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The Translation of Sacred Texts

The Translation of Sacred Texts

The spring of 2022 brings a rare convergence of religious holy days. In the three-month period of March through May, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Baha’is, and others are celebrating their spring holidays during overlapping weeks for the first time since 1991.*

Translation is the most vital step in preserving and sharing the sacred texts of these and all religions, from generation to generation and across cultures. Two other important steps are 1) preserving them and 2) making them available. Over the centuries, scholars, monks, historians, and others have taken this task on.
The Internet Sacred Text Archive is an example of a 21st century organization attempting to do those two things.** At this site you will find texts containing folklore and mythology from Native American to Icelandic to African traditions; mysticism; tarot; the occult; and even Shakespeare and Tolkien. The online archive founders’ goal is to assemble and preserve the texts of cultures less represented online and make them more available.

For centuries the difficulties of translating texts considered to be of mysterious or divine origin have been the same. In the ways that poetry is inherently resistant to “accurate” translation, so is “inspired language.”*** And of course accurate translation of influential, sometimes provocative sacred texts can be compromised by people with agendas beyond providing accurate texts. The main nefarious motive is obvious: what could be more powerful than framing one’s own causes and preferences as the thoughts of a god when translating words that only a minority can read for themselves? There are translators, patrons, and publishers who have all been guilty of this through the ages.

Even when the translator’s intentions are straightforward and moral, they face issues that make the appropriate translation of sacred texts challenging. The following are a few examples explained by Abdelhamid Elewa in Features of Translating Religious Texts, (Journal of Translation, Volume 10, Number 1, 2014) and paraphrased here:

1. The wording of religious texts should not be altered by creative interpretation in the way that fictive and poetic texts can be during translation. This is because they represent real beliefs whose conveyance can be compromised by imprecise word choices.

2. A distinctive feature of religious texts is the use of sound devices to make texts easy to read, memorize, recite, and chant. The translator needs to attempt to replicate these features with alliteration, assonance, rhyme, and rhythm, which is no easy task in a new language.

3. Archaic words such as “thou,” “ye,” “thrice,” and “henceforth” are often used in religious documents to retain connection to antiquity. However, many modern audiences do not relate to texts that sound outdated, so the translator should be clear about the nature of their audience, and use archaic words in moderation.

4. Word choices for religious texts tend toward formality, but the sense of which words are formal versus informal is determined by culture and time. In the following examples, the first, more formal word would be used:
Unclothed vs naked
Delight vs fun
Children vs kids
Arise vs get up

5. There are various ways to handle religion-specific words when translating. For instance, “transference” is when words are transferred as-is into the target language translation, such as “jihad” and “logos.” Finding a “functional equivalent” for words representing culturally unique concepts is another option that comes up. And a third example of how to handle religion-specific language is the paraphrasing of an idea, which requires careful judgment by the translator about what and how much to include in this new wording.

The complexities and puzzles awaiting the translators of sacred texts are abundant, requiring a great depth of understanding of both the source and target languages and cultures. Through history translators’ reasons for taking on the challenge on have ranged from academic to political, resulting in translations that can powerfully influence a society. While it’s a process that involves relatively mundane choices – commas, words, capitalization – it can impact human experiences of something far more complex.

Skrivanek handles every kind of text you wish to have translated, even those requiring the sensitivity and cultural knowledge that sacred texts do. Our linguists and subject specialists are always aware of the power of language and the necessity of taking great care with their word choices and translation techniques.

May your own cherished texts and rituals enrich your life this spring!


* https://www.aspeninstitute.org

** https://www.sacred-texts.com/about.htm

*** Translating Inspired Language, Transforming Sacred Texts, by Fatma Sinem Eryilmaz


J. V. McShulskis



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