This paper discusses the impact of translation on the Latin language within the context of the Christian bible. It begins with a historical contextualizing discussion of the political and social climate of the Middle Ages through the Reformation and the events that eventually lead up to the translation of the Latin bible into the English vernacular. The paper also includes a comparison between the translated English bible and the Qu’ran in terms of the impact on cultural identity, and the loss of Latin as a language.
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Translation and Its Effects on Languages
For almost a thousand years the Christian bible was not only available exclusively to the educated elite, but to the educated elite able to decipher the Latin language alone. This instance created a hierarchy amongst the priesthood, biblical scholars, and the Roman Catholic Church, and an impasse among the largely illiterate peoples of Europe. The Church enjoyed a monopoly on the biblical word during the Dark Ages which it had no qualms enforcing not only through legislated ignorance, but also through outright aggression and violence.
The Roman Catholic Church actively protected the Latin version of the bible from the perceived bastardization into languages other than Latin through the threat of execution, and dissenters were regularly rounded up and burned alive at the stake (Ng 2001).
The Roman Catholic Church’s domination of the teachings of the bible through its hands on policing of the Latin language successfully kept the European populace largely ignorant of the contents of the bible, other than that which they were able to glean second and third hand from the church, their local priest and word of mouth.
This in turn maintained the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church, and facilitated the dependence of the populace on the Roman Catholic Church, in the sense that the Roman Catholic Church remained largely free to decide which aspects of the bible it would share and which aspects it would withhold. Thus those who could read Latin risked their lives – and often lost their lives – if they spoke out against the Roman Catholic Church’s interpretation of scripture.
The Roman Catholic Church monopoly over the bible persisted for nearly ten decades; however it began to change through the actions of one man: John Wycliffe. This essay will discuss the creation of the early translations of the Latin bible into English as spearheaded by John Wycliffe, and will analyze the impact of John Wycliffe’s translation, as well as later translations on the Latin language, which as we all know eventually disappeared from common language.
Strong political conflicts between several European states and the Roman Catholic Church began to wear away the power of the Roman Catholic Church, and also had the added effect of weakening the stranglehold the Church had kept for so many years on the bible, largely through the decline of the Latin language as a universal language. Coupled with this decline, the use of vernaculars, dialects and European languages began to usurp Latin as the main language of Europe.
When viewed through the eyes of history, the translation of the bible played a key role in the liberation of the European cultures from the political, social and religious control of the Roman Catholic Church. Thus the act of translation itself became a political act, and a subversive one at that. The essay will then compare the history of the translation of the Latin bible into accessible vernaculars with the Qu’ran.
The Islamic holy book was not translated into vernaculars, and as a result, standard Arabic stayed alive and maintained itself in common usage. In keeping the Arabic language alive, the essay will discuss the impact of translation on the Qu’ran, specifically as it relates to culture and identity among Arabic peoples who follow the Qu’ran and worship according to the laws of Islam today.
Modern day translations of the Qu’ran have much in common with the late medieval and early modern periods of European history in that they can quite easily be construed as politically charged activities.
According to Khaleel Mohammed (2005), fewer than 20 per cent of all Muslims located worldwide speak standard Arabic, thus the vast majority of Muslims understand the Qu’ran as a translation – in other words – the scripture comes to them second and third hand, in much the same way that the European peoples of the Dark Ages received the Latin bible a millennium ago.
Translations of the Qu’ran may well have maintained the Arabic language, but they too can quite easily fall prey to the same political machinations that the Roman Catholic Church employed to maintain dominance over the minds of the populace through manipulative, politicized and even militarized translations. This essay will illustrate the impact of politicized translations of the Qu’ran on modern day Muslims and modern day Islam.
The vulgate is considered the oldest version of the entire Christian bible. The term vulgate translates literally as “common edition” and biblical scholars consider this text the “most ancient extant version of the whole Christian Bible” (Columbia University Press 2010). The name vulgate originates from a reference in the 13th century which made mention of the vulgate and called it the “editio vulgata” (Columbia University Press 2010).
