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Can a person truly understand a text if.........

Ehav4Ever

Well-Known Member
After having looked at a number of debates and discussions on this forum. I have noticed a interesting thing in a few of them that makes me ask the following questions.

The following will involve questions about someone I will call "person X".
  1. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when they are a reading a translation of it?
  2. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text if they do not accurately know, first hand, the culture/idioms of the authors/receipants/transmitters of the most ancient and authorative versions of the text?
  3. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the language of the text is several thousand years old and person X is not even slightly fluent in the language the text was written in?
  4. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the above questions are answered "no" about person X and when people who do know the language fluently and grew up in the culture that produced the text disagree with person X's ideas about the text?
I am interested in reading people's thoughts.
 

Piculet

Active Member
You know how they say you can't understand the Quran if you don't know Arabic? It's true to an extent. There will be things you won't understand, know of or appreciate. It's also true there are Arabic speaking people who don't understand the Quran.
if they do not accurately know, first hand,
I think that's unnecessary. Or rather the answer is, yes.

I would say hard work weighs more than what one happens to know due to their background.

I'd rather concentrate on discussing the details than on whether or not someone could be said to understand a text. If it turns out, after discussing several issues, that they are entirely wrong, one could say, they don't understand the text.
 

epronovost

Well-Known Member
Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when they are a reading a translation of it?

If the translation is good, then yes it's totally possible. That's point of translation after all. Some of the artistic quality of the text may be lost or different though.

Can person X really claim to know/understand a text if they do not accurately know, first hand, the culture/idioms of the authors/receipants/transmitters of the most ancient and authorative versions of the text?

Again it depends on the nature of the text. Most texts aren't deeply tied to a culture and most often a cursory knowledge of the culture in question is more than enough to understand a text. Some philosophical and historial texts might require a more deep knowledge of the culture producing them and for those are important detail for any serious critique of a specific work.

Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the language of the text is several thousand years old and person X is not even slightly fluent in the language the text was written in?

By definition no, you cannot understand a text you cannot read. Of course that's assuming the text hasn't been translated. If it has, you can refer to the answer to point one

Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the above questions are answered "no" about person X and when people who do know the language fluently and grew up in the culture that produced the text disagree with person X's ideas about the text?

By definition, you cannot seriously claim to understand a text you can't read and present yourself as equally authoritative to those who actually can and have read the text in question.
 

Spirit of Light

Be who ever you want
Every person will have their personal understanding of the scripture, up to the level of wisdom they have attained. So it is wise to say " in my understanding" instead of saying "this is the full truth."

If we knew the language that the teaching was written originally, yes it would give us an even deeper understanding of the truth within the teaching. But it is better to have a translation of the text, so you can at least know 80-90% of the text. Then if one want, one could study the language that was originally of the scripture.

There will be different understanding each person cultivate on the way to enlightenment. But as long they do as the scriptures teaches they will gain inner wisdom.

This is my understanding of your questions
 

Mindmaster

Well-Known Member
Premium Member
After having looked at a number of debates and discussions on this forum. I have noticed a interesting thing in a few of them that makes me ask the following questions.

The following will involve questions about someone I will call "person X".
  1. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when they are a reading a translation of it?
  2. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text if they do not accurately know, first hand, the culture/idioms of the authors/receipants/transmitters of the most ancient and authorative versions of the text?
  3. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the language of the text is several thousand years old and person X is not even slightly fluent in the language the text was written in?
  4. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the above questions are answered "no" about person X and when people who do know the language fluently and grew up in the culture that produced the text disagree with person X's ideas about the text?
I am interested in reading people's thoughts.

In the case of the translated text, it's mostly a matter of reading multiple translations. Eventually, you will get the message properly understood. There are, of course, many languages that have words that have multiple meanings (happens even in English), but that shouldn't be too much of a worry. Some translations have had hundreds or thousands of years of effort attempting to get them right. They probably are, or at least close enough.

There is really nothing you're going to do about missing some of the colloquial variations though as time has gone by some meaning (although usually not the critical part) has drifted. You should just presume this going in and not take it to be too big of a deal. These little bits of stylistic color aren't going to diminish the value of what you're reading.
 

Deeje

Avid Bible Student
Premium Member
After having looked at a number of debates and discussions on this forum. I have noticed a interesting thing in a few of them that makes me ask the following questions.

