05 May 2016, The Tablet

Found in translation

by Ian Bradley


Passwords to Paradise: how languages have re-invented world religions

When a religion is transmitted beyond its homeland and its beliefs are translated into another language, new “passwords to paradise” have to be issued. In the process, the message and ethos of the original faith can be significantly changed, as the distinguished independent scholar of languages, Nicholas Ostler, shows in this important book.

Ostler’s focus is on what he identifies as the three missionary faiths, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, with the latter taking most of his attention. The appearance of the Virgin at Guadalupe played a significant role in the conversion of Mexicans to Roman Catholicism. Ostler describes how the account published in Nahuatl a century later gave Mary a title and attributes associated with an Aztec goddess. Nahuatl-speaking Christianity also altered the way relations within the Holy Family were understood, creating a more fatalistic and accepting portrayal consonant with native Indian ideas.

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