The Way of the Church

Part 1:

  Controlling the Past -V

 by Hugh Nibley, Ph.D.

Improvement Era 58 (May 1955), 306-8, 364-6,

". . . As Far as It Is Translated Correctly."

After all has been said about the art of selecting, censoring, rewriting, and interpreting the records of the past, the fact remains that the greatest opportunity for exercising control over the documents lies not in these mechanical chores but in the business of translating the strange and unfamiliar idioms in which the texts are written. As Joseph Smith knew so well, next to revelation it is language that holds the key to the past. This key is worth a brief examination here.

The writers of fantastic fiction often overlook the very obvious. We have yet to learn of any creation of theirs that has surpassed in boldness of conception or economy of operation that astounding device by which the human race has throughout its history been able to preserve the very thoughts of men and transmit them through unlimited expanses of time and space. Writing is a thoroughly artificial thing—no more a product of evolution than feathers or water or algebra are. It is hard to believe that the first systems of writing that arose almost simultaneously in Egypt, Sumer, Elam, and India (all these cultures being at that time in contact with each other) were each invented independently or brought forth in response to the needs of the business world.[1]  For though writing may have been suggested by such useful mnemonic devices as property marks and tallies,[2] busy practical people have always got along supremely well without it. Like the calendar—long supposed to have been the invention of farmers, who of all people are the least dependent on the fixed and rigid setting of days[3] —writing is only useful in everyday life because everyday uses have been found for it. But the businessman, however capable he may be in other things, often becomes awkward and self-conscious when he tries to write correctly, embarrassingly aware that he is handling a medium that is strange to his calling.

Though writing is as old as history, practical people have never yet got used to it, but like the generality of mankind have persisted in viewing it as a sort of magic, an affected and artificial thing, an ornamental accomplishment designed for ostentation rather than for use. It is inconceivable that true writing was ever devised as a tool for these people, let alone by them. The really marvelous things that writing does, the astounding feats of thought-stimulation, thought-preservation, and thought-transmission for which it has always been valued by a small and specialized segment of society, "the scribes," are of no interest to practical people: business records, private letters, school exercises, and the like are periodically consigned to the incinerator by clerks and merchants to whom eternal preservation and limitless transmission mean nothing. The contents of such documents from the beginning show a complete unawareness, almost a visible contempt, for the real capabilities and uses of writing. It is another and equally ancient type of document that knows how to prize the true merit of the written word, and it is easy to surmise that this wonderful device came to the human family as a gift from parties unknown whose intent was that it should assist the race in a sort of cosmic bookkeeping. At any rate, that actually is the principal use to which the instrument has been put since the beginning of that history which it alone has made possible.

One might as well argue that the brace and bit was invented as a crude tool for scratching leather and later discovered to be useful for boring holes in wood as to maintain that writing was conceived as a means of keeping track of heads of beef and measures of grain by people who later discovered that far more wonderful and significant things could be done with it. The great Seal of England can be used to crack nuts with—a simple, practical, primitive operation, suggesting a very plausible origin—but it also has other uses. The earliest uses of writing for the keeping of accounts are in temple records, sacred things; and right along with them go the ritual texts, with an equal claim to antiquity and a far greater claim to the attention of those priests who have always been the peculiar custodians of the written word. From the beginning the written words were the divine words, the mdw ntr.[4]

To state it briefly, we find writing from the first used for two kinds of bookkeeping: for terrestrial business it is not really necessary—in fact, such masters of this field as Commodore Vanderbilt found themselves better off without it; but for celestial business it is indispensable. Which, then, is the more likely to have produced it? Every indication points to the temple.

And what an instrument! By its operation we know not only what men saw and heard and did and said three and four thousand years ago, but actually what they also thought and felt. The most delicate nuances and fleeting impulses of the mind have outlasted the enormous Cyclopean foundations of world-ruling cities, and where twenty-ton blocks may have vanished without a trace, the dreams, hopes, and surmises of the fragile people who lived among them remain as fresh and clear as ever, available to the modern world in almost embarrassing abundance. Embarrassing, because this inestimable treasure lies neglected, even by those regiments of professional humanists who claim to be its custodians.

The cause of this neglect is to be found in the peculiar nature of the instrument. Our thought-transmission machine is the simple and economical apparatus it is by virtue of being at the same time an exceedingly sensitive one. The price of the thing is nominal in this age of great libraries and microfilming, but its effectiveness depends entirely on the skill and understanding with which it is operated. True writing is not picture writing; to receive its message the reader himself must be very specially adjusted. And when such a reader takes it upon himself to convey to others the words of the ancients, he himself becomes a part of the transmission machine—its most vital element, in fact. As far as the general public is concerned, the effectiveness of the miraculous and age-old machine for thought-transmission depends entirely on the man who is operating it.

