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Review of  Translation and Religion

Reviewer: Charles G. Häberl
Book Title: Translation and Religion
Book Author: Lynne Long
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Translation
Issue Number: 16.2711

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Date: Wed, 7 Sep 2005 16:14:32 -0400
From: Charles G. Häberl
Subject: Translation and Religion: Holy Untranslatable?

AUTHOR: Long, Lynne
TITLE: Translation and Religion
SUBTITLE: Holy Untranslatable?
SERIES: Topics in Translation
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2005

Charles G. Häberl, Department of Near Eastern Languages and
Civilizations, Harvard University

From the perspective of an outsider, it would seem only natural that
translation theory and the study of religious texts would be intimately
connected, as the sacred texts of various religious traditions comprise
some of the earliest corpora to be translated, as well as some of the
largest corpora, and the translations of religious texts are often
broadly distributed and prove to have a lasting value of their own. For
these reasons, religious texts (and their translations) provide scholars
with a wealth of information into the process of translation and the
factors which influence this process and its end results. Furthermore,
as Hussein Abdul-Raof remarks in the final essay of the volume, the
language of "the religious aspects of a culture are usually the most
difficult, both in analysis of the source vocabulary and in finding the
best receptor language equivalents" (p. 171). It is in the translation of
religious texts that the translator encounters his most difficult
challenges, to the extent that many claim that religious texts (such as
the Qur'an) defy translation, and yet, paradoxically, religious texts are
the texts most likely to be translated, repeatedly and continuously
according to the needs of the community.


Lynne Long remarks in her introduction to the volume, "it would not be
overstating the case to say that scriptural movement between cultures
has been a major source of development in translation theory." Many
of the challenges discussed by today's translators and translation
theorists were prefigured by the original agents of this scriptural
movement. As a result, there exists an enormous wealth of literature
on the translation of religious texts, just as the years since 1923—the
year in which Walter Benjamin's translation of Baudelaire's Tableaux
parisiens was first published, prefaced by his seminal essay Die
Aufgabe des Übersetzers (English title "The task of the translator,"
Benjamin, 1968)—have seen the production of a considerable amount
of material on translation theory. The introduction makes it clear that
one of the manifest goals of this book was to introduce both the
general reader and the scholar interested in translation theory to this
body of literature, which constitutes a mine of information for the field.

The book is divided into two sections, each composed of seven
essays. The first deals with the issues of translating religious texts on
a broad scale, both cross-culturally and within specific traditions, and
the second deals with case studies relating to a particular problem in

The list of contributors is a miscellany of scholars in the fields of
Theology, Literature, Linguistics, and Area Studies of various sorts.
Consequently, the book provides an introduction to the methodologies
used in the study of major religious traditions such as Judaism,
Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, and touches upon "broad issues
such as historicity, linguistics, cultural theory, sociology, theology, and
philosophy as well as more specific cases of gender, art, metaphor,
humour, status, editing, patronage, and interpretation" (p. 15). The
blurb on the back of the book advertises the range of texts treated
within it as "ambitious," and in this it does not deceive.

The volume begins with Christopher Shackle's extremely personal
excursus into highlights from the recent (post 19th-century) translation
history of three religious texts, the Bible, the Masnavi of Rumi, and the
Sikh scriptures, the Adi Granth ("From Gentleman's Outfitters to
Hyperbazaar: A Personal Approach to Translating the Sacred," pp.
19-32). Despite the fact that Shackle's essay is indeed personal
(thanks to his inclusion of various vignettes from his own education
and academic career), the term "personal" in the title of his essay
should not necessarily be taken as an endorsement of any such
approach. At one point, he inveighs against the "New Age
typographic layouts," apparently inspired by Japanese haiku, which
characterize many recent (and, in his opinion, unsatisfactory)
translations of religious texts. Shackle concludes that "context rather
than content makes the holy untranslatable," implying that it is not so
much the content of a given text that renders it untranslatable, but its
religious context within the community, and the struggle for control
over that text's interpretation.

