Do we read the Scriptures or a translation of the Scriptures?

Is reading a translation of the Bible actually reading the Bible? Is it still the same books, the same inspired word of God? What if it’s a poor translation, or a paraphrase?

Translation will always be an exercise in interpretation and co-creation. There is no simple mapping of one language to another, not least because each language lives in the distinct, though overlapping, worlds their speakers inhabit. To faithfully translate is not just to avoid any additions, but to attempt to be united with the author, while inhabiting another world. It is a faithful translation as long as it is a co-creation, and unfaithful as far as it is a separate creation added onto the first.

An image of a pipe is not a pipe, and a translation of a book is not that book. However, to see an image of a pipe is to see a pipe, and no one has ever seen a pipe except by seeing an image of a pipe. We see the pipe through the image, even if it’s just the image in our own eyes. Similarly, we can read a book through its translation. We might also add, that even writings in our own language need to be translated into our own minds. The words may be the same, but still the meaning must be found, and every word has a slightly different meaning to every reader.

When we read our translations of the Bible, we are not reading it on our own, and that’s a good thing, because we’re actually reading it with and through the communion of the saints. Not just the translators, but all those who influenced their reading of the scriptures, and all the faithful who have together shaped how we will read it too, both by their teaching and just by their use of the same words.

The words of scripture take on new meaning in this process (though without losing the previous meaning), as often happens when we re-encounter a piece of art, and something new is picked up, perhaps even something with new meaning in our new context. It grows in meaning with each new listener, each new day, each new context. Or rather, its divine and eternal meaning is unfolded ever more fully.

With the Holy Spirit guiding our translations and interpretations through the saints, we can happily view our translations as an extension and development of the scriptures themselves.

Not one of us has ever read the Bible on our own. We are always reading with our own context, with our society, with the society that produced our Bible (the Church), and with the society it was written in. The New Testament was written by the early Church, from a common faith, through Greek and Jewish ideas and cultures, and translated and interpreted through Roman, Latin, European ideas and cultures, and then through the ideas and cultures of the New World, and then again through the modern world, always undertaken by the Church in dialogue with the world.

God bless you!

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