All the documents of antiquity without exception are written in languages that no one speaks today. What an opportunity this offers for controlling the past! In the field of translation the scope and ambition of operations are simply staggering. The ancient writer and the modern reader—producer and consumer of history respectively—are alike at the mercy of a tyrannical middleman without whose express permission not one word can be conveyed from the past to the present. This serious situation demands a moment's attention. Let us consider briefly the crippling disadvantages of trying to study church history through the medium of translations.

The Follies of Translation

Folly Number One—Destroying the Clues: Every page of any ancient text is a densely compact, all but solid mass of elaborately interwoven clues. No two people react the same way to these clues, and no one person reacts the same way to them twice. Yet a translation, no matter how good, is only one man's reaction to the clues at one time of his life. The most famous and successful translation in the English language is Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat. Fitzgerald's, not Omar Khayyam's, for though Fitzgerald translated the whole thing again and again, producing a different Omar each time, Fitzgerald was never satisfied that any of his poems was Omar's. The translator is like an officious detective who hands us his written report of the case but refuses to let us see the evidence for ourselves. Granted that the constable is smarter than we are and more experienced at his business, still we want to see the clues for ourselves, for in them lie the charm, challenge, and instruction of the game. In the place of a teeming, living complex of hints and suggestions which is the original text the translator gives us, as he must, only a limited number of certitudes—his certitudes, not the author's—and whatever fails to attract his attention and elicit his response is left unrecorded. Thus the door is closed to any critical study of any text in translation, and we have the well-known dictum that the completest critical commentary on a text is a translation of it, or in other words, that a translation is not a text at all but only a commentary on it: after the translator has given us his views there is nothing more to say. He places before us his own handiwork from which all possible interpretations but his own have been removed.

Folly Number Two—Opinions for Evidence: There are two things that no translation can convey, namely what the author said and how he said it. At the beginning of his book on the translation of Greek and Latin, Wilamowitz-Moellendorf gives a well-nigh perfect definition of a translation: "A translation is a statement in the translator's own words of what he thinks the author had in mind." He cannot, of course, state what the author actually had in mind, for only the author knows that; nor can he report what the author said he had in mind, for the author has already done that; he can, as Wilamowitz assures us, only tell us in his own language what he thinks the author is trying to convey.

This means that any translation is at best only an opinion—one man's opinion of what another man had in mind. Now the importance of ancient documents as a whole lies in their value as evidence, the evidence on which we must build the whole story of the human race. But an opinion is not evidence. It is not admissible in the court of scholarship for the same reason that it is not admissible in a court of law, because it always contains a conclusion of the witness. We may not ask A for B's testimony—only B can speak for B, and when Professor Shorey pompously entitles a book by himself What Plato Said he is officiously interposing his own person between Plato and the reader, offering himself, like an insinuating dragoman, as interpreter for one of the most marvelously articulate men who ever lived—whether Plato wants him or not.

Only a perfect translation is ever acceptable as evidence in any situation, for if it is anything short of absolutely perfect, how can we be sure at any given moment that the translator has not slipped up? But can there be a perfect translation? How would it deal with double meanings and puns of which the ancients were so fond? Or how should it convey something which the original writer had no intention of telling us? For the student of the past the great value and charm of many a text lies in what it reveals without the author's knowledge, as when the terminology of the philosophers unconsciously reveals their social backgrounds and prejudices. The old writings are like questionnaires which have been filled out by the subjects with sly intent to deceive, unaware as they are that their every word tells the skilled investigator something about themselves which they do not wish told. But a translation should report, according to Wilamowitz, only what the translator thinks the author had in mind, that is, what he wanted to convey. This rule is terribly confining, but it can't be broken, for if a translator is allowed to introduce into a writing what the author neither had in mind nor said in so many words, there is no limit to what he might read into a text, setting forth as actual statements of the original what is to be detected only by an interpretation of clues. The translator has no right to go beyond the writer's intent; but the reader of an original is bound by no such obligation—there is no limit to the things that the text might legitimately convey to him. This is no mere rationalization: the experience of any teacher of the classics will confirm the observation, made with wonder and amazement by each succeeding generation, that every reading of an ancient author is a new experience full of the most surprising discoveries.

