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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Bible Translations

Don Stewart :: What Are Some of the Key Issues Involved with Translating the Bible?

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What Are Some of the Key Issues Involved with Translating the Bible?

Bible Translations – Question 3

Translating the Bible is not something that is easy to do. It must be appreciated that there are a number of issues that have to be decided as one goes about rendering the Word of God into a language different from that which it was originally written. The following decisions have to be made for any translation of the Bible.

1. Who Is Going to Do the Translating?

The first issue that has to be addressed concerns the translator or the translators. Who is going to be the person, or persons, that will actually do the translating of the biblical text? Will it be one person? Will it be a committee? Will the translators come from one denomination or from a number of denominations? Should all the translators be from the same country or should there be an international group doing the work? These are just a few of the many questions that have to be answered before a translation can begin. There are so many other issues that have to be settled.

For example, if the translators differ on how a particular verse is to be translated, then who will make the final decision as to how the text reads? This first step is crucial and must be determined before any type of translating the Scripture can begin.

2. Which Books Should Make up the Translation?

Once the translators have been chosen, the next step is to decide which books should be included in the translation of the Bible? While this may seem to be an obvious question to many, it certainly is not an obvious question to everyone. Should it be limited to the sixty-six books that make up the Protestant canon? What about the books the Protestants call the Old Testament Apocrypha and the Roman Catholics call the deuterocanonical books? Should they be part of the translation of Scripture? If so, should they be included as part of the Old Testament or should they be placed in a separate section? These questions need answering.

Furthermore, the Eastern Orthodox Church includes three other books as part of their Old Testament—3rd and 4th Maccabees as well as Psalm 151. What should be done with these books? Should they be translated with the rest of Scripture? If so, should they be placed in a separate section between the testaments or in an appendix? The New Revised Standard Version is the first major English translation that actually incorporates the books that all three major branches of Christianity, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Greek Orthodox, accept as Scripture.

Therefore, before any work of translation can begin, it must be agreed upon exactly what books are to be translated.

3. From What Text Should the Translation Be Made?

Once the exact extent of the books that will be in the translation or paraphrase has been determined, then the next important issue concerns the text from which it is to be made. The decision has to be made by the translators as to which individual reading from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek manuscripts is the original reading and which readings are secondary. This must be done for each verse of the Bible.

Almost all modern translations use the latest edition of BHS (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia) as the text from which they translate the Old Testament. The translators also compare the BHS text with readings from other ancient Hebrew manuscripts, the Dead Sea Scrolls and ancient translations of Scripture.

In the New Testament, it is the latest edition of Nestle-Aland Novum Testament Graece that is usually used as the basis for the translation. This is the same Greek text that is contained in the latest edition of the New Testament of the United Bible Society. The only difference between these two Greek texts is the way they are punctuated and the manner in which the variant readings are listed.

BHS and the Nestle-Aland text are the standard Hebrew and Greek printed texts. While most modern translations use these printed texts as a base for their translation, at times they will prefer a reading that is not found in these texts, but rather is listed among the variant readings in these printed text. These printed editions list a number of secondary or variant readings at the bottom of each page. At times, the translators will conclude that the reading in the printed text is not the original but actually a secondary reading.

Indeed, the New Revised Standard Version adds four sentences in First Samuel 10 that are not found in other English translations. They read as follows:

Now Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had been grievously oppressing the Gadites and the Reubenites. He would gouge out the right eye of each of them and would not grant Israel a deliverer. No one was left of the Israelites across the Jordan whose right eye Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had not gouged out. But there were seven thousand men who had escaped from the Ammonites and had entered Jabesh-gilead. (1 Samuel 10:27 NRSV)

This addition is based upon manuscript evidence that was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In the New Testament, there are a few modern translations that still use some form of the Textus Receptus as their Greek text. This is basically the text that was behind the King James Version of 1611. Some will use a standard edition of the Textus Receptus, while others will use what is known as the Majority Text. The Majority Text differs from the Textus Receptus in about 2,000 places. Among other things, translations based upon this Greek text will add the following phrase in First John:

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. (1 John 5:7 KJV)

Almost all modern translations reject this reading as being original.

