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

  1. Joshua says:


    In Tracey’s new book on B16, she appends the famous Regensburg Address, which includes the following very apposite text and footnote 9, quoting Schenker, whose French surely means “Holy Scripture subsists simultaneously in many canonical forms” – recall how the Vulgate fulfilled and the LXX fulfils this role for Catholics and Orthodox respectively:

    “Today we know that the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria – the Septuagint – is more than a simple (and in that sense really less than satisfactory) translation of the Hebrew text: it is an independent textual witness and a distinctive and important step in the history of Revelation, one which brought about this encounter in a way which was decisive for the birth and spread of Christianity.9”

    “9. Cf. A Schenkler, ‘L’Ecriture sainte subsiste en plusieurs formes canoniques simultanees’, in L’interpretazione della Bibbia nella chiesa. Atti del simposio promosso dalla congregazione per la dottrina della Fede (Vatican City, 2000), 178-86.”

  2. Peregrinus says:

    There is a difference, though.

    In one case we can have a new layer of meaning introduced by the translator, or – and I suspect this is more common – a meaning eliminated or refined by the translator. For example, when St Paul says nomos, do we translate this as “custom/tradition” or “law”? Either is defensible (I understand), so it is not necessarily a “mistranslation”, but in picking one we lose the connotations of the other, whereas the original text presumably had both.

    But in another case, we have a translation which is accurate when it is made, but which because of developments in language acquires a meaning which was neither in the original text nor, at first, in the translation. “Comprehendeth” is an example of this; at the time it was written it would have been correctly understood. The meaning that is suggested to us is a later evolution. Translations like the King James and the Douay-Rheims abound with this kind of thing, simply because of developments in the English language since they were written; no doubt something similar is true of the Luther Bibel. The same is true of classic devotional and liturgical texts like the Book of Common Prayer, which for example included a prayer that judges and magistrates would be guided by God to dispense justice “indifferently”.

    These evolving meanings are basically random. Occasionally they can be serendipitous or at least amusing, but mostly they are a nuisance. At best they obscure the message, occasionally they mislead, suggesting a message which is plausible but in fact entirely wrong.

    A Catholic or Orthodox Christian has little difficulty, I suggest, in being guided by tradition – the collective discernment of the church – in relation to the messages suggested by translators’ choices. Notwithstanding that other words could defensibly have been used in translating the Hebrew, we can rely on parthenos because of the consistent and emphatic witness of the church to the virgin birth. (Which is not to discount the explicit witness of the gospels on the point, of course.)

    The more a Christian tradition emphasises the “sola scriptura” principle and discounts the authority of tradition, the bigger a problem this must be. Some protestants respond to this by arguing, explicitly or implicitly, that particular translations are “inspired” in the same (and sometimes rather simplistic) way that the original text is taken to have been inspired, and the layers of meaning introduced or eliminated by the translators’ choices can therefore be depended upon, but I think this is still a pretty fringe viewpoint. Presumably for the remainder of “sola scriptura” Christians this is a problem to which there is no entirely satisfactory solution.

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