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THE DIFFICULTIES FOUND IN TRANSLATING THE SCRIPTURES.
IT can scarcely admit a doubt, that as every language has in it something peculiar, and as the people of every nation have customs, rites, and manners, wherein they are singular, each tongue will have its special difficulties, which will always be the greater to strangers, the more remote the customs, rites, and manners of the nation are from the customs, rites and manners of other nations; for, in the same proportion, the genius of the tongue will differ from that of other tongues. If so, it is no wonder that the distinguishing particularity of the Jews in constitution, sentiments, ceremonies, and laws, should render it more difficult to translate with justness from their language, than to translate from the language of any people who, in all the respects afore-mentioned, do not so remarkably differ from others.
It may be proper here to point out more particularly where difficulties of this kind will be found principally to lie. It is evident that they will not at all affect the construction of the sentences, or the inflections of the words. The analogy of the language, and its whole grammatical structure, may be very simple, and easily acquired, whatever be the customs of the people, or how extraordinary soever they may appear to us. Further, simple narration, is not that kind of writing which will be much affected by those difficulties. The nouns which occur in it are generally of the first class, mentioned in the preceding part of this dissertation. And in these, from the principles formerly explained, the interpreter will not often meet with any thing to retard his progress. If the narrative be of matters which concern the community at large, as in civil history, there will no doubt be frequent recourse to the words of the third class. But in regard to these, the method of adopting the original term, established by universal practice, and founded in necessity, whereby translators extricate themselves when correspondent terms cannot be found, does in effect remove the difficulty. And even when words of the second class occur, as will sometimes happen, there is a greater probability that the context will ascertain their meaning in an historical work, than there is where they occur, in any other kind of writing, such as the didactic, the declamatory, the proverbial or aphoristic, and the argumentative.
This is the first difficulty proper to be mentioned, arising from difference of manners; a difficulty which cannot be said to affect the sacred writings peculiarly, otherwise than in degree. It is always the harder to reach in a version the precise signification of the words of the original, the wider the distance is, in sentiments and manners, between the nation in whose language the
book is written, and the nation into whose language it is to be translated.
2. The second difficulty I shall take notice of arises from the penury of words in the ancient oriental languages, at least in the Hebrew-a natural consequence of the simplicity of the people, the little proficiency made by them in sciences and arts, and their early withdrawing themselves on account of religion from the people of other nations. The fewer the words are in any language, the more extensive commonly is the signification given to every word; and the more extensive the signification of a word is, there is the greater risk of its being misunderstood, in any particular application; besides, the fewness of words obliges writers of enlarged minds, for the sake of supplying the deficiency, frequently to recur to metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, catachresis, and other rhetorical tropes. These, accordingly, are always found to abound most in the scantiest tongues. Now the frequent use of tropes occasions an unavoidable obscurity, and sometimes ambiguity, in the expression.
3. A third difficulty arises from the penury of books extant in the genuine ancient Hebrew, there being no more than the books of the Old Testament, and not even all these. When we consider the manner in which the knowledge of any language, even of our native tongue, is acquired, we find it is solely by attending to the several ways in which words are used in a vast variety of occurrences and applications, that the precise meaning is ascertained. As it is principally from conversation in our mothertongue, or in any living language which we learn from those who speak it, that we have occasion to observe this variety, so it is only in books that we have occasion to observe it, when employed in the acquisition of a dead language. Consequently, the fewer the books are, there is the greater risk of mistaking the sense, especially of those words which do not frequently occur. This has given rise to doubts about the meaning of some words, even of the first class, to wit, the names of a few natural objects, as plants, animals, and precious stones, which occur but rarely in Scripture, and solely in passages where sufficient light cannot be had from the context.
4. It may indeed be said, that as the writers of the New Testament employed not the Hebrew but the Greek language in their compositions, neither of the two remarks last mentioned can affect them, however they may affect the penmen of the Old. The Greek is indeed a most copious language, and the books written in it are very numerous. But whoever would argue in this manner, must have forgotten what has been fully evinced in the former dissertation, that though the words, the inflection, and the construction in the books of the New Testament are Greek, the idiom is strictly Hebraical; or at least he must not have reflected on the inevitable consequences of this doctrine, one of
which is, that the Hebraistic Greek, or Greek of the synagogue, as it has been called, will, in a great measure, labour under the same inconveniences and defects with the tongue on which its idiom is formed. Another consequence is, that the scarcity of books in the language which is the parent of the idiom, is, in effect, a scarcity of the lights that are necessary, or at least convenient, for the easier discovery of the peculiarities of the idiomatic tongue formed upon it. The reason of both is obvious; it is from that language we must learn the import of the phrases, and even sometimes of particular words, which otherwise would often prove unintelligible.
5. The fourth difficulty which the interpreter of the Bible has to encounter, arises from the nature of the prophetic style, a style highly figurative, or, as some critics have thought proper to denominate it, symbolical. The symbolic or typical is, in my apprehension, very much akin to what may be called the allegoric style. There is, however, this difference; the symbols employed in prophecy have, like the Egyptian hieroglyphics, acquired a customary interpretation from the established use in that mode of writing, and are seldom or never varied; whereas the allegory is more at the discretion of the writer. One consequence of this is, that in the former there is not required the same exactness of resemblance between the symbols, or the types and their antitypes, as is required in allegory. The reason is obvious: The usual application supplies the defects in the first; whereas, in the second, it is solely by an accuracy of resemblance that an allegory can be distinguished from a riddle.
