I’ve had some correspondence in the last few days, posing a couple of interesting questions which are actually quite hard to answer definitively. But I thought that I would mention both, and give some thoughts about them.
The first asked about bias in translations of ancient texts. It’s an interesting question. Can you actually do an accurate translation, and still introduce bias? Or does bias necessarily involve deliberate mistranslation? Of course I have never worried in the slightest about this! I’m lucky if I can get someone to make a translation. And if I am translating, I am not thinking about how to smuggle my own views into the text – I want to know what it has to say!
It is certainly possible to create “translations” where the words have been changed; “anthropos” rendered as “human” rather than “man” comes rather readily to mind, as introduced into the text of the bible by modern scholars of a certain political persuasion. It is quite possible that we live in an era of mass mistranslation, for these political reasons. There is definitely an agenda at work here; but this is mistranslation, or even corruption; the introduction of a gloss into the text, rather than translation.
The bible has always been a controversial text. Perhaps a study of the versiones – translations into the vernacular – of classical and biblical and patristic texts would reveal how this works.
But on the whole I would tend to dismiss the idea of mistranslation, rather than corruption. A word appears in a phrase, which appears in a sentence, which is part of the flow of ideas. It is really quite hard to deviate without deliberately rewriting the text. People intent on translating are not likely to accidentally introduce bias.
The second question was equally interesting. The writer asked, “Are ancient texts reliable?” He attached a quotation naming Jewish forgeries of texts in the Hellenistic period, for controversial purposes against Greeks.
This is, if anything, a larger subject. Are any texts reliable? Is my daily newspaper reliable? Few of us would commit unreservedly to the proposition that any literature made by men is absolutely reliable. Even those attempting to be reliable will not escape the unconscious preconceptions of their authors; and then we have authors who write with no other purpose than to promote their opinions, and the facts go hang. Then there are forgeries, works written under a false name for the purpose of money or advantage. For ancient texts the question of accurate transmission arises.
Yet, with all this, I would answer this question thus: Yes, ancient texts are reliable. They are mostly transmitted OK, or at least we have a good idea of to what extent typos may be expected. They represent the opinions of their authors. The forgeries we have largely identified, since they were never forged to fool us, but rather their contemporaries. The authors themselves may not be reliable – O indeed! this must be determined in the usual way – but the texts as such are fine.
Perhaps I may come back to one or both of these questions at some other point.