K. Onur Toker ("Prophecy and Tongues: St. Paul, Prophecy, and
Building the House," pp. 33-40) focuses instead upon the Christian
tradition at the beginning of the Common Era. In this context, his
essay offers a much more theological approach to the issue of
translation, concerning the central importance of hermeneutics to Paul
and the formation of the early church. He takes up once again the
topic of the "impossible necessity" of translation after Babel first
identified by Derrida in his essay "Des Tours de Babel" (1985). Toker
concludes that, if the confusion of tongues at Babel rendered
translation both necessary and impossible, Pentecost marked the
conclusion of the punishment upon the Semites, by stripping Hebrew
and Aramaic of their privileged status as sacred languages and
essentially rendering them irrelevant. To Paul, according to Toker,
the act of translation was nothing less than prophetic, rendering
the "univocal signified or spirit of the Bible in different, more common
and intelligible, words or letters, that is to say, signifiers" (p. 40).

It is only natural that Buddhism, a tradition which spans the continent
of Asia and has become one of the fastest growing religions in the rest
of the world, should be represented here. Kate Crosby ("What Does
Not Get Translated in Buddhist Studies and the Impact on Teaching,"
pp. 41-53) discusses one of the problems faced by scholars of
Buddhism, particularly Theravada Buddhism. While she makes a
convincing case for her thesis—namely, that the absence of certain
texts in translation may play as important a role as the presence of
others in shaping in the outsider's perception of a religion—certain
statements detract from the credibility of her essay. For example, she
casually mentions the adoption of a form of Buddhism by early
Christian monastics (p. 41), or the influence of Korean printing
methods used for the Buddhist canon on the development of the
Gutenberg press (p. 42), as if they were conventional wisdom and
gives absolutely no citations. Incredibly, she admits that these
sensationalist claims have absolutely nothing to do with her argument,
which leaves one wondering why she included them in the first place;
certainly they have no relevance to the subject matter. The rest of the
article is thankfully free of such embellishments, save for one oblique
reference to "pre-modern world Buddhism [stretching] to the Danube
in the West."

Leonard Greenspoon's essay ("Texts and Contexts: Perspectives on
Jewish Translations of the Hebrew Bible," pp. 54-64) takes a different
approach to the issue of translation by examining a series of
translations of a single work (the Tanakh, or Jewish scriptures) within
the context of a single community (the Jews) over an extended period
of time. Greenspoon notes that Jewish translations, as a general rule,
tend to privilege the source language. In his view, Jewish translations
of their holy literature are "intended to supplement, not supplant;
complement, not replace, the original." The Jewish commitment to the
Hebrew language has resulted in the adoption of what he
terms "sensible or comprehensible literalism." It was not until the 18th
century that Jewish translations began to depart from "sensible
literalism" to what has come to be termed "functional equivalence" (De
Waard and Nida, 1986)—largely in the context of the Jews'
assimilation to the societies in which they found themselves in
diaspora. Indeed, the German translation produced by Moses
Mendelssohn and the English translation produced by the Jewish
Publication Society looked to preexisting gentile translations as a
model—the Luther Bible in the case of the former and the 1885
Revised Version of the King James Bible in the case of the latter.

The central texts of Hinduism are examined within the next
essay, "Making Sanskritic or Making Strange? How Should We
Translate Classical Hindu Texts?" by W.J. Johnson (pp. 65-74). The
title of his essay suggests two major strategies for translating Hindu
texts (anticipated by Friedrich Schleiermacher already in the 18th
century): "domesticating" the translation, thereby privileging the target
language, and "foreignizing" it, which makes it appear strange to
speakers of the target language. Johnson notes that a compelling
translation of any of the Classical Hindu texts has yet to be written,
unlike, say, the Classical texts of the Greek and Latin traditions. For
this reason, he says, Hindu texts such as the Bhagavad Gītā have not
yet become part of the target tradition (by which he presumably
means the Anglophone world) in the same way that the Iliad and the
Odyssey have. Johnson therefore calls for a new purpose in
translation – namely, to produce an enduring literary classic, not a
religious one. Much like Shackle, he condemns translations
conforming too closely to both "New Age" and "King James" style
language as insufficient for this purpose, due to the effect that the
language used in writing a translation has upon our understanding of
its content.

