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Translating Sacred Texts

Posted 29/6/2015

The Iberian Peninsula is the European territory which had closest contact with Judaism and Islam throughout the period of the Middle Ages. For some eight centuries there existed in Iberia an entire region, al-Andalus, that was under Islamic political control and which granted a statute of protection to its Jewish and Christian minorities; a similar statute was adopted by the Christian political entities in the north of the peninsula. Throughout these centuries the boundaries between the territories under Islamic and Christian control varied, with the result that a number of populations lived under the control of elites of a different religion and language from themselves. Our interest in this volume lies in considering how this context of fluctuating boundaries within which religious communities lived immersed among Christian or Islamic majorites came to influence or condition the translation of the sacred texts of the three religions into a language that was not that of its own revelation.

            Translation is one of the privileged fields within which it becomes possible to grasp the modalities of relations between the Hispanic religious communities, i.e. the forms of familiarity and polemic between the “neighboring faiths” of Iberia, during the long and complex process leading to the confessional homogenization of the modern age. This process of homogenization by no means brought the task of translating holy scriptures to an end. What makes the translation of holy scriptures different from other translations? It could be said that the translation of holy scriptures conveys in a radical manner the hermeneutical scope of all translation, seen as a basic gesture of textual interpretation. In this sense, sacred translation allows for an exploration of the limits of the construction of meaning and of the forms of appropriation of ideas and words that circulate in culturally complex spaces.

            Sacred translation implies, firstly, a religious community’s relationship with its own tradition, the continuity of which can be compromised in situations of political dominance. Indeed, the three religions harbored grave doubts and experienced serious problems concerning the pertinence of translating their own sacred text, i.e. concerning the translatability of sacred texts. For can translation not be seen as a kind of conversion? Is the divine message not distorted when couched in terms which point to the conceptual world of another religion? Such was the case for the Christians of al-Andalus, or the Jews and Muslims who lived in Christian territory and who, having lost the use of the Hebrew and Arabic languages, needed to translate their sacred texts for their own use. One singular characteristic of Iberia was the existence of Bible translations carried out by Jews for Jews, which existed alongside and were different from the Bible translations carried out by Jews (or with the assistance of Jews) for Christians; in addition there were translations into the vernacular tongues (Castilian, Catalan) which became problematic in the period of the European Reformation. We find similar phenomena in the Quranic translations which were still being produced by members of the Morisco minority as late as the early seventeenth century.

In addition to all of this, textual tradition is itself built upon forms of continuity and rupture with regard to other traditions, thereby determining the essential nature of religious polemics, and the need to construct difference in a dialectical manner. In such a dynamic context, political dominance is the decisive element. It is not just a matter of the dominance of one religion over others, or of the growing pressure of Christian evangelization in what became the modern age; it is a question of the construction of forms of textual and religious authority within the textual traditions themselves.

            It is clear that in its origin the translation of sacred texts is linked to the needs of religious polemic. Yet even when it is carried out in a polemical context, the translation of texts from other religious traditions often implies a transformation of the agents of polemic. It becomes not simply a matter of approaching the Other by gaining knowledge of his texts, but of integrating them in an order of discourse and history, and in the course of theological reasoning. Insofar as translation produces knowledge, that knowledge is no longer reducible to its polemical nature, but is subject to the logic of intellectual manipulation.

Who were the translators and on behalf of what did they carry out their translations? Research has long emphasised the collective nature of translation, and of the different forms of mediation which it implies. The problem of authority re-emerges, but also that of “expertise”. Experts in another language, or in another theology, worked alongside polemicists or sponsors. It is worth asking ourselves if the model of the “cultural broker” can truly define these decisive actors in the process of sacred translation. As we have pointed out, the biographical dimension intervenes in the construction of polemical authority, often in the form of “conversion”. Whereas the problem of testimony raises the issue of the relationship between  “conversion” and “translation”, sacred translation brings us face-to-face with the issue of “experience” as a historiographical problem.



List of participants


Camilla Adang

Gemma Avenoza

Pere Casanellas

Mònica Colominas

Alexander Fidora

Mercedes García-Arenal

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