Tradition as a Telescope Not a Dirty Window

genesis imageIn the introduction to their new translation of Genesis, Genesis 1–11: A New Old Translation for Readers, Scholars, and Translators, Samuel Bray and John Hobbins explain various aspects of their translation philosophy. For instance, they emphasize rendering words consistently which keeps intratextual ties tight, clear, and without leaving the reader to wonder why a change occurred in the text where none actually does. Or again, they play special attention to how the translation sounds when read aloud, impacting the experience and encounter of the reader with the text.

Commenting on their willingness to let the reception-history of translation play a role in their own translation, using traditional phrases drawn from earlier renderings, they say:

This translation is traditional in a further sense: it takes seriously the reception of Genesis as scripture. It has become conventional for translators to seek to recover what the text was, without the distraction (or taint) of what the text would later become. Some might consider the intervening millennia a dirty window, and desire to see the text in the clear light of day. That is a good and worthwhile pursuit, but it is not the only one.

Here the reception of Genesis as scripture and its history of interpretation, both Jewish and Christian, are taken as a telescope; they do not eliminate the gulf between us and this distant text, but they let us see further and better than we can see on our own. And if Genesis may be interpreted as part of a broader corpus of Scripture, it may also be translated with attention to that corpus. After all, to make a translation is inescapably an act of interpretation. Thus, this translation reads Genesis in a broader corpus of Scripture, one that in the translators’ tradition includes the New Testament.

In practical terms, later meanings are not forced on a clear text. Instead, translation choices are made, at least in a few key instances, that allow the reader to participate in the long conversation about Genesis down through the centuries. The reader is in a position to see the Old in the New and the New in the Old. And, as noted above, the renderings of the Tyndale-KJV tradition are favored (e.g. Gen 3:15 “He shall bruise your head”). At present, it is not conventional for a translator to be candid about considering the later reception of the text. It was not always this way. When Archbishop Richard Bancroft distributed rules for the translators of what would become the King James Version, he included: “When a Word hath divers Significations, that to be kept which hath been most commonly used by the most of the Ancient Fathers, being agreeable to the Propriety of the Place, and the Analogy of the Faith.” (10-11)

I find this view eminently reasonable and applicable beyond even translation of the text. Tradition can cloud. Tradition can impede. Tradition can stultify. But it need not always do so. Tradition can also clarify, guide, give insight, and function as a telescope rather than a dirty window. Hence the wisdom of engaging with the history of interpretation and the history of doctrine when preaching, teaching, and formulating our own.

Soli Deo Gloria

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