The Need of Translations

 Francis Turretin*

Are translations necessary, and what is their authority and use in the church?

I. There are two parts of this question: the first concerning the need for translations, and the second their authority. As to the first, although the wiser Roman Catholics recognize the need and value of translations, and have therefore prepared them in many languages, yet many of them, having lost their reason, condemn them as evil and dangerous; for example, Arbor says, "The translation of the sacred writings into the vulgar tongue is the sole origin of heresies," and Soto, Harding, Bayle, and many of the order of Loyola agree-against whom the Reformed uphold not only the value but also the need of translations, and prove it by a number of arguments.

II. (1) Reading of, and reflection upon, Scripture is required (praecepta) of people of all languages. Therefore its translation into the vernacular is necessary, for, since mankind is divided into many linguistic groups, and not everyone is acquainted with the two languages in which it was first given, it cannot be understood by such unless translated; therefore [the Scripture] would say nothing at all, or what no one understands. But [by translations] the marvelous grace of God has brought it about that the difference of languages, which formerly was the sign of his wrath, now is an evidence of heavenly blessing; that which was first used for the destruction of Babel is now employed in the construction of the mystical Zion.

III. (2) The gospel is to be preached in all languages; therefore it can and should be translated into all. This is a logical deduction from the preached word to the written, because the significance (ratio) is the same, and the reasons that led the apostles to preach in the vernacular make plain the need of translations. Although the apostles wrote only in one language, it does not follow that Scripture cannot be translated into others, for there is one rule (ratio) for the sources, another for the translations: the sources should have been written in one language, and so the apostles, as teachers of the universal church, should have written only in the universal and most common language, which at that time was Greek, just as the Old Testament, which was intended for the Jews, was written in Hebrew, their vernacular. But where Greek has passed out of use, there is need of translation for the proclamation of the gospel.

IV. (3) It is certain that both Eastern and Western churches had their translations, and worshiped in the language of the people as a sacred language, as is evident from their liturgies. Why should not the same thing be done today, since there is the same need and reason for teaching the people? When the two memorable dispersions of the Israelites, one among the Chaldeans and the other among the Greeks, took place, and God's people by using the local language almost forgot Hebrew, the Chaldean Targum or paraphrase, and later the Greek translation, were made for the sake of the uneducated. There were several Targums. The first was the Chaldean paraphrase of Jonathan the son of Uziel, a disciple of Hillel, contemporary of Simeon, who lived forty years before Christ. When he saw that true Hebrew was little by little falling into disuse, he prepared a Chaldean version, lest the people be denied so great a treasure; we have this version of the former and latter prophets. To this Onkelos, who lived after Christ and was a contemporary of Gamaliel, added a translation of the Pentateuch. There is also a paraphrase of the Hagiographa, but no real knowledge of its author. There are also Syriac, Arabic, Persian, and Ethiopic versions, but they are less used and less well known. For the New Testament, there is a Syriac translation, which is believed to be the oldest, and which is ascribed by some to the church of Antioch.

V. Greek translations of the Old Testament, of which there are also many, followed these. The first and most famous is the Septuagint, which was made under Ptolemy Philadelphus of Egypt about three hundred years before Christ. The second is that of Aquila of Pontus, under the emperor Hadrian, about A.D. 137. He was first of the Greek religion, then a Christian; when the church was disturbed by foolish fanaticism over astrology he defected to the Jews because of the strife of Christians, and translated the Old Testament in order to corrupt the oracles about Christ.

The third was by Theodotion, who lived under Commodus, about A.D. 184, and was of the Pontic nation and the Marcionite faith. After becoming a Jew he prepared a new I translation in which he followed the Septuagint as much as possible. The fourth was by Symmachus, who lived under the emperors Antoninus [Pius] and [Marcus] Aurelius, about A.D. 197. He was at first a Samaritan, but became a Jew and translated the Old Testament to refute the Samaritans. To these two others of unknown authorship were added: the Jericho version found in a jar near Jericho in the time of Caracalla, about A.D. 220, and the Nicopolitan version, found near Nicopolis in the time of Alexander Severns, about 230. By bringing all of these together, Origen made his Tetrapla, Hexapla, and Octapla. The Tetrapla contained four Greek versions in separate columns--the Septuagint, Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion. In the Hexapla he added two Hebrew versions, one in Hebrew letters and one in Greek. In the Octapla the two anonymous versions from Jericho and Nicopolis were added; some call this the seventh [Greek version]. They add an eighth, that of Lucian the martyr, who emended the earlier ones judiciously (feliciter), and was well liked by the Constantinopolitans. The ninth was the Hesychian, which was used in Egypt and Alexandria. The Greek fathers say that a tenth was made from the Latin of Jerome.

VI. A number of old Latin versions circulated at an early date, made, however, not from the sources but from the Greek. One popular one was called the "Itala," as Augustine tells us (De doctrina Christiana 2.15). Jerome issued two more, one from the Septuagint, the other carefully on the basis of the true Hebrew and Greek texts. This is regarded as the Vulgate of today, but it has been corrupted with the passage of time in many ways, for which reason a number of learned men, Lorenzo Valla, Faber Stapulensis, Cajetan, Arias Montanus, and others, have made corrections. Other translations are more recent, both into Latin and into the vernacular and other languages. It is not necessary to speak of them, as they are well known. From the above it can be seen that it has been the constant practice of the church to use translations.

VII. The inscription on the cross was not written in three languages for sacred purposes, but because at that time they were the languages of greatest prestige and widest use, and so most suitable for spreading the knowledge of Christ throughout the world, which was God's purpose in that inscription.