This difficulty, however, in the prophetic style, may be said more strictly to affect the expounder of the sacred oracles than the translator. For in this mode of writing there are two senses exhibited to the intelligent reader; first, the literal, then the figurative for as the words are intended to be the vehicle of the literal sense to the man who understands the language, so the literal sense is intended to be the vehicle of the figurative, to the man whose understanding is exercised "to discern the things of the Spirit." It is to such, therefore, in a particular manner, that whatever is written in the symbolic style in the New Testament is addressed. Our Lord, to distinguish such from the unthinking multitude, calls them those who have ears to hear: "Whoso hath ears to hear," says he, "let him hear," Matt. xi. 15. xiii. 9. Mark iv. 9. Luke viii. 8. The same expression is also used in the Apocalypse, (ii. 7. 11. 17. 29), a book of prophecies. And it deserves to be attended to, that Jesus Christ never employs these words in the introduction or the conclusion of any plain moral instructions, but always after some parable, or prophetic declarations, figuratively expressed. Now, it is with the literal sense only that the translator, as such, is concerned. For the literal sense ought invariably to be conveyed into the version, where, if
you discover the antitype or mystical sense, it must be, though not through the same words, through the same emblems, as you do in the original.
This also holds in translating allegory, apologue, and parable. A man may render them exactly into another tongue, who has no apprehension of the figurative sense. Who can doubt that any fable of Æsop or Phædrus, for example, may be translated with as much justness by one who has not been told, and does not so much as guess the moral, as by one who knows it perfectly? whereas the principal concern of the expounder is to discover the figurative import. In the New Testament, indeed, there is only one book, the Apocalypse, written entirely in the prophetic style: and it must be allowed that that book may be accurately translated by one who has no apprehension of the spiritual meaning. However, in the greater part both of the historical and of the epistolary writings, there are prophecies interspersed. Besides, some knowledge in the diction and manner of the Prophets is necessary for the better apprehension of the application made in the New Testament of the prophecies of the Old, and the reasonings of the apostles in regard to those prophecies. Indeed it may be affirmed in general, that for translating justly what is of a mixed character, where the emblematic is blended with the historical, some knowledge of the mystic application is more essential, than for translating unmixed prophecy, allegory, or parable.
6. I shall mention as the cause of a fifth difficulty in the examination, and consequently in the right interpretation of the Scriptures, that, before we begin to study them critically, we have been accustomed to read them in a translation, whence we have acquired a habit of considering many ancient and oriental terms, as perfectly equivalent to certain words in modern use in our own language, by which the other have been commonly rendered. And this habit, without a considerable share of knowledge, attention, and discernment, is almost never perfectly to be surmounted. What makes the difficulty still the greater is, that when we begin to become acquainted with other versions beside that in our mother-tongue, suppose Latin, French, Italian, these, in many instances, instead of correcting, serve but to confirm the effect: For in these translations we find the same words in the original uniformly rendered by words which we know to correspond exactly, in the present use of those tongues, to the terms employed in our own translation.
I hope I shall not be so far misunderstood by any as to be supposed to insinuate, by this remark, that people ought to delay reading the Scriptures in a translation till they be capable of consulting the original. This would be to debar the greater part of mankind from the use of them altogether, and to give up the many immense advantages derived from the instructions contained
in the very worst versions of that book, for the sake of avoiding a few mistakes, comparatively small, into which one may be drawn even by the best. A child must not be hindered from using his legs in walking, on pretence that if he be allowed to walk it will be impossible always to secure him from falling. My intention in remarking this difficulty is to show, first, That those early studies, however proper and even necessary in Christians, are nevertheless attended with this inconveniency, that, at a time when we are incompetent judges, prepossessions are insensibly formed on mere habit or association, which afterward, when the judgment is more mature, cannot easily be surmounted; 2dly, To account in part, without recurring to obscurity in the original, for the greater difficulty said to be found in explaining holy writ than in expounding other works of equal antiquity; and, 3dly, To awake a proper circumspection and caution in every one, who would examine the Scriptures with that attention which the ineffable importance of the subject merits.
But, in order to set the observation itself in relation to this fifth difficulty in the strongest light, it would be necessary to trace the origin, and give, as it were, the history of some terms which have become technical amongst ecclesiastical writers, pointing out the changes which in a course of ages they have insensibly undergone. When alterations are produced by slow degrees, they always escape the notice of the generality of people, and sometimes even of the more discerning. For a term once universally understood to be equivalent to an original term whose place it occupies in the translation, will naturally be supposed to be still equivalent, by those who do not sufficiently attend to the variations in the meanings of words, which the tract of time, and the alterations in notions and customs thence arising, have imperceptibly introduced. Sometimes etymology, too, contributes to favour the deception. Is there one of a thousand, even among the readers of the original, who entertains the smallest suspicion that the words blasphemy, heresy, mystery, schism, do not convey to moderns precisely the same ideas which the Greek words, Blaoφημία, αίρεσις, μυστέριον, σχισμα, in the New Testament, conveyed to Christians in the times of the apostles? Yet that these Greek and English words are far from corresponding perfectly, I shall take an occasion of evincing afterward.* The same thing may be affirmed of several other words, and even phrases, which retain their currency on religious subjects, though very much altered in their signification.
7. The sixth and last difficulty, and perhaps the greatest of all, arises from this, that our opinions on religious subjects are commonly formed, not indeed before we read the Scriptures, but before we have examined them. The ordinary consequence is, that men afterward do not search the sacred oracles in order * Dissertation IX.