Adriana Şerban offers an excellent analysis of the limitations upon
translators of religious texts in her essay on "Archaising versus
Modernising in English Translations of the Orthodox Liturgy: St. John
Chrysostomos in the 20th Century" (pp. 75-88). Much like Shackle,
she notes that translators of sacred texts are seldom free to do as
they please. Most liturgical translations are deliberately retrospective
(at one point, in reference to the much maligned use of King James
language in these types of translations, she describes the process as
one of "colonising the past") and governed by the translator's
expectations of his audience. The use of archaic language cannot
necessarily be attributed to the date of the translation's publication. In
fact, one of the more recent translations of the liturgy, the 1982
version based upon Old Church Slavonic manuscripts, is much more
archaizing than the translation prepared by Archbishop Athenagoras
Kokkinakis, which preceded it. Şerban concludes that the language
adopted by translators of the liturgy owes much to the intended
audience and purpose of the translation, following Hans Vermeer's
skopos theory of translation (1996).

The first part of the book concludes with Peter Kirk's essay "Holy
Communicative? Current Approaches to Bible Translation Worldwide"
(p. 89-101). Much like Toker, Kirk takes up the central significance of
translation to the Christian tradition, claiming that "it was in
Christianity, and from its very start, that the principle was clearly
established that the Holy Scriptures, even the words of God and of
Christ, could and should be translated" (p. 89). While some of his
claims are dubious (such as his statement that the New Testament
was being translated into Latin, Syriac, and Coptic by the 2nd century,
p. 89), and his frequent reliance upon online sources may raise some
eyebrows, what follows is, for the most part, a highly thoughtful history
of scholarship on Bible translation. He notes that many of the issues
currently debated by translation theorists were already foreseen by
Jerome, author of the Vulgate translation of the Bible, who sought to
find a middle road between the slavishly literal and anarchy of
uncontrolled freedom. Much like Johnson, he notes that religious
translations are judged according to their relevance as well as their
perceived legitimacy, without which they run the risk of being unread.
Like Shackle and Şerban, however, he concludes that the chief
obstacle faced by the translator of religious texts lies in the
expectations made of their interpretation rather than their actual

In the second portion of the volume, we are introduced to seven
specific case studies in translation theory. David Jasper, author
of "Settling Hoti's Business: The Impossible Necessity of Biblical
Translation," (pp. 105-114) takes the philologists and New Testament
scholars to task for what he perceives as their interminable focus
upon the minutiae of grammar and their unwillingness to let the text
itself stand as "its own best interpreter." He makes particular
reference to the Gospel of Mark, a close study of which leaves the
reader with more questions than answers. A good translation, in his
opinion, is far more valuable than any detailed philological treatment
of the text—for a good translator accepts that there is nothing outside
of the text itself (according to Derrida's celebrated aphorism, "il n'y a
pas de hors texte"). In his view, at the heart of the "impossible
necessity of Biblical translation is a religious imperative and a
mystery" – namely, that the work of translation is absolutely
necessary, but can only take our understanding of the text so far. At
some point we will reach the limits of translation, and beyond that lies
the mystery.

Johnathan Gold ("Guardian of the Translated Dharma: Sakya Pandita
on the Role of the Tibetan Scholar", pp. 115-128) focuses upon a
single work on translation, Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen's Entryway
into Scholarship, which details the issues faced by Tibetan Buddhists
working from translations of Buddhist scriptures in the 13th century.
Sakya Pandita identifies four areas of scholarship necessary for
safeguarding the interpretation of translated texts – obscure
vocabulary, translation techniques, common translation mistakes, and
unclear (literary) contexts – while at the same time assuming in his
audience a high degree of literacy in both the source and the target
languages. Gold argues that while Sakya Pandita ultimately places
his faith in the translatability of sacred texts, he is preoccupied with
preserving the interpretation of these texts within an elite community
of literate scholars.

