Monolingualism, Scriptural Translation and the Problem of Western Civilization

We all know that Christianity, Islam and Judaism have their sacred scriptures.

What is not often discussed is how scripture functions in each of the three faith traditions.

The "original" language of Christian scripture is Greek. I put quotation marks around the word "original" because it is highly unlikely that Jesus and his community of followers spoke Greek with any fluency. It is more likely that Jesus spoke Aramaic, Hebrew or some admixture of the two. It was not until the coming of Paul that Greek language and gentile culture became a central part of Christianity.

The Quran is formulated in an Arabic that is seen as miraculous. The Arabic language is so important that the Muslim tradition holds that the Quran may not be translated into any other language.

Jewish scripture was composed in Hebrew with later parts of the canon in Aramaic. Hebrew is considered the Holy Language par excellence, but it is interesting to note that although the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible must be reproduced according to precise orthographic rules for ritual purposes, the Jewish tradition permits translations of the text into other languages.

The Greek original of the Christian scriptures, unlike the Hebrew original of the Jewish scriptures, is not constricted by formal orthographic rules and is not part of the formal liturgy as Hebrew is in the Synagogue, where the portions of the Pentateuch are read as a weekly lection. Torah Scrolls must be written by a scribe following very intricate laws. A scribal error or an erasure in the Scroll of just one letter invalidates it for liturgical purposes. In Islam the text of the Quran is completely sacrosanct as well.

In his 1986 work Golden Doves with Silver Dots, Jose Faur makes the point crystal clear:

[T]he Koran is not to be translated. It must be read and transmitted only in the original. Transmission tolerates no change. Taqlid, imitation, stipulates that the movement must always be one-directional, from the people to the Koran, and not the other way around. Christianity allows translation of the Scriptures. However, it does not recognize an original text to which the translation is connected and ultimately accountable.

Judaism insists on the absolute integrity and inviolability of the original text, but permits translation. This means that Judaism encourages Jews to look beyond their own native language and assimilate its scriptures into a foreign context.

Why is this question of language so important?

The idea of monolingualism, a culture that limits itself to only one language, is a critical part of the legacy we have inherited from ancient Greece.

The great classicist Arnaldo Momigliano has formulated the point in his groundbreaking 1975 article "The Fault of the Greeks": "The Greeks remained proudly monolingual as, with rare exceptions, they had been for centuries. It was not for them to converse with the natives in the natives' languages. They were not acquainted with either Latin or Hebrew literature. There was no tradition of translating foreign books into Greek."

In Momigliano's treatment of this same theme in his 1975 book Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization, he takes the idea to its logical conclusion: "Let us consider more closely what was implied in the Greek refusal to look at the Bible. It meant that the Greeks expected the Jews not to translate their holy books, but to produce an account of themselves according to the current methods and categories of ethnography."

Rather than try to understand the Jews according to their own values, values encoded in the original language of their sacred scriptures, the Greeks demanded that the Jews as Other should present themselves according to the values and standards of Greek culture.

Monolingualism becomes a prominent feature in the Histories written by the so-called "father" of history Herodotus. In a brilliant 1988 study called The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History, the French scholar Francois Hartog presents Herodotus' preconceptions and their implications for Western civilization in its ongoing struggle with pluralism and tolerance:

Is it possible to make out a system of translation in the Histories? Strictly speaking, certainly not. There is no phrase book for Egyptian and Greek or for Persian and Greek, let alone for Scythian and Greek. Marco Polo learned Persian, Mongolian, and a little Chinese ... The fact remains that, generally speaking, the Greeks did tend to speak nothing but Greek.

Affirming Momigliano's point that the Greeks did not venture outside the comfort zone of their native language, Hartog shows us that a traveler like Marco Polo endeavored to learn other languages, thus allowing him to better understand other civilizations while Herodotus remained proudly Monolingual.

The prison that is erected under the law of monolingualism is one of narcissism and the inability to allow us to communicate and correctly understand those who are not like us.

