I am not sure if this is the right form to ask this question. However, my question comes down to a more basic question of knowledge and thus I believe it is related in some way to Philosophy.

My Question:

I have been considering for some time to purchase various religious holy books and related material in a hopes for reading them cover to cover to draw my own interpretations/conclusions, instead of having them interpreted by someone else. However, what I have been struggling with is whether the versions I would get (English - as its the only language I speak) would already be misrepresenting the original text since many words can be interpreted differently. I was just wondering what Philosophy has to say about gathering knowledge from sources that are not the "original" and translated "sources".


  • Just to point out: you do not only have a problem in translation between languages, but also when transcribing within the same language. There are for instance a large number of versions of the bible, here listed only known English versions. There are — of course — even more when counting other languages. Islam har tried to do away with this problem by saying you must read the quran in Arabic. One problem there is that the supposedly "original" quran (written after Mohammad died) is written very oddly. – MichaelK Apr 13 '18 at 9:44

A translation is never a simple, pure and accurate linguistic transposition. In transmitting material from one language to another, something of the original is always lost. To be more specific, I'll quote from Martin Müller :


Translation in the classic sense is the replacement of text in a source language by text in a target language equivalent in meaning. The term 'equivalent' constitutes the bone of contention in this definition of translation, for it is well-nigh impossible to achieve full equivalence of meaning in translation. Different languages structure the world in different ways and translations constantly suffer from not being able to convey the richness of connotations, especially as they are associated with certain key words, or 'god words' (Shurmer-Smith and Hannam (1994),in other languages. Temple and Young (2004) quote Phillips, who describes the strive for equivalence as an intractable problem, since almost any utterance in any language carries with it a set of assumptions, feelings, and values that the speaker may or may not be aware of but that the field worker, as an outsider, usually is not. (Phillips 1960, 291) The transfer of cultural meanings, embedded in linguistic expressions, from one language to another constitutes one of the most challenging tasks of translation. For this reason, translation as the transference of meaning can always only be partial and never total (Catford 1965). [Martin Müller, 'What's in a Word? Problematizing Translation between Languages', Area, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Jun., 2007), 207.]


When I have been faced with reading a text in a foreign language, I have found the best approach is to read different translations of the same text. This is not always possible but generally it is. The shortcomings of different translators cancel out : when different scholars have tried to find equivalences in English for words and expressions in another language they usually convey between them a fairly accurate equivalence. It is never safe to rely on just one translation; several translations usually manage, when combined and compared, to convey a broadly accurate idea of meanings.


Martin Müller, 'What's in a Word? Problematizing Translation between Languages', Area, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Jun., 2007), 206-13.

Maria Tymoczko, 'Ethics, Ideology, Action', The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Fall, 2006), pp. 442-461.

  • Thanks for the response. Any idea what kind of range of different copies I would need to obtain to cancel out the difference? Or would I have to basically collect them all? – Hunter Apr 13 '18 at 13:34
  • @Hunter. Hi ! Do you have specific texts in mind ? If so, it would help to know what they are. Best - GT – Geoffrey Thomas Apr 13 '18 at 13:49
  • Well I was going to try to go through as many different religions and such as I can. I don't know that much about any other religion other than Christianity as that's how I was raised before I become agnostic so I was thinking of starting with the Bible. – Hunter Apr 13 '18 at 14:37

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