The Living Bible, which is a paraphrase and not a translation, did not use either a Hebrew or a Greek text to work from. The basis of the paraphrase was an English translation—the 1901 American Standard Version. Therefore, it is a paraphrase from a translation.

The fact that translators of one version will use a slightly different text than the translators of another version accounts for the differences in the English text.

4. What Do the Translators Do with Words That Have an Uncertain Meaning?

Once the text has been decided, another problem arises; how to translate rare words. What does the translator do when the meaning of a particular word or phrase is uncertain? It seems obvious that some type of marginal note is necessary. But there are some translations which do not have marginal notes. What is to be done in that case? How do they let the reader know that the meaning is uncertain?

With respect to the New Testament there are relatively few rare words. However, one example of a rare word can be found in the Lord’s Prayer as recorded in Matthew 6:11 and Luke 11:3 in which the meaning is uncertain. It is usually translated as “daily bread.”

However, some believe it means “bread for tomorrow.” The word has never been found anywhere else in Greek literature. What is the translator to do when there are two equally possible readings? Basically, there is no choice but to put one in the text and the other in a footnote.

In the Old Testament there are several hundred words that occur only once in the Hebrew Bible and are not found in other Hebrew literature. What is to be done in cases like this? Obviously the translator has to make some choice with respect to the meaning of the word. However, the translator should also let the reader know that the translation of the word or phrase is uncertain.

There is also the issue of translating terms with which there is no English equivalent. A case in point is the long undergarment that was worn in the time of Christ—the chiton. This garment was worn next to the skin and covered the person from the neck to the feet. There is really no word in modern English that describes it. It was not a shirt, for a shirt covers only the upper body. It would be wrong to translate it as underwear because modern underwear only covers the lower body. While tunic is a word that properly explains this garment, most people do not know what a tunic is. Therefore, some type of explanation must be necessary.

5. What Theory of Translation Is to Be Used?

There is also the issue of which theory of Bible translation is to be used. Should the translation be literal? Should the work be more thought for thought? Should it be a paraphrase? What makes a faithful translation? With respect to translations, there are two competing theories, formal equivalence and dynamic or functional equivalence.

Formal equivalence is more of a word-for-word translation. It attempts to express as exactly as possible the full force and meaning of every word and phrase in the original. As much as possible, there is an attempt to keep the same word order as the original. However, some translations have been so literal that they cannot be understood without referring to the original Hebrew and Greek!

Dynamic equivalence, or functional equivalence as it is sometimes called, attempts to translate thought-for-thought, or phrase-for-phrase, rather than word-for-word. It attempts to bring across, as far as possible, the same meaning of the text that the original readers would have had.

It must be emphasized that no translation is totally literal or totally thought-for-thought. The issue is which philosophy of translation should be given priority. Which should come first, which should come second, and when the two conflict, which theory should be employed? Should the grammatical form of the original be disregarded in the translation for sake of readability, or should readability be disregarded for sake of grammatical accuracy? Which is considered more important; accuracy or readability?

This issue is as old as Bible translations. One of the first people to translate the Bible into English was King Alfred the Great. He said the following about how to translate the Scripture:

I began amidst other diverse and manifold cares of the kingdom, to turn into English the book which is called Cura Pastoralis in Latin, and in English, the Shepherd’s Book, sometimes word-for-word, and sometimes meaning-for-meaning.

This same problem faced Jerome, the fourth century church father who translated the Latin Vulgate. Jerome believed every written work should be translated according to its sense, rather than by a literal word-for-word translation. However, he said that the only exception to this rule was the Bible. Since it is God’s Word, Jerome believed it should be translated word-for-word from the original. What is interesting to note is that Jerome did not always live up to the principles that he advocated. Much of his translation is thought-for-thought rather than word-for-word.