Folly Number Three—The Substitute Flavor: The commonest objection to translations is that they lose much of the "flavor" of the original. Though that is by no means the worst charge against them, it is a serious one, for the "flavor" is not merely weakened or denatured by translation, it is usually destroyed altogether, and in its place is submitted something far different and almost always far inferior. That is because the commonly translated works of antiquity are those of high literary merit, while the men who do the translating are almost always those of low literary gifts. There is a saying in England that translation is the lazy scholar's refuge. The more feeble, unoriginal, and unenterprising the mind, the more easily and naturally it falls into the vice of simply translating the text that it has been taught to construe since childhood. Thus most translations are made by the last men in the world who should be allowed to make them—academic drones who render the text in a stilted and artificial classroom jargon no matter who is speaking in it.

The verses which a translator puts down in and under the name of a great poet can never be greater than his own verses would be. True, he may be working under the powerful and constant stimulation of the glorious page at his elbow; but the example and inspiration of the original, while they may give him the uncontrollable urge to compose matchless poetry, can, alas! never give him the ability to do so. If it could, America would have produced as many immortal bards as it has professors of English.

But if dullness is a common defect of translators, even genius can be a danger. For if it is unfair of a translator to do a worse job than the original poet, it is both unfair and unkind of him to do a better! The only solution is for the translator to be just as great a poet—no more, no less—as the man he is translating. And what are the chances of that ever happening? And if it did, the result would be not two versions of the same poem, but simply two poets writing on the same theme. Homer was to the Greeks and all who followed the poet, the greatest master of poetic language the world has known. Yet though poets have read and translated him in every age, to this day the only readable Homer in English is not poetry at all but prose—literally Homer with Homer left out!

Folly Number Four—The Illusion of the Literal Translation: "He who translates a verse quite literally is a liar," is the rabbinical rule.[5] If two words in two different languages had exactly the same meaning in all contexts, then it would be possible to translate the one by the other in any operation. But it is almost impossible to find two words in any two languages that have this perfect one-to-one relationship! Nothing could be more obvious than that the Latin "in," for example, is the same as our word "in"; yet at least half the time it is impossible to translate the one "in" by the other. For a literal translation every word in one language would require a word that matched it perfectly in the other. But the meanings of words in different languages do not coincide snugly; they only overlap loosely in limited areas; for example, "to follow" may mean to accompany, to pursue, to understand another, to succeed, to come after, to chase, to obey another, etc. All these ideas overlap with the idea of following. So when a recently found ancient Christian manuscript says that miracles come after faith, and are not meant for the unbelieving, it is an easy thing for the modern translator to take the sting out of the passage by rendering "come after" (tabat) as "accompany," because in some cases it can mean that.[6]  If he is taken to task for the obvious perversion of the meaning, the translator need only point with wide-eyed innocence to the dictionary, where, sure enough, "follow" does mean "accompany." Because words only overlap in meaning, the most "literal" translation can be completely misleading.

In dealing with contemporary languages something like a one-to-one relationship may be detected in limited areas, such as sports and science. Today an Arabic, Greek, Russian, English, and French newspaper will all dutifully report that a meeting is going to "take place" at such and such a time, though the expression "take place" is not native to any of those languages but one. Still they all use it, for they speak an international idiom, the sophisticated language of world civilization. This was as true two thousand years ago as it is today, and every student has wondered why Greek and Latin seem so much alike—almost like one language with two alphabets—though fundamentally they are as different from each other as they are from English. Professor Albright has commented often on the amazing uniformity of the languages of four thousand years ago—they too had their own peculiar world-idiom.[7]  As Spengler observed, it is civilizations, not cultures, that keep records (alle Geschichte ist Stadtgeschichte); hence the language of the records is the language of civilization and at any given time reflects a fairly uniform equipment of ideas and things, which makes the translation of contemporary languages into each other comparatively mechanical and reliable.

It is when we want to translate between languages separated by a gap of thousands of years or even a few centuries that the trouble begins. So completely does any one-to-one relationship vanish between languages that reflect widely different cultures that it may be necessary to translate one line of a text by a whole page or a page by a single line![8]   So much for "literal" translation. Where a synthetic language must be translated into an analytic one or vice versa, the idea of literal translation is completely annihilated, and the experts often declare any translation at all to be out of the question. A passage from Dieterici shows what we are up against:

In sentence structure the Semites employ short, disconnected utterances, expressed only by fits or starts, which reflect the subjective concept only in the most brief and sketchy form. The Indogermanic languages on the other hand move in well-ordered, easily-unfolding periods. The Semitic sentence is but the immediate reflection of a subjective idea (Affekt), it is only an opinion; the Indogermanic insists on the identity of the thought conveyed with actual reality. . . . At the institution of the sacrament, Christ cannot possibly have said anything but "this: my blood, this: my flesh," and no one present could possibly have misunderstood him. . . .

