As part of the Passover and Holy Week - which this year happened on a joyful full moon bringing us Spring weather, a little note related to the industry I work in (for once).

The country I come from happens to be the 'test' market when it comes to literature translation as Frenchies are apparently the most avid readers in Europe - in other words, if a translated book is successful in France, then it means it is worth giving it a try and get it translated in other languages, including English. 

The Bible happens to be the most published book in the world and most translated and shared content as well.

Pairing both concepts, France has a singular approach regarding the translation of the Holy Book. Indeed, in the mid-sixties a translation project started requiring the participation of Holy scriptures specialists of various Christian faiths. Back then, due to a lack of such specialists of the Orthodox Church in a mainly Catholic country, the project got done with both Catholics and Protestants to discuss what would be the most objective approach and interpretation of the Hebraic Bible, Massorah, Septuagin and New Testament all combined and how it should consequently be translated into French. This version that got first published in the mid-seventies (it indeed took nearly one decade to get the job done), officially got named the TOB (Oecumenical Translation of the Bible) and got revised and added content by another set of experts including Orthodox specialists this time round in 2010. Given its revendicated oecumenical nature, this version is not officially recognized by any Christian Church as not fully in tune with either of their interpretations (interestingly so).

One may argue that the New International Version could be considered as an equivalent in English of the TOB as to this day, it remains the most commonly spread version of the Bible (the one you can find in hotels across the US for instance). In some respect, it could be - this project also started around 1965 and given that English speaking countries tend to lean towards a protestant approach (and therefore rather thorough), the list of books and material it refers to is by far longer than the French one. It would also be interesting to note that this version is also regularly discussed by scholars of a few English speaking countries around the globe and collects thoughts from all sorts of branches of protestantism around the world. But one may admit it remains Protestant-lead - therefore somewhat orientated to serve the purpose and interpretation of a certain group of readers and believers.

Given the sensitivity of the content of the most read book in the history of human kind, I find rather strange that no country and nobody from any Christian background, meant to promote understanding, compassion and tolerance can figure a way to agree on a translation of such an influential book. While the War on Terror protagonists tend to point fingers at Islam fundamentalists for having a cunning interpretation of the Quran - to use a rather secular expression: it is the pot calling the kettle black.

As a linguist, I know far too well how subjective the exercice may be and how sensitive people tend to becomes when transferring ideas and words from one language to another. At the end of the day, such disagreements and the complexity of the task allows me to pay my bills. But somewhat this refusal of a common approach and agreement on the translation of the Bible makes me think that the story of the Babel Tower must be far more than just a God's trick on confounding languages - as it goes far beyond that then. To me it seems that humans who got the chance to be literate enough to work on translating the content of the Holy scriptures in one given language cannot even be smart enough to agree on its content based on some logic and rationale understanding of what can be behind a word and set aside for a few moments what they think as being the truth. Besides, for having recently discussed that matter with a friend, Hebrew linguist himself, his consideration was that the modern Hebrew already having a restricted amount of words compared to English or French (many of which with several possible meanings though in its modern version) - there was not that many possible interpretation of the original Hebraic Bible on which the TOB is based on. But as one may say - God works in mysterious ways...

Aurelie Desmas1 Comment