Sometimes a literal translation will not make any sense. An illustration of this can be seen in 2 Corinthians 6:11. It literally reads as follows:

Our mouth is open unto you, O Corinthians. (2 Corinthians 6:11 ASV)

The Revised Standard Version translates this verse the same way as the ASV, with the exception of omitting “O” before Corinthians. Yet, what does this phrase mean? Most modern versions do not literally translate the verse, but rather render something like the following:

We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians. (2 Corinthians 6:11 NRSV)

This is the meaning behind the phrase, but it is not a literal translation of the Greek. Which of the two should be in the translated text of Scripture? What it literally says, or what it most likely means? This is a problem that all translators have to face.

Those who translated the New Revised Standard Version said they were, “as literal as possible and as free as necessary.” A number of other modern translations have taken the same attitude when faced with passages such as this.

Some translations claim to use “optimal equivalence.” This is a combination of the elements of formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence. For example, the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) says the follows about its method of using optimal equivalence:

The approach seeks to combine the best features of the formal and dynamic equivalence by applying each method to translate the meaning of the original with optimal accuracy. In the many places throughout Scripture where a word for word rendering is clearly understandable, that literal rendering is used. In other places, where a literal rendering might be unclear in modern English, a more dynamic translation is given. The HCSB has chosen to use the balance and beauty of optimal equivalence for a fresh translation of God’s Word that is both faithful to the words God inspired and “user friendly” to modern readers. (Holman Christian Standard Bible, Introduction)

Many modern translations take this same approach.

6. Which Level of Style Should Be Used?

The issue of level of readability also has to be addressed. Who is the target audience? At what level of English style should the translation be made? Should technical terms such as sanctification, redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation be used, or should these terms be simplified? Should the translation be aimed at the simplest level of reader, or should it be a literary work that is aimed at a higher level of reading competency? Some translations and paraphrases aim at the lowest possible literacy level while others are written to an audience that is more literate. The decision not only has to be made as to which level will be the target, there must be consistency in carrying this out. The entire translation should reflect a certain level of style. Which level of readability has to be determined by those who are responsible for the translation?

Because these decisions have to be made, we find a number of different translations that are specifically aimed at a target group. Indeed, there are always new translations which are being produced to reach a particular audience such as young children, teenagers, and those who read English as a second language.

7. How Should the Text Be Punctuated?

Another problem facing translations is that of punctuation. The ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts had little, if any punctuation. In fact, there was no systematic use of punctuation marks until the eighth or ninth century A.D. Therefore, the translator has to make a number of decisions about whether to use the marks, when to use them, and which ones to use.

Since these marks were not systematically used until eight centuries after the books were written, the translator does not necessarily have to follow the ancient scribe in where to place the marks. Neither does the translator necessarily have to follow the punctuation in printed Greek and Hebrew texts nor the punctuation found in other translations. Consequently, different translations will see different punctuating of the text.

For example, unlike English, the beginning of a sentence did not start with a capital letter. Consequently the translator must make the decision as to when the sentence begins and ends.

There is also the matter of quotation marks; they do not appear in any Hebrew or Greek manuscript. Therefore, whether the translator should use them, and where to put them, is entirely the decision of those translating the Scripture and there are no infallible rules in which to guide them.

Fortunately, the beginning of a direct quotation can often be determined when we find a verb such as “asked,” “said,” or “replied.” These words usually introduce a direct quote. Apart from that, it is the decision of the translators as to when something is being directly quoted from or when something is merely being referred to.

An Example of the Problem of Who Is Speaking: John 3

There are problems determining when the direct quotation ends. One of the best examples of this is found in the conversation Jesus had with the religious leader Nicodemus (John 3). It is uncertain when the words of Jesus stopped, and the comments of the writer, John, began.