The following will involve questions about someone I will call "person X".
  1. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when they are a reading a translation of it?
  2. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text if they do not accurately know, first hand, the culture/idioms of the authors/receipants/transmitters of the most ancient and authorative versions of the text?
  3. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the language of the text is several thousand years old and person X is not even slightly fluent in the language the text was written in?
  4. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the above questions are answered "no" about person X and when people who do know the language fluently and grew up in the culture that produced the text disagree with person X's ideas about the text?
I am interested in reading people's thoughts.

1. Yes, if the Hebrew scriptures are inspired by the Abrahamic God, then he would make sure that any translation was as accurate as a translation can be, (non-Hebrew speaking Jews and proselytes would need it to be) provided of course that the translator did not bring bias into his work....or if men later decided that the scriptures themselves were not sufficiently explained, so another set of works was needed to further explain the first, we would have to examine both to see if there was clarity or just more confusion. I think we already know the answer to that.... :p

We have linguistic scholars who can accurately translate the Hebrew text and I often use the Tanakh interlinear to furnish the Hebrew texts in English. Should I not?

2. Yes, because relying on Jews to furnish the translation of their own scripture will provide these details and hopefully convey them. We have other Jewish works to also furnish more information on culture, practice and interpretation. But again, it is God's word, so I would rely on him to steer me in the right direction. Jesus was Jewish, so he also explains a lot about the Jewish culture of the times. I worship the same God as he did.

3. Yes, if the ones translating those ancient texts are Jewish and are accepted in Jewish circles as reliable sources. Is there a problem with that?

4. Since I answered 'yes' to 1, 2 & 3...question 4 does not apply. :D
 

bobhikes

Nondetermined
Premium Member
After having looked at a number of debates and discussions on this forum. I have noticed a interesting thing in a few of them that makes me ask the following questions.

The following will involve questions about someone I will call "person X".
  1. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when they are a reading a translation of it?
  2. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text if they do not accurately know, first hand, the culture/idioms of the authors/receipants/transmitters of the most ancient and authorative versions of the text?
  3. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the language of the text is several thousand years old and person X is not even slightly fluent in the language the text was written in?
  4. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the above questions are answered "no" about person X and when people who do know the language fluently and grew up in the culture that produced the text disagree with person X's ideas about the text?
I am interested in reading people's thoughts.

No its not possible. As you said even in a contemporary debate forum, texts between debaters that are fluent in the language debated miss understand each other. Words have several definitions and emotions behind the text that can never be understood without follow up change the meaning.
 

Aupmanyav

Be your own guru
1. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when they are a reading a translation of it?
2. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text if they do not accurately know, first hand, the culture/idioms of the authors/receipants/transmitters of the most ancient and authorative versions of the text?
3. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the language of the text is several thousand years old and person X is not even slightly fluent in the language the text was written in?
4. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the above questions are answered "no" about person X and when people who do know the language fluently and grew up in the culture that produced the text disagree with person X's ideas about the text.
1. Possible.
2. Interaction with the people of that culture or religion is necessary. But 'authors/receipants/transmitters of the most ancient and authorative versions of the text' are not obligatory. When then happens, you are only repeating what they say and they may have their biases. As for the 'authorative versions' of the texts, all old scriptures are compilation and not dictated. So, errors will occur in all.
3. Again, possible. Interaction with people of that culture or religion is necessary. And it would depend on the intensity and quality of inquiry.
4. A 'no' has to be checked. It may be a bias.
 

HonestJoe

Well-Known Member
I am interested in reading people's thoughts.
I'd suggest the answers are going to be very much "it depends".

It could be argued that anything we read is open to interpretation since even with a shared language, culture and knowledge, what the writer actually intends to get down on paper can easily be different to what readers take from it. We see examples of that all the time, even on this very forum.

Translations can obviously add an additional level of complication but the impact will vary massively depending on the clarity of the original, the quality and purpose of the translation and the approach of the reader. Cultural differences are similar; they can obviously have massive impact in some circumstances but could be irrelevant in others. There could even be situations where it helps, say where something is explained in greater detail because it is recognised readers might not be aware of the cultural basis. There is also a question of how close "same culture" would need to be.

