that not only have the original meaning, connotations and allusions of the Bible been lost through time, but translators have also intentionally changed the meaning of “sacred texts”. Of course, lambda readers are not going to focus on short excerpts and compare each sentence. They are also unlikely to analyse the meaning of each sentence, like literature students are trained to do. But still, it raises a huge problem to me.
Moreover, as we’ve studied a lot in this module, whether it be about the Bible, 1001 Nights or even Harry Potter, cultural differences and localisations becomes problematic when translating a text. As you probably know, most of the events depicted in the Bible take place in the Middle-East, particularly in Israel and Egypt, over 2000 years ago… How can we, modern readers, understand the cultural references?
In an article about the original languages of the Bible, the writer says that “It’s amazing to see how the Word of God has traveled through languages and cultures”. How can we and should we believe in “god’s words” when a text has been modified so many times through translation and cultural adaptation?