For example, the King James Version and the Rheims-Douay of 1899 have no quotation marks whatsoever. Consequently, there is no help to determine where they think one person stopped speaking and another person started.

The Revised Standard Version and the New American Bible think Jesus’ words end at John 3:15. After that it was John commenting on the words of Jesus.

However, other translations such as the New International Version, the New Living Translation, the New American Standard Bible, and the New Revised Standard Version think Jesus’ words end at John 3:21.

A further problem arises in red-letter Bibles where the words of Jesus are placed in the color red. A decision has to be made when Jesus has stopped speaking and when John began to comment. There is no clear answer to this issue in this section of John’s gospel. However, since all of Scripture is divinely inspired, including any comments made by the author John, in one sense it does not really matter where Jesus’ words ended and John’s began. All of Scripture is for our benefit. This entire passage, no matter how one divides whom is speaking to whom, is still the Word of God and thus totally trustworthy.

The Problem with When to Use Commas

There are more issues with respect to punctuation. The placing of a comma within a sentence can change the sense of the sentence. For example, Luke 23:43 records the response of Jesus to the criminal who asked the Lord to remember Him when He came into His kingdom. Jesus said:

“Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

However, this sentence is punctuated differently by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Jehovah Witnesses in their New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures. The Watchtower does not believe that the dead are conscious, but rather are sleeping. Consequently, they have placed the comma after the next word “today.” Their punctuation reads as follows:

“Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” (NWT)

According to their punctuation, Jesus is emphasizing that He is talking to the criminal today rather than at some other day. The idea that the criminal will immediately be with Jesus in paradise is not found with this punctuation. Yet, it is rather obvious when Jesus was answering his request, that very same day. Therefore, the traditional punctuation is the only way that makes any real sense out of Jesus’ reply.

In Revelation 5:1, the traditional punctuation describes the scroll held in the right hand of God. It is usually translated as follows:

Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. (Revelation 5:1)

It is possible, however, to understand the Greek text in a different way. It would read as follows:

Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on the inside, and sealed on the back with seven seals.

Another example of a difference in punctuation can be seen in the Lord’s Prayer. The King James Version punctuates Matthew 6:10 as follows:

Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10)

However, modern translations usually punctuate it differently. They place the comma after the word, “done.”

Your will be done, on earth as in heaven.

Therefore, the punctuation of a text can make a difference as to its meaning.

8. Should Poetic Passages Be Laid Out Differently than Other Literary Forms?

There is also the question of poetic passages. The Bible contains a number of passages that are poetic in form. Should these poetic passages be laid out in such a way that it is clear they are poetry? If so, then how are poetic passages to be identified? Should they be indented? Italicized? Should they be placed in a different typeface?

What is to be done with passages where there is no consensus as to whether it is poetic or not? Should they be marked in a certain way to show that there is some question as to whether it is actually poetry we are dealing with? As can be imagined, translations differ on how this is to be accomplished.

9. Should the Translation Be Divided into Paragraphs?

There is also the problem of paragraphs. There were no paragraph divisions in the original. Furthermore, it is not known as to when the biblical text was broken into paragraphs. There are some paragraph divisions in fourth century manuscripts. However, the modern paragraph divisions were not made until the thirteenth century and they differ from the ones found in these earliest manuscripts.

Thus, should the present English translations be divided up into paragraphs? If so, how often should this be done? Some translations begin a new paragraph with each verse while others divide the paragraphs differently. Others do not have any paragraphs at all. If the Bible is divided up into paragraphs, should there be a heading written above each paragraph? All of these questions need to be answered.

10. Should the Translation Attempt to Use the Same English Word for Each Greek and Hebrew Word?

This is another stylistic question. Should the translation attempt to consistently translate the same Hebrew and Greek word with the same English word or should they use a variety of words to translate the same word? For example, the translators of the King James Version did not feel the need to use the same English word for the same Greek word. They stated their reasons in the preface to the translation.