I certainly don't think that someone who happens to share the language and culture or a writer can automatically declare that their understanding is more accurate or valid than that of someone who doesn't. There is certainly a good chance there would be aspects they recognise that others don't but they'd still need to be explained and the impact of the meaning of the text justified.
 

Brian2

Veteran Member
After having looked at a number of debates and discussions on this forum. I have noticed a interesting thing in a few of them that makes me ask the following questions.

The following will involve questions about someone I will call "person X".
  1. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when they are a reading a translation of it?
  2. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text if they do not accurately know, first hand, the culture/idioms of the authors/receipants/transmitters of the most ancient and authorative versions of the text?
  3. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the language of the text is several thousand years old and person X is not even slightly fluent in the language the text was written in?

The more we understand the language, culture and background the better it will be for our understanding of the text.

Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the above questions are answered "no" about person X and when people who do know the language fluently and grew up in the culture that produced the text disagree with person X's ideas about the text?

In the case of the Hebrew Scriptures, there are people who understand the language and who grew up in the Jewish culture and who disagree with Jewish understanding of the text.
 

Jayhawker Soule

-- untitled --
Premium Member
After having looked at a number of debates and discussions on this forum. I have noticed a interesting thing in a few of them that makes me ask the following questions.

The following will involve questions about someone I will call "person X".
  1. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when they are a reading a translation of it?
  2. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text if they do not accurately know, first hand, the culture/idioms of the authors/receipants/transmitters of the most ancient and authorative versions of the text?
  3. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the language of the text is several thousand years old and person X is not even slightly fluent in the language the text was written in?
  4. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the above questions are answered "no" about person X and when people who do know the language fluently and grew up in the culture that produced the text disagree with person X's ideas about the text?
I am interested in reading people's thoughts.

It obviously depends on the text. With regard to the Tanakh, much is accessible while some is uncertain and some simply opaque. Scholarship helps. Presuppositions generally get in the way (such as your reference to "most ancient and authorative versions of the text").
 

Brickjectivity

Turned to Stone. Now I stretch daily.
Staff member
Premium Member
Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when they are a reading a translation of it?
They can't, because language translation is not like mathematical translation. Ninety degree angles aren't preserved, and relationships get distorted between words. For example: many attempts have been made to translate Hebrew to English, and all are filled with flaws.

What we can do is discuss it, ponder what it means, consult resources such as dictionaries and lexicons and figure some things out from context.
 

9-10ths_Penguin

1/10 Subway Stalinist
Premium Member
After having looked at a number of debates and discussions on this forum. I have noticed a interesting thing in a few of them that makes me ask the following questions.

The following will involve questions about someone I will call "person X".
  1. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when they are a reading a translation of it?
  2. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text if they do not accurately know, first hand, the culture/idioms of the authors/receipants/transmitters of the most ancient and authorative versions of the text?
  3. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the language of the text is several thousand years old and person X is not even slightly fluent in the language the text was written in?
  4. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the above questions are answered "no" about person X and when people who do know the language fluently and grew up in the culture that produced the text disagree with person X's ideas about the text?
I am interested in reading people's thoughts.
Languages aren't static things. Even someone who's fluent in the modern version of an ancient language isn't necessarily fluent in all the nuances of how the language was used thousands of years ago. They certainly wouldn't be familiar with all the idioms.

Even if we're talking about a native speaker who's a contemporary of the author, I don't think it's a given that this native speaker will necessarily have a better understanding of the text than a speaker of another language, relying on a good translation and some decent scholarship.
 

Polymath257

Think & Care
Staff member
Premium Member
After having looked at a number of debates and discussions on this forum. I have noticed a interesting thing in a few of them that makes me ask the following questions.

The following will involve questions about someone I will call "person X".
  1. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when they are a reading a translation of it?
  2. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text if they do not accurately know, first hand, the culture/idioms of the authors/receipants/transmitters of the most ancient and authorative versions of the text?
  3. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the language of the text is several thousand years old and person X is not even slightly fluent in the language the text was written in?
  4. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the above questions are answered "no" about person X and when people who do know the language fluently and grew up in the culture that produced the text disagree with person X's ideas about the text?
I am interested in reading people's thoughts.

I'm going to take these in reverse order.

