Keynote lecture by Henri Bloemen (KU Leuven): ‘Retranslating the Bible and the Qur’an as sensitive texts’

Starting from the notion of ‘sensitive texts’ (Simms 1997) we want to address the seemingly simple question whether sensitivity can be an essential characteristic of texts as texts rather than a mode of their reception. Since the semantics of ‘sensitivity’ seem to imply a [+human] or at least a [+living] actor or recipient, to question whether things like texts can be sensitive at all might sound like an erroneous assumption. And indeed the overall majority of contributions in Simms 1997 consider sensitivity as a mode of reception, as a reaction of the target audience provoked by something in the text – with one exception: the (re-)translation of ‘holy  texts’. And indeed the translation of holy texts is a case in point when it comes to determining the sensitivity of a text. Since holy texts are, essentially, the unique ‘Word of God’ there has always been a principled resistance against their translation. Nevertheless the history of translation of the Bible and the Qu’ran show a strong consciousness of sensitivity of the text itself, namely in the form of translation mythology (asserting a strong relationship between the ‘original author’ and the translation), in the form of a principled privilege of the original text over translation when it comes to exegesis, and in the form of hard to overcome dualities when it comes to translation practice.

As a consequence questions have been raised about the status of a translation and about the way translations of holy texts should be ‘brought on their way’. Is it true that translations, considered as reproductions, touch, in the original, ‘a highly sensitive core, more vulnerable than that of any natural object’ (W. Benjamin)? And what then can translations mean for the meaning of the original? The answers to these questions fully determine whether translations can be released from their secondary character, whether translations can be thought of in other terms than reproduction of an original, and whether a more essential relationship between original and translation can be established.

About the speaker

Henri Bloemen (°1957) is associate professor in translation and translation studies at KU Leuven since 1991. He teaches translation studies and literary translation at KU Leuven Campus Antwerp. His main fields of interest and research are translation theory, ethics of translation, and history of translation, especially Bible translation. He was one of the editors of the History of Dutch Bible Translation (De bijbel in de Lage Landen. Elf eeuwen van vertalen, 2015) for which he wrote the part on the nineteenth century. He was also a member of the Flemish reading committee for the new Dutch Bible Translation (1994-2004).