On the other hand, if different English words are used for the same Greek word, then how is the English reader to know that it is the same Greek word that is being used? Would not they assume that a different Greek word is used because there is a different English word found in the translation?

Unfortunately, this was one of the main problems with the KJV. It used too many English words to translate the same Hebrew and Greek terms.

11. Should Archaic Forms of Words Be Retained?

Many modern translations have felt the need to retain some archaic forms of words. This is especially true in reference to Deity in the language of prayer. Translations such as the Revised Standard Version and the New American Standard Bible use the archaic form of “you” and “your,” “thou,” “thy,” “thine,” when God is addressed in prayer. Supposedly, this is the more reverent form of the word. Should this be done? If so, then a good explanation is needed as to why this is the case.

12. Should Pronouns That Refer to Deity Be Capitalized?

Should the translation capitalize all forms of words that refer to God? Until the twentieth century, there was no English translation that capitalized the pronouns when it referred to Deity. However, since that time, a number of translations and paraphrases have adopted this practice. This includes the Amplified Bible, the Berkeley Version, the New American Standard Version, and the New King James Bible. The thought behind this practice is to show more reverence for God.

However, those who do not adopt this practice point out a number of things. First, this type of distinction is not found in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. In fact, they did not use capital letters whatsoever.

If the translator capitalizes third person pronouns such as he, his, him, should this also be done with the relative pronouns (who, whom, whose) that refer to God? What about situations where it is an unbeliever speaking to Jesus? For example, Pontius Pilate asked Jesus the question, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Matthew 27:11). Should the “you” be capitalized when Pilate refers to Jesus? There are a number of versions which do this.

There are further problems. What about sections where the identity is uncertain? There are some verses where it is uncertain as to whether the Holy Spirit or the human spirit is under discussion. If the word, “spirit” is capitalized then the reader will assume that this refers to the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, if it is not capitalized in translations that capitalize pronouns referring to Deity then it will be assumed by the reader that this is not a reference to the Holy Spirit. Either way the translators have made an interpretive decision concerning the identity of the spirit. This is another matter translators have to deal with.

13. Should the Divine Name of God Be Translated?

A further issue concerns the name of God as it is revealed in the Old Testament. How should it be translated, or should it be translated? All English Bibles have this problem. It can be summed up as follows:

There are four Hebrew consonants that make up the divine name (YHWH). This is called “the tetragrammaton.” In older translations, such as the King James Version and the American Standard Version, the name was rendered as Jehovah. This represents the consonants from the Tetragrammaton and the vowels from another Hebrew word adonay which means “master.” The letter “J” was pronounced like “Y” in the 17th century. There is no letter “J” in Hebrew.

The vowels were substituted by a group of Hebrew scholars called the Masoretes in order to avoid pronouncing the divine name. When the Tetragrammaton appeared in the text, the word adonay was pronounced instead.

Most scholars believe that the divine name would have been pronounced something like Yahweh. If this be the case, then should Yahweh be used when the divine name of God appears in the Old Testament? Translators differ on this issue. Some translations will use Yahweh, while others substitute the term “Lord” in small capital letters. Again, this is a decision that each individual translation will have to make.

14. How Should Variant Readings Be Dealt With?

There is the issue of dealing with variant readings, or variations in the text, that are found in the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. Should they be listed? If so, how often should they be listed? What information should be given for the reading adopted in the text as well as the readings that were not adopted? Should phrases such as “the best manuscripts” be used in describing the reading chosen as original? Or should more objective descriptions such as, “the oldest manuscripts,” “the majority of manuscripts,” or “some of the oldest manuscripts” be used? Each translation will have to make its own decision as to how to deal with the variants.

15. Should Long Sentences Be Made into Shorter Ones?

There is also the issue of translating long and complicated sentences. For example, there are places in the writings of Paul where he writes a long, involved sentence. There is the frequent repetition of words such as “and,” “but,” “moreover,” and “for” in these long sentences. How should this be translated into English? English prefers to break up long sentences into smaller ones. Should this be done with Paul’s long sentences, or should they be kept long and involved as he originally wrote them? What is the best way of dealing with this problem? Again, the translators have to make a decision.

