Cicero and the Romans would have a hearty laugh at our expense. In their blessed times, nobody was concerned about how accurately the semantic meanings were transmitted from Greek to Latin. The approach was to translate the ideas and the forms, enriching one's language; distorting the meaning in the process did not concern anyone. The title question could've been asked only by a barbarian. Surpassing the original was NORMAL, because vague, duplicious, and unreliable Greek was transformed into clear, stately, and obviously superior tongue: Latin. St Jerome pointedly stated that the translation not only CAN be better than the original, but it MUST be better, as otherwise it is failing as a translation. During the Renaissance they did not say such outrageous things openly any more, but neither did they translate like we do. Dryden reaffirmed it most emphatically saying that the translator should match the original with his own eloquence, period. Then, suddenly, it all changed in the 18th century. I do not know who brought the calamity upon us, as there is no unity among the scholars on this point. It is said that the idea first occurred to Diderot and D'Alambert, which is quite ironic, as their own "translation" of Chambers' Cyclopaedia is a free flight of fancy. But it might be incorrect to blame the ungodly French: the tradition goes back to the vernacular translations of the Bible.
Which brings me closer to the topic. All translations of the New Testament can be traced to the Greek original. However, the disciples and Jesus did not speak Greek to each other. The original sayings were in Aramaic, and it makes sense to assume that the Greek Gospels might be based on a lost Aramaic original (this is called Aramaic primacy theory).
...Aramaic Source Criticism is the position that when the New Testament was written, the authors utilized Aramaic sources (old written documents, oral traditions, etc.) in their compositions that were translated and then redacted into the texts as we have them today. The study of Aramaic Primacy is to take a critical look at the Greek New Testament and reconstruct those Aramaic sources to gain a better cultural and contextual understanding about the documents, themselves. http://www.aramaicnt.org
That is a controversial issue, but the theory does provide interesting explanations to quite a few mysteries in the New Testament, such as the proverbial camel passing through the eye of the needle. In Aramaic, "camel" (גמלא) is spelled identically to "rope." There are other possibilities (eg, the Talmud includes similarly worded proverb, suggesting an idiom), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_of_a_needle; also, by a striking coincidence, in Greek "camel" (κάμηλον) is also spelled similarly to "rope" (κάμιλον). But there are other equally intriguing places, see
in which the idiosyncrasies of Koine Greek are naturally interpreted as wordplay in Aramaic. By no means I am suggesting that this theory is correct, but consider the ramifications:
The most popular book in the world, the New Testament, is a vast collection of translations traceable to the Greek original. However, this original is itself a translation, and this translation, if the Aramaic primacy theory gets it right, is by someone with a limited command of either classical Greek or Aramaic, as suggested by literal readings of the puns. In all probability, this translator's idea what it meant to translate was much closer to that of Cicero and St Jerome than Diderot and D'Alambert. This mangled Greek translation had conquered the world, converted it to a new faith, and informed our entire civilization. The Aramaic original accomplished none of these things, as it was promptly lost.
Can a translation be better than the original?