Interpreting and translating

Whilst our system of government is a conservative enterprise, limited as it is by the rule of law and by a mostly static constitution, it is none the less an open system. There is a clear process by which the constitution, in light of new understanding or changed values, can be altered. It does not happen often but it does happen. This is the case with most modern democratic systems. Even the constitution of an oppressive nation like Iran has encoded within it the means for constitutional amendment. Although in the case of the Iranian constitution certain fundamentals, such as the state religion, can not be altered.

Much of religion has often struck me as a somewhat closed system of thought.  Judaism, Christianity and Islam and are each centered on a set of scriptures (the Torah, the Gospel and the Koran) that is closed to amendment and revision. They are not intended to be amended or updated. Although clearly the Gospel and the Koran are presented as extensions of the Torah.  Not being terribly religious I wouldn’t much care about any of this except for the fact that a large quantity of people on this planet are religious, some of them deeply so. It concerns me that people should wed themselves to a system of thought that is closed. In some regards it actually offends me. We should be open to new ideas and if the new ideas are superior we should abandon old ideas.

Over the last decade, whilst remaining an atheist, I have acquired a more nuanced understanding of the Christian faith. One thing that has become apparent is that whilst the written Bible is a closed text, the Christian faith relies on more than this written doctrine. It has a substantial oral tradition that evolves and supplements the closed text. The text of the Bible has an openness called “open to interpretation”. In fact a great amount of effort is expended trying to sell one form of interpretation over another. For instance whilst the Bible says that woman should not speak in Church (1 Corinthians 14:33,34) alternate interpretations based on the context of this passage allow contemporary churches to rationalize their way around the decree. Stories that if taken literally would represent quite a dire conflict with contemporary values are taken as allegoric or limited to a specific context and any such crisis is averted. To me it seems a strange system but who can question the enduring nature of something that has stood for over 2000 years. In one sense it creates a necessary illusion of consensus amongst people who in fact have quite a lot of disagreement.

One book about Christian history that impressed and influenced me greatly was “In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture“. It is primarily about the translation of the Bible into English and the challenges, technical, political and otherwise. One aspect that struck me was the difficulty in shifting meaning successfully between languages and the problems of literalism. Specifically the problem relates to idioms. For example in English we may refer to somebody as “hot under the collar”, however a literal translation of this idiom into another language would be hopelessly devoid of the correct meaning. Our language, and most languages, are sprinkled full of tens of thousands of such idioms. Some more examples of idioms are “sprinkled full of”, “the wrong end of the stick”, “it makes your blood run cold”, “step up to the plate”, “at the drop of a hat”, “burst out laughing”. Whilst the Bible is open to interpretation it is also open to translation. Both in good ways and in bad ways. A faithful translation maintains the literal meaning without translating the literal words and idioms or omitting things that are assumed in one language but which need to be made explicit in another.  The word “spring” for example has multiple meanings and a lot depends on context. A “spring” might be a hole in the ground from which water may flow. A “spring” might be a compressed metal coil. “Spring” may be a season of the year. And the idiom “a spring in his step” means something slightly different again.

My exposure to Islam and the Koran is vastly more limited. Obviously the media has been a primary source of my understanding. Given the medias performance on other topics this gives me some pause. Also I have had a few personal encountered with adherents of Islam, unfortunately most of them left bad impressions. One of them I actually sued.  Obviously the events of 911 nearly a decade ago have sharpened and contextualized my interest in this religion and the Koran.

The original language of the Koran is Arabic. Arabic is not the native language of most Muslims.  So it stands to reason that there is room for many problems in translating the Koran, let alone the subsequent interpretation. Both translation and interpretation seem like important considerations in how this religion will play out over time. So it was with some fascination that I listened to a podcast in which Muhammad Abdel-Haleem, a moderate Islamic scholar based in London, outlines why and how he wrote a new English translation of the Koran. If you are interested in such matters I commend it to you. You can find the podcast by clicking here.

None of this has enlightened me as to why we should take religion seriously. However I do take it serious in so far as it influences the life of a large number of people. It remains interesting because people, their beliefs and their behaviour is interesting.

22 thoughts on “Interpreting and translating

  1. Speaking as someone of faith, I think ‘open to interpretation’ is, as you say, a critical freedom in Christian belief. It allows for diversity of understanding, generally without open conflict (but frequently with open debate).

    On the other hand, anything that is to endure over centuries needs a consistency to it. Something that doesn’t change, that provides a reference point. New ideas are well and good, but the basis, the principles, the purpose of any institution need a degree of fixity to achieve what it was set up to do.

    It could reasonably be argued that Jesus was one of the great Libertarian thinkers of his day. Freedom from the law. Personal responsibility. Opposed to the merchant leeches and the do-gooders of his day.

