Translation and democracy

Some time back, I read with interest a statement by Dr. Lamin Sanneh to the effect that democracy has its roots in the translation of the Bible into the common language. Coming from a Yale historian, that statement carries some weight.

Wide as the WatersNot long ago, I read Wide as the Waters, by Benson Bobrick. I found it hard to read at first because of the seemingly endless historical facts. I am more the kind of person who wants the facts summarized, with more time spent on the lessons learned from the facts. I am sure that others will appreciate the detailed history for its true worth.

But in the final chapter, my preference for lessons learned from the facts was more than satisfied. Not only that, Bobrick develops Sanneh’s conclusion in some detail. I would summarize his historical finding this way:

If people can know the ultimate truth – the truth about God – and make up their own minds about it, then what rationale could there possibly be for keeping lesser truths from people, and preventing them from making up their own minds about those? That includes knowing the truth about their government and making up their own minds about what it should be and how it should act.

Bobrick sees the translation of the Bible into English as revolutionary. The subtitle of the book is “The story of the English Bible and the revolution it inspired.” Perhaps we do not appreciate the radical nature of the proposition that each person should make up his or her own mind about God and politics. But there was a time, and not that long ago, when that idea was novel and it still is in some parts of the world. At the time of the first translations of the Bible into English, those who believed that people should make up their own minds were considered dangerous to the king and to the church. The Bible is a subversive book. ‘”Few sources”, as one historian notes, “are as rich as the Old Testament in undesirable kings who come to exemplary bad ends”’ (page 279). That kind of book is not what a sovereign king, or any dictatorial government, would want the people to read!

Perhaps the most telling of Bobrick’s arguments in favor of his thesis is that Kings and religious leaders of the time of the first translation of the Bible into English saw clearly that it would ultimately lead to power shifting to the people, and they opposed it for that reason. The book contains quotes from Kings and church leaders of the time saying as much – quotes which eventually came true.

Bobrick traces the link between translation of the Bible into English and political ideas of freedom in the following paragraph:

The Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, of the supremacy of the individual conscience, encouraged many to read their own destiny into such verses as ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” Through prayer and meditation, they learned to approach God without assistance, and in reading the Word of God to themselves heard it, as it were, not from a priest on high and at a distance, but from deep within their own immortal souls. They turned out tracts proclaiming themselves “free-born,” and by the time Laud and his prelates attempted to inculcate passive obedience as a virtue of the faith, scriptural notions of their obligations to righteous disobedience had taken hold. (pages 279-280)

Benson Bobrick

Benson Bobrick

He also notes an interesting historical fact – before the translation of the Bible into English, individual freedom in matters of faith and politics was almost absent, but after the first translations appeared, it became prominent:

“The English Bible fairly marks the divide. For despite Cromwell’s dictatorship, by and large those who pleaded for the rights conscience, for free discussion, and for an unrestricted press were those who held to the supreme authority of Scripture in all things. And after James II issued his Declaration of Indulgence, it was the English Nonconformists who held the balance of power and risked their own immediate freedom on behalf of the freedom of the realm.

The development of the vernacular marked the origin of a culture belonging to the masses, which increasingly reached toward popular and democratic institutions.

The position of some that believing the Bible and having a personal faith is anti-democratic, is historically inaccurate. In fact, the opposite is the case.

In a future blog, I will relate how the translation of the Bible into the languages of Ghana has lead to similar developments – making the translation of the Bible into the vernacular a form of political and social empowerment, in addition to its obvious effects on faith.

Source: Wide as the Waters, Benson Bobrick, Penguin Books, 2002, especially pages 280-297

8 thoughts on “Translation and democracy

  1. The New Testament was translated into Gothic in the 4th century by Ulfilas . In the 5th century, Saint Mesrob translated the bible into Armenian . Also dating from the same period are the Syriac , Coptic , Old Nubian , Ethiopic and Georgian translations.


  2. We must judge it from the times. A German translation from the original languages was a work of colossal magnitude if we consider the absence of good grammars, dictionaries, and concordances, the crude state of Greek and Hebrew scholarship, and of the German language, in the sixteenth century. Luther wrote to Amsdorf, Jan. 13, 1522, that he had undertaken a task beyond his power, that he now understood why no one had attempted it before in his own name, and that he would not venture on the Old Testament without the aid of his friends.


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