While Jasper and Gold concern themselves with a single author,
David Burke ("The Translation of the Hebrew Word 'ish: A Brief
Historical Comparison", pp.129-140) concerns himself with a single
word. Burke recounts the criticism that the redactors of the latest
edition of the New International Version faced after introducing gender-
inclusive language. The leaders of the Religious Right in America,
chief among them James Dobson (more recently in the news for his
crusade against Spongebob Squarepants), identified the new
translation as a capitulation to a "radical feminist agenda." Among the
guidelines hastily established by Dobson and his peers for future Bible
translations was the demand that the Hebrew word 'ish be translated
as "man" wherever it occurred. Burke scans the translation of this
particular word in translations from the Septuagint to the modern day
and concludes that Dobson's guidelines fail to take into consideration
the semantic range of the word, impose an artificial consistency where
one had never existed before, and might actually hinder the public's
comprehension of the text.

The problems inherent in translating a living oral tradition into an
appropriate written form, particularly in a literate culture, are the topic
of Nile Green's essay, "Translating the Spoken Words of the Saints:
Oral Literature and the Sufis of Aurangabad" (pp. 141-150). Green
focuses upon a genre of Muslim South Asian literature—the malfuzat,
or recorded conversations of Sufi saints, which are sacred in their own
right, if not possessing the same degree of prestige as the Qur'an and
the Hadith. In fact, the sacred status of these oral traditions vis-à-vis
the much better-established claims of the primary written texts is one
of the chief concerns that preoccupies Green. Green concludes that,
despite their claims to authenticity, the original conversations of the
Sufi saints have been "translated" to conform to the prevailing literary
standard, so as to ensure their claims to the sacred and their place in
the preexisting hagiographic tradition of Muslim South Asia.

Sue Niebrzydowski ("From Scriptorium to Internet: The Implication of
Audience on the Translation of the Psalms of the St Albans Psalter",
pp. 151-161) examines a recent online publication of a single
illustrated manuscript, and the translation that accompanies it. She
identifies this translation as a working example of a skopos-driven
translation (following Munday's, 2001) of a frequently translated
religious text, one made with a variety of concerns in mind that make it
differ from a general translation. Chief amongst these concerns are a
desire to make the text reflect its interpretation during the 12th
century, the time of its authorship, and particularly to reflect the text as
it stood (and was understood) by the illustrator himself, rather than the
contemporary interpretation of the Psalms. As a result, the translation
conforms to the source text in terms of its punctuation and
orthography of place names. At the same time, the spiritual
significance of this religious text to the modern reader is not the
concern of the translator, which liberates the translator from the
constraints imposed by contemporary interpretations of the text.
These are the limitations and benefits of the skopos-driven approach.

Hussein Abdul-Raof begins his essay on "Cultural Aspects in Qur'an
Translation" (pp. 162-172) arguing for the traditional view that the
Qur'an defies attempts at translating it. In his view, the Qur'an differs
from other religious texts in that it was "revealed in an Arab context of
culture that is entirely alien to a target language audience outside the
Arab peninsula" (p. 162). In his opinion, the liturgical, emotive, and
cultural associations of the expressions found in the Qur'an pose the
greatest obstacle to a translator. He makes several interesting points
(such as his claim that the context of culture—what he calls
the "natural habitat of words"—needs to be preserved for a translation
to be successful, in contrast to some of the approaches, such as
relevance theory, described by Peter Kirk, pp. 96 ff.) and several
other points that fall short in their execution. For example, he explains
at great length that the word "donkey" has negative connotations in
Arabic (including, among others, stubbornness and stupidity) which, in
his opinion, do not exist in English (even going so far as to produce
evidence in the form of a brochure claiming that donkeys have "a
distinctly calming influence", p. 164). In an equally bizarre vein, he
counsels the English speaking reader not to call an Arab "an owl," as
this would constitute an insult in the Arab's native language.