  2. Andrew Klaven offers some helpful hints about avoiding and defusing, some of those “cultural misunderstandings” that occur from time to time:

  3. TerjeP, Judaism was always supplemented by an oral tradition. In the Torah, there is mention of ‘Your Laws’- the written Law (all 613 commandments, not just the familiar Ten), and the Oral Legacy (Kabbala in Hebrew). So some religions have always been flexible, and the rabbis have often believed that the Torah needed to be interpreted, and re-interpreted, for each age.

  4. And don’t tell a Muslim that the Koran is an extension of the Torah! The Koran is supposed to correct it, and be an unalterable expression of Allah’s Law- even though the Koran also says that Allah’s will cannot be chained even by Allah, so Allah could alter that Law at any time!

  5. Many anti-Islam attitudes are based on a literal interpretation of the Koran. And many Islamic fundamentalist attitudes have no foundation in the Koran.

    I think the mental attitude nearly always precedes the textual rationalisation.

    BTW, the original language of the Bible was probably Aramaic. It sure as hell wasn’t English.

  6. Do you think religion is flexible?

    Humans are more so, for better or for worse.

    Fortunately, people coming to terms with the commandments, their own trials and errors, makes for a rich literary tradition.

    As I understand the Koran, the ethos and its logic aren’t open to human interpretation. As it is the word of Allah.

    The fact that there are many thinking Muslims like Abdel-Haleem willing to do so is great.

    Naturally (here comes the disclaimer) libertarians must support a Muslim’s right to live under all non-violent religious laws.

    Same goes for an Evangelical-Christian, Talmudic-Jew or Lesbian-Wicca, for example.

    But, you know, for liberty-minded folk this is hard if it isn’t voluntary.

  7. I think the mental attitude nearly always precedes the textual rationalisation.

    I agree. However the text can be used to confer legitamacy and authority. If a new translation of the Koran does remove some of the legs needed for extremism then it would be a welcome development.

  8. A new translation is impossible! The Angel Gabriel told them directly to Mohammed, from Allah Himself! Genuine Korans are only in Arabic, which is the language of Heaven. Literally. And the life of Mohammed encourages extremism! He raided camels and practiced other acts of piracy- and good muslims are told to emulate him!

  9. He won’t last long, TerjeP! some murderer, shouting “Allah Akbar”, will protect the Arabness of the Koran by sending him on to his next life.
    I have some bad news, and some Good News.
    First, the bad news. According to The Australian, on page 8 today, some Victorian cops have arrested God! OMG! OMG! OMG! (‘Mr. God, born in Somalia, was arrested and handcuffed at the Moonee Ponds train station before allegedly being tripped and carried to a police van.’)
    The Good News is that God is a refugee who wants to be an Australian!! If I pay for his court costs, do you think Cronulla Sharks might suddenly start winning?

  10. I don’t know where to put this:

    Hypothetical question.

    Let’s say I invent a prophylactic drug which prevents pregnancy, stops drug overdose/negative interaction/addiction and prevents the spread of STIs/infection and has a simple test which you can use to see if it is working or any sexual partner has the drug working as well. It can be taken by men and women and works when taken by either party. The effect is quick and long lasting.

    Clearly such a drug would end anxiety and bing a lot of happiness, let alone prevent suffering.

    Whats the bet it would be banned?

    This would just go to show the basis for our laws isn’t utilitarian, but the success of whinging moralists getting one up over the rest of us.

    If people can’t keep it in their pants or be faithful without AIDS, don’t blame me.

  11. He won’t last long, TerjeP! some murderer, shouting “Allah Akbar”, will protect the Arabness of the Koran by sending him on to his next life.

    He claims to be an old man. So perhaps he won’t last long. However he has lasted this long. Moderate Muslims do exist and we should encourage them in so far as they stand up to the fundamentalists and in so far as they blunten the instruments of the fundamentalists.

  12. You should put this on the ‘discussion’ section! Oh, wait, we got rid of that…

  13. He was asking a question- what are the odds that the Government would ban such a product? I think it quite likely, but I’ve always thought that governments just like to ban stuff! I wonder if they count silly laws- “Look what I got them doing now?!!! Can you top that?”

  14. Terje,

    Are you as cynical as me, and a ban is just a given?

    There would be no justification banning it whatsoever.

  15. I don’t think such a product would be banned so long as there were no side effects of the drug. In practice I don’t think it would be one drug anyway it would be a set of remedies. A combination of vaccines etc. And I think much of it will come to pass.

    However there might be social side effects. I think it is in the social sphere that you might see regulation.

  16. Well yes, of course it has no side effects whatsoever.

    *However there might be social side effects. I think it is in the social sphere that you might see regulation.*

    I find this even MORE disturbing. We’ve unlocked the key to ‘free love’ and so we’ll destroy the kingdom (so to speak) if we can’t take the key away.

  17. Many Islamic fundamentalist attitudes are based on Hadiths, sayings attributed to Mohammed. Many others are based on what he did NOT say! For instance, slaves were traded near Mohammed, and he did not denounce slave-trading- therefore you can be a slave-trader!

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