In early Christianity, a process of assimilation took place that absorbed and adopted the Greek culture. In the Christian scriptures we see the primacy of the Greek language and the eventual relinquishing of the Semitic roots of Jesus' culture and its Hebrew orientation. The process continued with the adoption of the Latin Vulgate, which took on primary-text status even though it is a translation of the Greek text.

The very first verse of John's Gospel formulates the matter in a very telling way: "In the beginning was the word [Greek: Logos], and the word was with God, and the word was God."

The transformation of Scriptural truth into the existential truth of Jesus and his existence as the son of God obviates the literal meaning of the text. The Hebrew term implicitly translated by the Greek word Logos is Davar. While Logos means only "word," the Hebrew Davar means both "word" and "thing."

Jesus becomes the Word incarnate; thus obviating the literal need for the text. The Christian's faith is in Jesus and not scripture. I am sure that many Christians would be shocked to read the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas' seminal 1955 radio lecture on Holocaust theodicy entitled "Loving the Torah more than God." As his provocative title indicates, Levinas affirms with a vengeance the centrality of scripture in the Jewish tradition in a way that might be troubling to religious fundamentalists.

In a trenchant discussion of the Hebrew term Davar, Susan Handelman, in her classic 1981 work The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory, states:

The Hebrew word was not just an arbitrary designation, but an aspect of the continuous divine creative force. Each word, as [Isaac] Rabinowitz puts it, was the inner specific character or essence of its respective reality. Names are not conventional, but intrinsically connected to their referents; the name, indeed, is the real referent of the thing, its essential character -- not the reverse as in Greek thought.

In this reading of the Rabbinic tradition, the dialectical link between the literal meaning of scripture, in Hebrew the peshat, and the exegetical expansion of that literal meaning, derasha, is enabled by the dynamic process of hermeneutics as a rhetorical-literary and not a spiritual-existential process.

This dynamic process allows for the ability to translate the original text, thus giving that text a flexibility which refuses its petrifaction.

Monolingualism in Western civilization along Platonic lines demands that essences be frozen in temporal and conceptual space. Difference is denied as all other cultures must conform to "our" culture. There is no possibility of pluralism. Everyone in this scheme must be the same. By adopting Greek culture, Christianity demanded that non-Christians become Christian or they would be excluded from the Kingdom of God.

Jewish cultural pluralism was accelerated after the Exile of the Jews in 70 CE. In the Jewish Diaspora scripture became the religious home of each individual Jew. Study was the paramount value in this scheme. The freedom and creativity inherent in Scriptural interpretation and translation allowed Jews to avoid the prison of monolingualism.

Midrash became the path that allowed the Jewish people to make and remake their tradition as the imperial cultures of Europe sunk under the weight of their inability to accommodate difference and Otherness over the course of many bloody centuries. Jose Faur clarifies the point in Golden Doves, saying, "The Hebrew term for interpretation, peter/pesher, implies the notion of compromise. Interpretation involves the integration of various elements."

By contrast, Greek truth, aletheia, as Faur states, "is context-free and therefore universally valid; it 'un-veils' and 'dis-covers' the evident. The truth is static and absolute: like Euclidean geometry it transcends all contexts."

The issue of language and sacred scripture is of critical importance to us today. Religious fundamentalism is marked by a fanatical concern with a universally valid and context-free "truth" along the lines of the Hellenistic tradition. Extreme believers frequently ignore the way in which translation has played a crucial role in their religious inheritance.

Civilization must not be reduced to a single, unwavering "truth." It should be able to seek accommodation through the twin mechanisms of translation and cultural pluralism.

The Jewish tradition of scriptural exegesis has preserved for the liberal mind a means of parsing the literal truth of tradition, but allowing the interpreter the freedom to take that literal truth and transform it according to the needs of the present and of the larger cultural space that is inhabited by people not like us.

The ancient Greeks saddled Western civilization with contempt for the non-Western Other while reifying itself.

Looking in the mirror, we see only our own image reflected, rather than the face of our neighbor. It is only by the process of translation, to and from our native languages, that we can create true human connections between different people. In order to promote a culture of peace and mutual understanding, it is necessary that we relinquish the impoverished values of the monolingual Logos and adopt the pluralistic values of the dynamic Davar.