The volume concludes with an engaging essay by Manuela Foiera on
Buddhist terminology in Italy. Italy is home to a burgeoning community
of recent converts to Buddhism, particularly the international Soka
Gakkai sect, which originated in Japan. Foiera notes that most of the
terms used by Italian adherents to this sect are borrowed directly from
Japanese, the (primarily Roman Catholic) Italians being unable (and
perhaps even unwilling) to press their traditional religious vocabulary
into the service of a new religion, largely because many of the
converts to Buddhism did so out of dissatisfaction with the religion of
their birth. Nonetheless, the Italian religious sphere bears the imprint
of Roman Catholicism so strongly that Italian Buddhists find
themselves faced with a dilemma; either they find themselves adopting
purely Japanese vocabulary and even social conventions, or
approach the new religion encumbered with baggage from Roman
Catholicism. Neither approach is entirely satisfactory, but a third way,
somewhere between the Scylla of turning Japanese and the
Charybdis of aping Roman Catholicism, has not yet arisen.


Volumes such as these generally trend towards the eclectic, and
Translation and Religion is no different in this regard. Most
scholarship on translations of religious texts tends to be restricted to a
single tradition, with little discussion of methodological considerations
transcending discrete corpora. The exception which proves the rule
is, of course, the Bible, shared as it is by Judaism and Christianity.
Bible studies have engendered a lively debate upon translations and
hermeneutics within and across these two traditions precisely because
they share the same text, and for this reason the discussion is rarely
broadened to encompass other traditions, except insofar as they
reflect the Biblical tradition (such as Mesopotamian cosmologies,
relevant to those found in the book of Genesis, or the texts from
Ugarit, which betray a remarkable similarity to the earliest Biblical
poetry). For this reason, a volume such as this, in which material is
brought together from the disparate religious traditions of the world, is
a welcome addition to the scholarship.

Conspicuous in their absence, of course, are the traditional
philologists, who have produced (and continue to produce) the bulk of
the research on religious texts from these traditions. Of all the essays
in this volume, Abdul-Raof's is the most philological; the other essays
range from wistful nostalgia (Shackle) to dismissiveness (Jasper) in
their attitudes towards the philologists, the balance ignoring them
entirely. As most such scholars have not availed themselves of the
growing body of work on translation theory, choosing instead to rely
upon more traditional approaches to the translation of sacred texts,
this should not surprise us. Nonetheless, it seems odd that the input
of these scholars, who are so central to the translation of religious
texts even today, would not be represented.


Benjamin, Walter (1929) The task of the translator. In Arendt, H. (ed.)
Illuminations (trans. H. Zohn), 69-82. New York: Schocken Books.

Derrida, J. (1987) Psyché. Inventions de l'autre, 203-235. Paris:

Hardwick, Lorna (2000) Translating Words, Translating Cultures.
London: Duckworth.

Waard, J. de and Nida, E. (1986) From One Language to Another:
Functional Equivalence in Bible Translating. Nashville: Thomas

Vermeer, Hans (1996) A Skopos Theory of Translation. Heidelberg:


Charles G. Häberl is a PhD candidate at the Department of Near
Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Harvard University. He is
currently engaged in fieldwork with speakers of Neo-Mandaic and is in
the process of writing a descriptive grammar of the dialect of
Khorramshahr (Iran). Neo-Mandaic is the modern reflex of the
liturgical language of the Mandaeans, the last surviving Gnostic
community from late antiquity. It is the most conservative of the
eastern Neo-Aramaic dialects and the only surviving Neo-Aramaic
dialect with a continuous textual tradition, spanning nearly two
thousand years. Charles is interested in the phenomena of language
death and language contact.

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