The vulgate remained the official Latin version of the bible endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church, and this version would have been in use during the Dark Ages.
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The vulgate was put together by Saint Jerome under orders from Pope Damascus the First; Jerome began the translation in A.D. 383 and finished in A.D. 405 (Columbia University Press 2010). Pope Damascus the First’s purpose in having the vulgate prepared was to replace and older Latin version of the bible known as the “Itala,” which had been translated from the original Greek (Columbia University Press 2010)
The vulgate was the source material for John Wycliffe’s English bible. John Wycliffe was born in 1324 in Yorkshire, England and educated at Oxford. He went on to become a professor at Oxford professor, a biblical scholar, and a theologian. A few years before his death John Wycliffe entered a radical phase and began to gain fame around Europe for his antagonism toward the organized teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
John Wycliffe became especially vocal in his denunciations of the Roman Catholic Church’s interpretation of scripture (Lane 1994). John Wycliffe gathered a group of loyal followers known as the Lollards, and started work on translating the vulgate into English. As a result, in 1381 he was fired from his Oxford University position and went into exile at a church in Lutterworth (Lane 1994). There John Wycliffe and the Lollards hand wrote dozens of English language manuscript copies of the bible based on their interpretations of the vulgate.
According to Lane (1994) the Roman Catholic Church read copies of John Wycliffe’s bible, promptly decried them and swore revenge; the Pope was “so infuriated by his teachings and his translation of the Bible into English, that 44 years after Wycliffe had died, he ordered the bones to be dug-up, crushed, and scattered in the river” (Lane 1994). John Wycliffe had used his power as a translator, in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, simply to criticize them.
Thus in Lane’s (1994) words, “the church did not approve of the translation, but not primarily because it was in English. There were already English translations of parts of the Bible, and copies of the Wycliffe translation were legally owned by nobles and clergy. The main problem was that it was the Wycliffe Bible: it was distributed by his followers (the “heretical” Lollards) and used to attack the teachings and practices of the church.
In addition, the church was concerned about the effect of Bible reading upon the uneducated laity. The Bible was best left to the eyes of educated clergy, since salvation was mediated through the teachings of the church and the clergy-led sacraments” (Lane 1994). John Wycliffe was lucky enough to die and escaped the wrath of the Roman Catholic Church.
Following the distribution of the John Wycliffe bible, the Roman Catholic Church confiscated copies of Wycliffe’s biblical translations and burned them, and several of his followers, including John Hus, met with fiery ends (Lane 1994). In the end the power of the Roman Catholic Church won out, and many of the Lollards including “translators Nicholas of Hereford and John Purvey, recanted” (Lane 1994).
Despite this, the taste for the English bible persisted. According to Lane (1994), nearly 200 of John Wycliffe’s original manuscripts survive to this day, despite “attempts by the church to destroy it and to harass people who read it” (Lane 1994).
The politics of translation owes its origin to the politics of language, and language stands as one of the cornerstones of identity and is often used to define political sides.
Where the history of the translation of the bible is concerned, “what is most significant…is the continuity from the late medieval to the early modern period of the subversiveness of translation, when possession of the vernacular scripture could condemn one as a heretic and vernacular writings other than scripture were perceived as dangerous, always potentially heretical” (Ng 2001). Translation stands as a potentially subversive political act simply “because it challenges the claim to an original and to an origin” (Ng 2001).
Where Arabic is concerned, historically speaking this language has had its share of political application. This is largely due to the fact that Qu’ran scholars believe Allah spoke to Mohammed in Arabic, and that any other language by definition is godless. “Muslims view the Qur’an as God’s direct words revealed in Arabic to the Prophet Muhammad.
Because the Qur’an stresses its Arabic nature, Muslim scholars believe that any translation cannot be more than an approximate interpretation, intended only as a tool for the study and understanding of the original Arabic text” (Mohammed 2005). In his book The Arabic Language and National Identity, Suleiman (2003) made a salient point when he argued that “languages are constructed units of self definition (Suleiman 2003).
