A scholar sits in his study, struggling with a biblical translation, searching for the best fitting words. It should not have been a big problem; it is a short simple sentence composed of the most basic words. This is a famous introductory scene in the drama by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe and the scholar is named Doctor Faust. He translates opening sentence of the Gospel of John: “In the Beginning was the Word.” Doctor Faust tries to find a better translation. He is not much happier with his second attempt “In the Beginning was the Thought.” Then he tries “In the Beginning was the Power.” before he finally settles for “In the Beginning was the Act.” And only few poetic sentences later Faust is talking with Mephistopheles, the devil himself, and soon Mephistopheles would hold a contract signed in Faust’s own blood.
“You see!” The fundamentalists exclaim, all exited (at least those few who know Goethe’s Faust.) “You see, such loose and willful translating can only lead to dreadful ends!” But is it really as simple as that? Johan Wolfgang Goethe was certainly learned enough to know that the Hellenistic LOGOS represented more than any German “das Wort” or its direct English equivalent “the Word”! Doctor Faust might had been translating to fit his own agenda, nevertheless he was trying to solve a real and truly exciting conundrum. Our lectionary biblical reading on Epiphany prescribes for us the same biblical text and the very similar task. We will attempt to extrapolate this beautiful and deceptively simple Johanine hymn into our modern idiom while avoiding the Faustian trap (self serving translation).
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