4. Yes. There are times that a scholarly translation is better than the understanding of those in the culture. For example, I would prefer a translation of 'The Song of Roland' by a specialist in medieval French culture and language to someone who was simply raised to speak French. The language, including the idioms and culture has changed greatly since the text was written and those raised in the modern culture may not be qualified to understand the older usages.

As for 1-3, the point of a good translation is, in part, to convey the culture and usages of the text from the time it was written. Are there going to be things 'lost in translation'? Absolutely. But part of the job of a good translator is to notify the reader when that happens and to point out, usually through extra commentary, some of the cultural allusions being made in the text. This is common and a sign of a good translator.

So, to answer 1-3, it is possible to understand such a text *if* the translator of the text is good and understands the culture of the text in the time it was written. Often, having a translator fluent in the *modern* language can be a hindrance to this translation effort, though.
 

icehorse

......unaffiliated...... anti-dogmatist
Premium Member
After having looked at a number of debates and discussions on this forum. I have noticed a interesting thing in a few of them that makes me ask the following questions.

The following will involve questions about someone I will call "person X".
  1. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when they are a reading a translation of it?
  2. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text if they do not accurately know, first hand, the culture/idioms of the authors/receipants/transmitters of the most ancient and authorative versions of the text?
  3. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the language of the text is several thousand years old and person X is not even slightly fluent in the language the text was written in?
  4. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the above questions are answered "no" about person X and when people who do know the language fluently and grew up in the culture that produced the text disagree with person X's ideas about the text?
I am interested in reading people's thoughts.

When a person reads a text, they are always reading it from a specific context. When I read scripture, my context is to take the followers of the faith at their word, and try to read the scripture from that context.

For example, Muslims make the boldest claims about their scripture of any group I'm aware of. They claim that the Quran is the perfect, timeless word of god. Because of these claims, Muslims set an extremely high bar for the Quran. If they said something like "The Quran is an amazing book, given that it was written by men with relatively narrow life experience. It should be read in the context of the Arabian peninsula 1400 years ago, and from that context you can learn a lot.", then we could look at the book with more charity.

But that is not what Muslims say. They say it is perfect and timeless. Let's take one more piece of data into account here, the Quran declares itself easy to understand. Given this, if we are to take Muslims at their word, we can arrive at some conclusions:

1 - It should be understandable by anyone who reads it, no scholarly interpretations necessary.
2 - It's messages should apply to today's world.
3 - You cannot cherry pick only the peaceful messages, you must take it all at face value.

From that perspective, it's easy to see how the book's messages are frequently at odds with modern morals and human rights.
 

Windwalker

Veteran Member
Premium Member
After having looked at a number of debates and discussions on this forum. I have noticed a interesting thing in a few of them that makes me ask the following questions.

The following will involve questions about someone I will call "person X".
  1. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when they are a reading a translation of it?
  2. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text if they do not accurately know, first hand, the culture/idioms of the authors/receipants/transmitters of the most ancient and authorative versions of the text?
  3. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the language of the text is several thousand years old and person X is not even slightly fluent in the language the text was written in?
  4. Can person X really claim to know/understand a text when the above questions are answered "no" about person X and when people who do know the language fluently and grew up in the culture that produced the text disagree with person X's ideas about the text?
I am interested in reading people's thoughts.
I'll answer No to all of the above. No one, not even the most skilled and informed scholar can claim with absolute certainty what the original author meant. How much less so then the novice who picks up, say the bible, and proclaims his views about the text as, "These are not my words, but God's words!".

Phooey. Hogwash. Everything that anyone reads or even hears directly, gets filtered through their own lenses of reality which are created by their own culture and language, as well as life experiences and general knowledge. The best the novice can say, is "this is how I take what it says, based upon the limitations of my understanding". That is the truth about it. It's their interpretation.
 

Secret Chief

nirvana is samsara
Can you elaborate? Any examples? Especially, when it comes to question #4? Thanks.

The Buddha spoke both Sanskrit and Prakrit. The earliest records (Theravada) of his teachings (a couple of hundred years after his death) were written in Pali. Subsequent "scriptures"/texts (Mahayana) were mainly recorded in Sanskrit.
And then of course, Buddhist thought was taken to China (more texts!), Japan (more texts!)...

Buddhism is not revealed, nor inerrant.
 
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