Can the truth shed its casing?

by
04 January 2011

Edward Dowler reads a study of the cultural task of ‘translation’

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Fidelity without Fundamentalism: A dialogue with tradition
Gerard J. Hughes

DLT £14.99
(978-0-232-52800-8)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

READERS of the Church Times may have their own stories of foreign restaurant menus that have been hilariously translated for English tourists. My own favourite was a Greek island restaurant whose menu boasted “rude sausage”, “lesbian prawns”, and “grilled pieces of sheep’s intestines”. The description of such delicacies reminds us that clunkingly literal translation often does not convey the original sense accurately, and may indeed seriously misinterpret it.

Throughout this wide-ranging and readable book, Gerard J. Hughes, the Roman Catholic philosopher and former Master of Campion Hall, argues that faithful interpreters of a religious or ethical tradition must be like translators. They take key teachings or concepts, and then try to render these into the language of different cultures across time and space in ways that will make sense to those who will hear them.

Fundamentalists, Hughes argues, fail to see the difficulty, or even the necessity of this careful task of translation: for them, the teaching of the Bible or the tradition on a particular subject can simply be copied into other cultures. Relativists, on the other hand, believe that such translation from one culture to another is essentially impossible, and thus that different cultures must live in permanent estrangement from one another.

Hughes occupies a centrist position that translation is possible, but that it is a difficult and pre­carious task, constantly demanding nuance and careful attention to context. Such a position between two stridently held certainties is uncomfortable: we are used to the middle’s being “squeezed” and the centre unable to hold. His argument does, however, have the advantage of being self-evidently true: faithful translation is indeed difficult, but not impossible.

Hughes is able to bring this key metaphor of translation to explore the way in which Christians speak about subjects as diverse as the response of the Church to discoveries in natural sciences, issues such as pacifism and the ordination of women, and the philosophical vocabulary used to describe Christ and the eucharist. On these last questions, the very impossibility of providing literal translations for words such as hypostasis, ousia, prosopon, substantia, and sacramentum indicates that one essential task that these words perform is that of pointing us towards deeper and more wonderful mysteries than human language can express.

I had a few reservations about what seemed to me to be some intellectualist tendencies — in particular, the assumption that abstract conceptual truths are more important than narrative. Thus, Hughes argues that “the first thing to be done with any biblical text . . . is to discover what its religious point is.” Somewhat like the biblical scholars who taught that parables could have only one meaning, this assumes that there is a kernel of theological truth, which, once extracted from its narrative casing, can be more easily conveyed in the language of other cultures.

Meaning in the biblical narratives is, however, surely not abstract and conceptual, but rather multi-layered, and inextricably woven into the narrative itself. Moreover, it is over-optimistic to suggest (as Hughes, perhaps, seems to) that reason and careful argument might be enough to persuade funda­mentalists that they are wrong: a complex mixture of psychological, societal, and other factors seems to be at work in this very modern phenomenon. And, despite Hughes’s interesting attempts to describe fundamentalism as an attitude towards religious beliefs rather than a particular set of beliefs, it is never clear whether this catch-all term is really a useful or accurate one, given the wide variety of people to whom it can be applied.

The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is Vicar of Clay Hill, in the diocese of London.

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