VIII. The unity of the church is not preserved by language, but by unity of teaching (Eph. 4:3), and the first council was lawfully convened and produced good results, in spite of diversity of language.

IX. The majesty of Scripture arises from the message rather than from the words; if these three languages seem to increase its majesty, this is per accidens because of the prejudice (superstitio) of an untaught community, not from reality.

X. We do not deny that these three languages have been retained in the assemblies of the better educated, and the business of the church carried on, and controversies settled, in them, when they were no longer vernaculars; but they have not had the same value among the people, and in worship, where the faith and devotion of every person is to be supported, that he may understand in accordance with his ability.

XI. Although we do not deny that the Hebrew language was corrupted in various ways during the captivity, through contact with neighboring people, and many Chaldean and Syrian words introduced, it does not follow either that the text was corrupted in any way or that it was not understood by the people to whom it was addressed, because Zechariah, Haggai, and Malachi wrote in pure Hebrew, which they would not have done unless the people understood it. Also it can be learned from Nehemiah 8:8 that Ezra read the book of the law before all the people, to which they are said to have listened, which they could not have done if they did not understand, and if Ezra and the Levites are said to have interpreted what they read, this is to be understood as an explanation of the meaning rather than a translation of the words.

XII. Although translations are not authentic formally and with respect to the form of teaching, they ought nonetheless to be used in church, because if they are correct and in agreement with the sources, they are always authentic materially and with respect to the content of teaching.

XIII. From the above, it is clear what the authority of translations is. Although they are of great value for the instruction of believers, no other version can or should be regarded as on a par with the original, much less as superior. (1) Because no other version has any weight which the Hebrew or Greek source does not possess more fully, since in the sources not only the content (res et sententiae), but also the very words, were directly spoken (dictata) by the Holy Spirit, which cannot be said of any version. (2) Because it is one thing to be an interpreter (interpres), but another to be a prophet (vates), as Jerome says in his preface to the Pentateuch. The prophet, being inspired, cannot err, but the interpreter, being human, lacks no human quality, and so is always subject to error. (3) The translations are all streams; the original text the source whence they take their lasting quality. One is the rule, the other the ruled which has merely human authority.

XIV. But not all authority is to be taken away from the translations; here two aspects of divine authority must be rightly distinguished, that of substance and that of words. The first is concerned with the substance of doctrine, and is the internal form of Scripture; the second with the accident of writing, which is its external and accidental form. The source has both, for it is inspired both in substance and in words, but translations have only the first, because they are expressed in human, not divine, words.

XV. From this it is evident that translations as such are not authentic and canonical in themselves, because they were produced by human effort and skill, and at that point are subject to error, and may be corrected, but they are authentic with regard to the doctrine they contain, which is divine and infallible. So they do not support divine faith formally as to words, but materially as to the teaching they contain.

XVI. Perfection in substance and truth, to which nothing can be added and from which nothing can be taken away, is one thing; the perfection of a particular version is another. The first is a pure divine work, which is absolutely and in every way self-certifying; such is in the Word proclaimed in the versions. The second is a human work, and so subject to error and correction, to which great, but nevertheless human, authority can be assigned, which comes from its conformity and fidelity to the original text, and is not of divine quality.

XVII. Assurance of the conformity of translations with the original is of two kinds. The first is merely grammatical and of human knowledge, by knowing the conformity of the words of the translations to the original; this is the work of the better educated who understand the languages. But the second is spiritual and of divine faith respecting the conformity of substance and teaching, and is the concern of individual believers in accordance with the measure of Christ's gift, according to that saying of Christ, "My sheep hear my voice" (John 10:27), and this one of Paul: "The spiritual man judges all things" (I Cor. 2:15). Therefore, although the unlearned person is ignorant of the languages, he relies on the faithfulness of the translations as to the substance of the faith, to learn from the analogy of the faith and the interdependence of the dogmas: "If anyone desires to do his will, he will know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether 1 speak on my own authority" (John 7:17).

XVIII. It is one thing to conform to the original, another to be on a par with it. Any accurate translation conforms to the original because the same teaching, in substance, is presented; but it is not for that reason on a par with it, because the form of expression is human, not divine.

XIX. Although a given translation made by human beings subject to error is not to be regarded as divine and infallible verbally, it can be properly so regarded in substance if it faithfully renders the divine truth of the sources, for the word which a minister of the gospel preaches does not fail to be divine and infallible, and to uphold our faith, although proclaimed by him in human words. But faith does not depend on the authority of translators or ministers, but on the substance (res ipsi) which is, in truth and authenticity, in the versions.

XX. If a version should contain the pure word of God in God's words (verbis divinis), there would be no reason to correct it, for the sources neither can nor should be corrected, as they are inspired both in content and in words, but because God's word is given to us in human words, correction is possible, not of the doctrine itself, which remains always and everywhere the same, but of the language, which can be rendered differently by different people in accordance with the measure of Christ's gift, especially in difficult and obscure passages.

From: 21 Questions on The Doctrine of Scripture (question 13) by Francis Turretin (1623-1687).

* Author: Francis Turretin was an earnest defender of the Calvinistic orthodoxy represented by the Synod of Dort, and as one of the authors of the Helvetic Consensus, which defended the formulation of double predestination from the Synod of Dort and the verbal inspiration of the Bible. Among his writings, which are chiefly dogmatic in character, special mention should be made of his Institutio Theologiae Elencticae (3 parts, Geneva, 1679-1685), which is dogmatic theology written in a polemic or argumentative fashion and which became a standard text in Reformed Christian circles until it was replaced by Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology in the late 19th century. (Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1914).