When Good Philosophy (and Theology!) comes from Bad Translation

There was an interesting discussion on the Philosophers Zone a month or so back on the perils of translation in philosophy. We theologians are familiar with the problem, and often share much the same complaints. But then there came this interesting comment from the host, Alan Saunders, which got me thinking about the grace-filled possibilities of mis-translation in both philosophy and theology:

Alan Saunders: There is such a thing I suppose, perhaps you might both have opinions on this, there is such a thing, and it’s not a very philosophical point, but there is such a thing as fruitful mistranslation. The opening of the Gospel according to St John in the King James translation from the 17th century, it goes ‘The light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not.’ Now ‘comprehendeth’ just means the darkness hasn’t put it out and in modern translations they say, ‘The darkness has not put it out.’ But what you get if you’ve got a 21st century mind applying yourself to this 17th century translation of an ancient Greek text, what you get is the notion that the darkness can’t understand the light, it cannot comprehend the light. And that’s a lovely thought, even though it has nothing to do with the original. So we can get that sort of thing from translation as well, can’t we?

Rick Benitez: And you sometimes feel robbed when the scholars come along and correct.

Exactly, Dr Benitez. Modern scripture scholars are forever knocking favourite old ideas on the head with their new scholarly exegeses that cut out beloved traditional applications and interpretations of scripture. The most famous case, of course, is that of Matthew 1:23 “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son”, which is, as is well known, based on the Greek Septuagint mistranslation of the Hebrew for “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14. But in precisely this case, we see how important the mistranslation has become for orthodox Christian theology.

For the fact remains that sometimes what is dismissed as a “mistranslation” can contain an element of the original text–a possibility for application and fulfillment which happens on many different levels in biblical interpretation–that would be overlooked by a more “literal” or “surface level” translation. Even the translation “comprehendeth” in John 1:5 captures something of the original text, even if not the major intent of katalambanein.

And here is something worth thinking about: There is a good case to be made for the Septuagint as our original Old Testament. The Greek Canon of the Septuagint is in fact much older than the Hebrew Canon, predating even the Dead Sea scrolls. The decision by scholars to adopt the Biblical Hebraica as the basis for Christian Old Testament is precisely that–a scholarly, rather than an ecclesiastical, decision.

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