Thursday, 20 October 2011

Commentary versus revision versus re-translation

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When some vitally important Christian writing (the Bible, the Psalms) becomes obscure or is believed to contain inaccuracies of translation or doctrine - what should be done?

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First consider that they may have been right and we are wrong.

Even if translation is inaccurate according to modern secular scholarship, may it nonetheless be true because inspired?

And even if modern doctrine says something else than what appears in current scripture - is it possible that it is modern ideas which are wrong (has the matter been considered carefully enough, have there been for example - a couple of generations of sincere consideration?).

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Might we have misunderstood the section in question (how did people of great achieved holiness, rather than scholarship, in the past understand this knotty problem? Do we really think we know better than them?)

And even we we become sure that something is wrong in a section of text, do we actually know what would be right?

Do we even know what would truly be better?

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(It is one thing to point at specific imperfections, quite another matter to make something better overall. Shakespeare's plays are full of many serious specific flaws, many obscurities, dull passages, many alien and offensive elements - would it therefore be better overall to re-write them in streamlined modern language and fitting modern sensibilities?)

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All such considerations point to the primacy of commentary as a way of dealing with concerns of accuracy and translation: the best strategy is (surely?) to leave the traditional, (hallowed) text unchanged, and to deal with such concerns by commenting upon them either verbally or in written form.

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If this strategy of preservation and commentary is, for some reason, found to be intolerable - then there is the possibility of a very minimal revision to the text - but only when something better, indeed something definitive can be substituted.

And better means more-Good, not just more accurate in terms of contemporary secular scholarship.

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If the revision is not truly and definitively better, then it will itself be revised (and the principle that revisions are necessary and acceptable will by then have been established); and the authoritative text will be pecked into pieces by cycle after cycle of change.

And all the Kings horses and all the King's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.

Once the egg has been broken, the fragments can be glued together; but the egg is not thereby restored.

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To be better a revision should be better overall (that is aesthetically and in terms of ethical effect as well as more factually accurate), and should not be the substitution of a technically precise but dry and dead word or phrase crafted by committee consensus, for one which is somewhat less exact but much more beautiful and morally inspiring.

Factually accuracy of scripture (according to current ideas of the facts, themselves exceedingly narrow) should never be allowed to trump beauty and moral effectiveness.

The real Good is not only Truth; it is also and equally Beauty and Virtue.

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And what of wholesale retranslation?

Almost never is it right to do this; almost never - unless the translation is to be used as a commentary.

A re-translation of authoritative scripture should only be done when there is conviction of operative divine inspiration, both on the part of the translators and on the part of those for whom the translation is intended.

And this has happened only a handful of times in Christian history.

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The correct answer is to maintain intact the old authoritative scriptural texts hallowed by tradition; and to clarify and correct them when needed by modern commentary.

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5 comments:

dearieme said...

The way to restore an egg is to feed it to a hen.

bgc said...

That sounds as if it might be deep... errr...

dearieme said...

I think it is. Note that that is also the way to unscramble an egg and unmake an omelette.

The Crow said...

The correct answer?
Says who?

Ancients had no better grasp of language than anyone else.
Inspired ancients were no more inspired than inspired moderns.

Language is inherently inadequate at describing the indescribable.
If moderns are especially good at anything, then it must be their blind reliance upon words to render phenomena understandable.

Humility has no "correct" answers. Only best interpretations.

Anonymous said...

The best strategy is (surely?) to leave the traditional, (hallowed) text unchanged, and to deal with such concerns by commenting upon them either verbally or in written form.

I'm far from learned in these things, but I remember debating this precise point with a prominent lay reformer of the Canadian Anglican liturgy 30 long years ago. But there's no getting through to these people, not then, not now. Scratch them a little and, with shocking frequency, they will argue for an explicitly manipulative theory of language, one that would strip the hearer of interpretive power and vest it in them and their allies.

For people who speak so confidently of hegemonic this and hegemonic that, you'd think they would twig onto their own lust for hegemony, but it doesn't happen much.

Cennbeorc