16. How Should Issues of Ancient Measuring Systems Be Dealt With?

The writers of Scripture used the measuring and numbering systems of their day. These are not the same systems used in modern times.

For example, Scripture measures things in cubits. This was the distance between the elbow and the middle finger. Should the term cubit be retained in text? If the ancient systems are converted into modern systems, then which modern system does the translation use? Should it be the metric system or the imperial system as found in America? Should the Scripture speak of meters or yards? Or should neither system be used and the term cubits retained?

17. Should Any Words Be Italicized?

One issue that can be confusing is the use of italics in Scripture. The Geneva Bible was the first to put italics in the text where it was thought necessary to add English words to explain the Greek text when the Greek did not have these words. The King James translators also employed this practice. Very few translations do this today.

This use of italics can be confusing to the modern reader. Today, we put words in italics for emphasis; we do not do it because the words are not found in the text. Thus, unless the reader was made aware of the practice, they would assume that the author of Scripture emphasized the words that are found in italics. However, the opposite is true. The author of Scripture did not use these words at all! They are an attempt by the translators to make the translation more clear.

An example of this type of confusion can be found in Psalm 19. The King James reads as follows:

There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. (Psalm 19:3 KJV)

This verse seems to emphasize that the voice of nature can be heard everywhere. Yet, the word “where” is not found in the Hebrew text. However, in this verse, the modern reader would assume that the psalmist is emphasizing that the voice of nature is heard everywhere. Actually, it seems to be saying just the opposite. Nature does not have a voice but its testimony is inaudible. The NRSV reads as follows:

There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard. (NRSV)

The NLT renders the verse as follows:

They speak without a sound or a word; their voice is silent in the skies. (Psalm 19:3 NLT)

As is readily apparent, the use of italics in this case will make a big difference in the meaning if the reader does not understand the purpose of the italics in the King James Bible.

18. Should the Translation Contain Any Explanatory or Reference Notes?

Apart from the translation of the text, how much other information should be given in a Bible? Should there be a cross reference system? Should there be notes that explain theological issues? Should there be headings before each section or paragraph? Should there be a written introduction to each book of the Bible? In the past, there have been a number of translations that did not contain any explanatory notes except those that dealt with the meaning of words or variant readings among the manuscripts. Some people argue that extensive notes do not belong with a Bible translation. It gives the reader the wrong impression that the notes are of equal value as the divinely inspired text. Again, we find that Bible translations differ as to whether or not notes should be used.

19. Should the Words of Jesus Be Put in Red Letters?

Some modern translations put the words of Jesus in red letters. This was first done in 1899 in an edition of the King James Version issued by the Christian Herald of New York. Other publishers have done the same thing. Besides the words of Jesus found in the Gospels, such editions also print in red letters the sayings attributed to Christ in the Book of Acts, 2 Corinthians, and the Book of Revelation.

While the red letter editions make it easier to find the words of Jesus, there are problems with this practice. As we just mentioned, it is not certain where the words of Jesus leave off and the words of John begin in John chapter three. If this is the case, then what words should be put in red letters?

There are other problems. The original Greek text makes no distinction between the words of Jesus and those of others. We never find His words written in some type of special letters, or with special colored ink. Since the New Testament does not highlight His words, why should a Bible translation?

There is even a greater problem. Red letter Bibles seem to give the impression that the words of Jesus have more value than other words that are found in the New Testament. Yet, the explanation of what Jesus accomplished as our Savior is not found in the gospels, but rather in the later New Testament books, such as the writings of Paul. Indeed, Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead are not explained in His words. Thus, red letter Bibles would tend to take away the emphasis of Jesus as the Savior and emphasize Jesus as the teacher. The point is that everything that Jesus said and did is of the utmost importance. Printing the words of Jesus Christ in red may cause some people to place lesser value on the words that are not in the red letters. This does not seem to be the wisest thing to do.

