Friday, September 24, 2004

As far as it is translated

Adam Greenwood started an interesting discussion over at Times & Seasons about how different approaches to “close reading” of the scriptures affect the conclusions we may reach from our reading. This brought up the question whether close reading is helpful, especially given the limitations of language to express revelation.

On that thread, I commented:

Perhaps the great value in close reading is not so much what we conclude, but the process of questioning, exploring, learning, pondering, and asking God for further light and knowledge. In the meantime, we can make tentative conclusions, as long as we recognize that we may be wrong.

Last night, I did some reading in the scriptures in German. I had to concentrate more than I do when reading in English (which I think is a value in itself). I found that as I read with concentration and focus, certain points of the text struck me differently than they do in English, and I learned some new things. I'm sure those of you who know multiple languages have had similar experiences. I think this is an excellent illustration of the principle I outlined above.

We don't claim that the Church's translation of the Doctrine & Covenants into German is divinely inspired. Yet a close reading of the German text may influence me to understand the scriptures differently than the English text does. I don't think this is because one is necessarily more “correct” than the other; I think it's just the natural consequence of different languages, with all the associated history, connotations, linguistic connections, and so forth.

We can ask whether the German text is faithful to the English, but that breaks down at a certain point. As Clark noted in his post on Umberto Eco on translation, being overly “faithful” to the source text may be a negative thing. Inevitably, what is said in German, no matter how much effort is made to express the same ideas as the English text, will be different. And I think this is a very positive thing, not a negative one.

The idea of an open canon applies as much on the level of a verse as it does on the level of an entire book. There are a couple of quotes on this subject that I like very much, from Dallin H. Oaks' article, Scripture Reading and Revelation:

Our belief in an open canon also includes private revelations to individual seekers of the meaning of existing scriptures. Such revelations are necessary because, as Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve observed, “Each pronouncement in the holy scriptures ... is so written as to reveal little or much, depending on the spiritual capacity of the student” (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1985, p. 71)...

The Lord promised Nephi: “Unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have” (2 Ne. 28:30; see also Matt. 13:12). That verse capsulizes the Latter-day Saint belief in the importance of continuing revelation as we read and interpret the scriptures. Even if there were no additional revelations to be added to the published canon, an open canon would still be an essential part of our belief and practice in scripture reading...

The idea that scripture reading can lead to inspiration and revelation opens the door to the truth that a scripture is not limited to what it meant when it was written but may also include what that scripture means to a reader today. Even more, scripture reading may also lead to current revelation on whatever else the Lord wishes to communicate to the reader at that time. We do not overstate the point when we say that the scriptures can be a Urim and Thummim to assist each of us to receive personal revelation.

The problem with not valuing close reading is that we close off a great avenue for further revelation and understanding. When we read closely, we recognize that we don't have all the answers, and we begin to ask questions of the scriptures, and to allow them to raise questions for us. Different translations (such as the JST, modern Bible translations into English or any other language, etc.) can encourage this process, not necessarily because they necessarily bring us to more correct conclusions of themselves, but because they get us asking questions.

1 comment:

  1. That talk by Elder Oaks has been my favorite GA talk ever since it was first published in the Ensign. My second favorite was one by Elder Ashton on how our ideas of what is a curse and what is a blessing is often screwed up. Unfortunately I've been unable to find that one. I need to try again on the search site.