The Murderous History of Bible Translations
The history of the translated Bible is one of passion, conflict and even violence. Time and again the seemingly innocent act of transposing the sacred text into another language has been seized upon to advance a cause, instigate upheaval, incite rebellion or maintain a grip on power. At other times the translated bible has been marshalled as a bulwark against such designs.
For ordinary people the bible itself is a guide to belief and life. But for its translators, and their opponents, it could just as easily become a weapon in whatever struggle they were waging. Regulating the bible’s accessibility, giving people greater or lesser insights into what it teaches, has proved to be a powerful way of exerting control or promoting new thinking.
The Murderous History of Bible Translations begins with the story of the Septuagint, the first known Bible translation. It moves on to discuss the tales of three people who translated the bible to advance their political or religious beliefs. William Tyndale did so from a Reformer’s perspective, battling obscurantism, corruption and papal tyranny. He paid with his life. The nineteenth century American abolitionist and campaigner against social injustice, Julia Smith, helped lay the early foundations of feminism with her translation of the bible. And long before either of them, Saadia Al-Faiyumi, a ninth century Jewish philosopher, used it in his campaign against literalists and sectarians who threatened to bring down the edifice of rabbinic Judaism. He endured exile and ignominy for his pains.
There’s a theme which runs through the story of Bible translations. It is of the translated bible as an instrument of social or political change. The theme becomes evident even when we look back at the ancient translations. The activists were not always those who made the translations, sometimes it was their opponents, for example those who reacted against the Septuagint and the Peshitta. But Origen, Jerome and Wycliffe were on the side of the radicals, as were lesser known translators such as Mesrop Mashtots, Little Wolf and Moses Mendelssohn.
Of course, not all translations were controversial. Some, such as King James’s enterprise appeared to be wholly benign, a noble venture to clothe the divine word in literary magnificence. But we only have to peel away the façade to discover the manipulative, establishment-driven agenda beneath.
Today, when Western society is no longer centred on the Bible, its translators have abandoned grand upheaval, focusing instead on single issues. But they still exude passion, and a belief that the Bible translated after their fashion will bring about the change they so fervently desire. Even if they are unlikely to pay for it with their sanity, freedom or life.