Similarly, the distinction between a language and a dialect remains arbitrary at best. “Whether two or more dialects are established as different languages or as dialects of the same language will depend on a variety of contextual factors that are related to the history, politics, culture and demography of any given situation…languages are discursive processes, and…standard languages are the products of ideological processes” (Suleiman 2003).
In the Middle Ages those caught reciting the Lord’s Prayer in English as opposed to Latin were arrested and burned alive at the stake (Ng 2001). Similarly, Suleiman (2006) offers the following chilling example of Arabic violence related to language: “In Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, the Arabic pronunciation for tomato acted as a shibboleth, as a sign of belonging, which helped determine the speaker’s identity as Palestinian or Lebanese.
Literally, in some cases, pronouncing the word for tomato as bandura in a Palestinian inflection, rather than as banadura, which is the Lebanese pronunciation, was tantamount to signing one’s death warrant. The fact that a short vowel a inter-syllabically in the Arabic pronunciation of tomato meant the difference between life and death is a damning judgment on nationalism” (Suleiman 2006).
Suleiman (2004) also highlights the conscious politicizing of the Arabic language by many translators by deliberately applying military language to translation; the analogy of the battlefield and the holy war appears regularly in Arabic translations of the Qu’ran.
As mentioned, 80 per cent of Muslims read the Qu’ran in translation, thus this militarizing of the religious book becomes problematic since it betrays an aggressive bias on the part of the translator, and a penchant for attaching violence to the Qu’ran, whether or not the original standard Arabic contains that connotation.
Suleiman (2004) provides the following example: “To the garrisoned troops (murābitūn) who know that they are members of the home front! To the first generation of holy warriors (mujāhidūn) who stood together shoulder to shoulder…to those who stood their ground in the heat of battle” (Suleiman 2004). As Suleiman (2004) points out, the “military nature of these references…is not accidental” (Suleiman 2004). Ironically, in cases such as this example, the clearly stated bias of the translator strikes the reader as refreshing.
The earliest translations of the Qu’ran into English, by contrast, were not only undertaken by Christians, but by crusading missionaries who sought to “debunk Islam and aid in the conversion of Muslims to Christianity” (Mohammed 2005).
These translators neglected to state their intended purpose, to create a version of the Qu’ran that was “newly Englished for the satisfaction for all that desire to look into the Turkish vanities” (Mohammed 2005). While describing the holy Qu’ran as a Turkish vanity is beyond offensive, the example highlights the political action of the translator as it pertains to religious works.
The question remains, how much of the medieval mindset that gave birth to the Crusades still persists in these ancient texts, and how much of it still influences not only the translators of the Qu’ran, but the readers themselves. According to Mohammed (2005), “in order to make itself acceptable to a world torn by Islamist terrorism, Islam faces more than just the hurdle of a proper English translation of its main document.
Until Muslims learn to question the reliability of the Muslim oral traditions, or divorce themselves from medieval exegetical constructs, they will be living in a world much apart from the Judeo-Christian entity that has known reformation and enlightenment (Mohammed 2005).
Perhaps given the fractious and violent quality of Christianity and Islam today, the solution lies in rewriting both texts completely, from beginning to end, in a manner that reflects the world we currently live in, not the world of thousands of years in the past. Though this suggestion may be heretical, it could well represent the way out of a long and seemingly endless cycle of aggression, intolerance and retribution.
Columbia University Press (2010). Vulgate. Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia ( 6th ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.
Lane, T. (1994). The crown of English Bibles. Christian History, 13 (3), 6-11.
Mohammed, K. (2005). Assessing English translations of the Qur’an. Middle East Quarterly, 12 (2), 59-71.
Ng, S. F. (2001). Translation, interpretation and heresy: The Wycliffe bible, Tyndale’s bible and the contested origin. Studies in Philology. 98 (3), 315-339.
Suleiman, Y. (2004). A war of words: Language and conflict in the Middle East. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Suleiman, Y. (2003). The Arabic language and national identity: A study in ideology. Washington, Georgetown University Press.