In our translation, we try to include ‘figurative quotation marks’ to show when something should not be taken literally. However, sometimes the original wording is ambiguous, and adding the marks would be “putting words into the mouths” of those who were speaking.
Good translation should convey any ambiguity that was present in the original language.
The most controversial texts that may, or may not, be figurative are these words uttered by Jesus at the last supper.
Matthew 26:26-28 says:
Take some of this and eat it, because this is my body... for indeed, this is my blood of the Sacred Agreement...
[Jesus] then took a loaf... Then he passed it among [his Apostles] saying: ‘Take it, for this is my body.’ ... And after that, he took a cup... Then he said to them: ‘This is my blood of the Sacred Agreement...’
So Jesus said: ‘I tell you the truth; if you don’t eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you won’t have life in yourselves. For those who chew my flesh and drink my blood will have age-long life… Since my flesh is truly food, and my blood is truly drink... Those who chew on my flesh and drink my blood will remain in me, and I in them.’
1 Corinthians 11:24-25:
‘This is my body that I’m giving for you...’ He did the same thing with the cup, saying: ‘In this cup is the blood of my New Sacred Agreement...’
A majority of Christian denominations teach that Jesus was saying that the bread and wine miraculously turn into literal flesh and blood when consumed at communion. This is called the doctrine of Transubstantiation. They feel this way partly because Jesus’ descriptions seem very plain, and Jesus also called his flesh and blood “real food” and “real drink” (John 6:51-55).
A minority of denominations either say that there’s merely a ‘spiritual’ presence of Jesus in the bread and wine, or that Jesus was speaking figuratively. They feel this way partly because drinking blood and eating unbled flesh is forbidden in the laws given to Noah (Genesis 9:4), the law given to Moses (Leviticus 7:27), and the law given to Christians (Acts 15:29); also Jesus was said to always speak in parables (Matthew 13:34-35).
These denominations would perhaps prefer that we add the ‘figurative quotation marks’ around Jesus’ statements, like this:
Take some of this and eat it, because this is ‘my body’...
Or they would use other means to show the figurative interpretation:
Take some of this and eat it, because this is my [figurative] body...
Or even changing the word ‘is’:
Take some of this and eat it, because this means my body...
However, doing any of these things would change Jesus’ words and remove the original ambiguity. And if that’s what was originally said, then there would be no disagreement today. By ‘clearing it up’ we would not just be putting words into the mouth of Jesus, but we would be changing history, 1984-style.
A correct translation is one that conveys the original meaning, even when that original meaning is unclear. If the original was unclear, then the translation ought to be unclear too (as far as possible).
- For an exhaustive discussion on the scriptural arguments for and against transubstantiation, see this blog entry.
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