20. Should the Difference Between You (Singular) and You (Plural) Be Noted?

There is also the problem that translators face in making the distinction between the English word “you” as used in the singular number, and “you” in plural number. Old English had no such problem. They would use “thou” for the singular and “ye” for the plural. Modern English has no way to distinguish between the two. What then, if anything, should a translator do to distinguish between the singular and plural form?

21. Should They Translate or Transliterate Certain Words?

Translation is when a Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic word is rendered into another language. Transliteration is when the letters of the Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic word are simply put into another language without any thought of translation. For example, the word, “baptize” is not a translation of a word, it is a transliteration of the Greek word baptizo.

We find the writers of the New Testament transliterating on occasion. For example, in Matthew 1:22-23 it reads:

This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” (Matthew 1:22-23 NET)

The word, “Emmanuel” is actually a transliteration of four Hebrew words which means “God is with us.” It is not a Greek word or a proper name. Matthew took the Hebrew phrase and transliterated it in his gospel to describe how people will refer to Jesus.

22. How Is Word Order to Be Decided?

The order in which words are arranged in a sentence can make a difference in meaning. For example, when Jesus was instituting the Lord’s Supper, He spoke to His disciples about drinking from the cup. The King James Version records Him saying the following:

Drink ye all of it. (Matthew 26:27 KJV)

This translation is ambiguous. Does Jesus mean they should drink the entire contents of the cup or that all of them should drink of it? The translation does not make it clear.

The Greek is very clear. The word, “you” is plural in form. Therefore, the sentence should read like, “Drink from it, all of you.”

23. How Can a Passage Be Translated so That It Cannot Be Misunderstood?

A faithful translation does more than merely make it understandable, the translation must be done in a way where it cannot be misunderstood. The correct words must be chosen so there is no chance of misunderstanding. There are a number of examples where we find that translators have rendered the Scripture in a way in which it may be misunderstood.

For example, the King James Version reads the following in Matthew’s gospel:

And Jesus going up to Jerusalem took the twelve disciples apart in the way. (Matthew 20:17 KJV)

In what sense did Jesus “take the disciples apart?”

The King James translators rendering of Luke 17:34 could also give the wrong impression:

I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left. (Luke 17:34 KJV)

The italics mean that the word, “men” is not found in the original. Even worse, is the rendering of Luke 17:34 in James Moffatt’s 1934 revision of the New Testament. It reads “two men in bed.”

Another example of an ambiguous reading can be found in the Revised Standard Version. In speaking of the prophet Elisha, it says the following:

Then he arose and went after Elijah. (1 Kings 19:21 RSV)

The text, however, emphasizes that Elisha followed Elijah as his servant or attendant; not that he went after him in the sense of trying to apprehend him or catch up with him.

The RSV also is ambiguous in a verse in Zechariah. It reads:

Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. (Zechariah 3:3 RSV)

Who was clothed with filthy garments? Was it the angel or Joshua?

There is also an unclear translation of a passage in Exodus. Speaking of Moses, the verse reads as follows:

And he went out from Pharaoh in hot anger. (Exodus 11:8 ASV)

The RSV translates the verse the same way. Although the text is speaking of Moses going out in hot anger, it could be read in such a way that it referred to Pharaoh.

Some expressions can have a meaning different than the translators intended. For example, we read the following in the Revised Standard Version in the Psalms:

I am dumb. (Psalm 39:9 RSV)

The word, “dumb” is used here to mean “mute.” It has nothing to do with the intelligence of a person.

Since the Bible is God’s Word to the human race, it is terribly wrong to give the inference that it is folklore. However, the New English Bible introduces the account of the confusion of tongues at Babel with the following statement:

Once upon a time? (Genesis 11:1 New English Bible (NEB))

Obviously, this rendering can lead to misunderstanding, as well as to the idea that we are dealing with legend, not reality.

