Art & Culture

Are translations of religious texts demoting God?

Tabish Khair
Tabish KhairAug 04, 2016 | 13:27

Are translations of religious texts demoting God?

Most people in the Western world are familiar with the history of the English Bible.

As the common version goes, John Wycliffe, an Oxford theologian and professor, produced the first handwritten English-language Bible manuscripts in the 1380s.

With the help of his assistants and supporters, he made various copies of these manuscripts, translated out of the Latin Vulgate, which was the only source text available to Wycliffe.


This so infuriated the Pope that, forty-four years after Wycliffe died, he ordered the professor's bones to be exhumed, crushed, and scattered in a river.

The Pope was not just angry at divergences in teaching; he was upset at the very act of translating the Bible out of Latin and into a spoken language.

Hence, when John Hus, one of Wycliffe's most loyal followers, was burned at the stake in 1415, Wycliffe's translated Bibles were used as kindling for the fire.

One aspect of this story - not by any means confined to the Christian tradition - pertains to the relationship of God to literature.

As Benedict Andersen points out in Imagined Communities, languages like Latin (or Arabic in the case of Islam, and Sanskrit in the case of Brahminical Hinduism) were not seen as just equivalent systems of differential signs; they were considered divine languages.

In other words, the Bible, the Quran, the Gita, etc, were considered texts revealed in a special - sacred - language; translation, no matter how accurate, was seen as distorting the words of God.


We can posit this as a debate between whether God creates literature, or literature (of a certain sort) creates God.

Does the refutation of God necessarily do away with God, even in literature? 

The untranslatability of the Bible (and similar sacred texts) is predicated on the priority of God: while God is expressed in the sacred literature, he precedes and exceeds the text.

Translations of sacred texts do not deny this relationship (Wycliffe was, in his own ways, just as devout as the Pope), but they insert a human agency that functions a bit like a sliver of doubt.

If sacred texts can be translated into another language, with the inevitable differences in nuance if not significance, then in the case of that translated text, surely, God has been demoted.

The text, as translation, then comes before God's intention, agency and even words.

This was just a logical, theoretical, initially unintended doubt; it was by no means the intention of Wycliffe or his followers to question the primacy of God.

No one, in the Christian world, really did so until the 18th century of Rousseau, and very few did so even in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Science was mostly considered by the progressives of the period as proving the existence of God.


The common notion that science was directly opposed to religion in post-Enlightenment Europe is a partly misleading one, and largely a 20th-century view of the European past.

And yet the incision had been made, intentionally or not.

And it was made in different but similar ways in other cultures too: for instance, among the Falsifa and then radical Sufis in the context of Islam; among sects like Buddhism and later the radical Bhakti singers in the context of Brahmanical Hinduism.

Over the years, this imperceptible incision would widen, as the Pope feared in the 14th century, though in other terms.

"God" would continue to express himself through literature, but increasingly literature would be used to express "God": Dante's Inferno, Milton's Paradise Lost or Iqbal's Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa provide aspects of this.

This developed in different ways over the centuries. Much more would come, inevitably.

If God needed to be "justified" in literature, as Milton thought, literature could also critique, deny and even replace God.

Shelley thought that the devout Milton was unknowingly of the devil's party, and for Shelley it was a point in the blind bard's favour.

Bertrand Russell argued in a literary essay that he was not a Christian.

But does the refutation of God necessarily do away with God, even in literature?

One is reminded of the "God-shaped hole" that Salman Rushdie mentions in one of his novels, and that many readers have filled with literature itself.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Last updated: August 04, 2016 | 13:27
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