Such a nominal sentence (the usual thing in Semitic) is utterly untranslatable into Greek without the word "esti" (is) which of course in the original language never existed.[9]

Yet on that esti rests the whole doctrine of transubstantiation. At the Marburg disputation Luther, it is said, silenced the opposition by writing upon the table with a piece of chalk: Hoc est corpus meum, with all the emphasis on the est, a word which in the language of Jesus had no equivalent! Only to one writing Latin do the fine theological distinctions between est, ens, essens, essentia, esse, etc., have a real, if any, significance, and when M. Gilson triumphantly defines God at the end of his search as "the pure act of being," he is uttering what, to vast numbers of the human race—in whose languages "being" is not an act at all and often does not even exist as a verb—would be the purest nonsense. The Latin fathers often express regret that the impossibility of rendering Greek expressions into Latin makes it impossible for them to convey a clear conception of the Godhead.[10]

Folly Number Five: The Search for Shortcuts: Most of the energy and determination that should go into surmounting the language barrier between us and the past is at present being expended in ingenious efforts to circumvent it. A widespread recognition of the limitations of translation has, for example, produced a continual outpouring of bilingual editions, with the original text on one page and the English facing it on the other. Such texts are a pernicious nuisance: if one can read the original, the translation is an impertinence, if not, the original is a rebuke. But worst of all the double text is a fiendish design for crippling the mind. No one ever knows any language as well as his own, and when confronted by two texts the eye, following the law of least resistance, will infallibly gravitate to the more familiar idiom. I defy the best scholar alive to spend a week with a Loeb text without losing a good deal of his confidence and independent judgment, for the ready translation constantly anticipates and thereby conditions all one's reactions to the clues.

Then there are special handbooks and courses designed to reduce the language barrier to a minimum by confining all effort to an assault on one single book, typical offerings being Biblical Aramaic, New Testament Greek, Homeric Greek, Legal Latin, etc. In these special courses, special grammars and special dictionaries, we are told just what the text is going to say before we read it. If it does not say just that for us, we have learned our lesson badly. But if we know exactly what the original text is going to tell us before we open it, why bother to open it at all? We are told exactly how to react to every word, when the whole purpose of our study is to enjoy an independent reaction.

Hardly much better are standard grammars and dictionaries. They can get the student started on his way, but they accompany him only the first few steps of his journey. The excellence of the great scholars of the Renaissance and after, lay in their early discovery that there is no such thing as the correct dictionary meaning of a word. For the most part, grammars and lexicons are loaded dice: they are tipoffs on the clues, preconditioning the reader and precluding independent reaction to the text. Professor Gardiner shows us the limitation of all mechanical helps when he explains why the translation of Egyptian is so hard:

The meaning of the large majority of the words employed is either already known, or else can be elicited through comparison with other examples; but not the precise nuances of meaning, only the kind of meaning, its general direction and its approximate emotional quality. . . . The only basis we can have for preferring one rendering to another, when once the exigencies of grammar and dictionary have been satisfied—and these leave a large margin for divergencies—is an intuitive appreciation of the trend of the ancient writers's mind. A very precarious basis, all will admit.[11]

[1] This belief is held by Vere Gordon Childe, New Light on the Most Ancien East (New York: Praeger, 1953), though where business economy fails to produce writing or even use it when it is known, he overlooks the anomaly. "There is no evidence that the local kings felt the need of clerks to look after their revenues," 217.

[2] See our series, Hugh W. Nibley, "The Stick of Judah and the Stick of Joseph," Improvement Era 56 (January-May 1953).

[3] The independence of ancient farmers from written calendars is well-illustrated in the Talmud where, for example, the performance of ritual acts or the length of ritual periods is determined by the time when certain leaves fall, when certain plants turn dry, when winter grapes are ripe, etc.; houses are rented "until the second rain falls," TB Shebi'ith 9. Indeed Childe admits that the first set calendar, that of the Egyptians, "was patently useless for just the purpose for which it had been devised," New Light on the Most Ancient East, 4—another way of saying that it must have been devised for some other purpose.

[4] Alan H. Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, 3rd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 1.

[5] Stenning, The Targum of Isaiah, 9.

[6] Perier, Les '127 Canons des Apotres' 48, in PO 8:623.

[7] E.g., "Recent Progress in North Canaanite Research," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 70 (1938): 21.

[8] Moses Mielziner, Introduction to the Talmud (Cincinnati: Block Printing, 1894), 89-90.

[9] Friedrich Dieterici, Die Philosophie der Araber im X. Jahrhundert nach Christ (Leipzig: Hinrich, 1876), 18-21.

[10] Thus Anselm on the enormous difficulty of interpreting a translated passage of scripture, Cur Deus Homo 1, 18, in PL 158:388.

[11] Alan H. Gardiner, "The Eloquent Peasant," Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 9 (1923): 6.