There are some other examples where the NEB is doctrinally imprecise. In the Book of Genesis we have the following two examples:

Noah had won the Lord’s favour. (Genesis 6:8 NEB)

Later we read Abraham saying:

If I have deserved your favour? (Genesis 18:3 NEB)

These two passages suggest that humans can somehow earn God’s favor. This is something that the text does not say neither does it imply. God’s favor, or grace, is not earned.

These examples can give the wrong impression as to the meaning of the text. Therefore, a good translation must make certain that its readings cannot be misunderstood.

24. How Does the Translation Keep from Being Ambiguous When Read Out Loud?

Translators must also be aware of possible ambiguity when the text is read out loud. For example, Luke 22:35 records Jesus asking His disciples a question:

And he said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing? (Luke 22:35 KJV)

Their answer could be misunderstood when read out loud. It could give the impression that the disciples were silent when, in actuality, they replied to Jesus’ question. While this is clear that the disciples answered Jesus’ question when one reads the text, it can be unclear if someone hears it read out loud. Consequently, some translations render their answer to the question as, “No, not a thing.”

There can also be confusion with words that sound exactly the same, but have a different spelling and a different meaning. The words “there,” and “their” are examples of this. Both words are pronounced exactly the same way, yet they are spelled differently and mean entirely different things. There are a number of passages where this can be unclear when read out loud:

Because there God had revealed himself. (Genesis 35:7 RSV)

When read out loud, this could be mistakenly thought to mean “their God” as opposed to the God of someone else.

There is another example of possible confusion in the Psalms:

There thrones for judgment were set. (Psalm 122:5 RSV)

Again, this could be misunderstood as referring to thrones belonging to someone rather than the place where the thrones were to be set up.

Consequently, care must be taken when translating these words so that the listener understands which form of the word is used.

25. How Do the Translators Deal with Male Oriented Terms?

One issue that has always faced translators is the correct use of gender. Is it acceptable to use masculine terms in a passage that refers to both men and women? Should terms like “man,” and “mankind” be used when speaking of both men and women as a group? This problem has plagued translators from the beginning.

For example, the Septuagint is the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. It was produced in approximately 150 B.C. We find in Hosea 2:4 there is a discussion of the three children of a woman named, two sons and one daughter. The Hebrew calls all three children “sons of whoredom.” The Septuagint, however, uses a neuter term—children. Therefore, we find the translation changing the text from the masculine gender to the neuter gender. Translations such as the King James Version, the American Standard Version, the New International Version, and the New Revised Standard Version also use the word, “children” to translate the Hebrew.

We find the same problem in the earliest of English translations. William Tyndale was the first person to translate the New Testament from Greek into English. In Matthew 5:9 he rendered the Greek word huioi as “children.” This is despite the fact that it is usually rendered as “sons.”

The Hebrew word ben means “son.” However, the King James Version rendered the Hebrew term ben, and its plural form, as “child” or “children” about thirty-five percent of the time. The phrase, “children of Israel” literally reads, “sons of Israel” in the Hebrew.

This is not a problem in passages where it is clearly addressed to both men and women. In these instances a more general term should be used.

In older translations, we often find the word, “man,” or “men” when referring to humanity in general. For example, John 12:32 reads as follows in the King James Version:

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself. (John 12:32 KJV)

The word, “men” is italicized. This is the way the King James translators indicated the word was not in the original text. Modern translations have made it clear that Jesus was not limiting His words to male adults.

There are times that “man,” or “men” can only mean a male adult. For example, in the feeding of the five thousand:

Now there were five thousand men who ate the bread. (Mark 6:44 NET)

In this instance, the Scripture specifically makes a distinction between the men and the women and the children. Thus, the five thousand were probably more like fifteen thousand, when the women and children were counted.

26. How Do They Translate the Lack of a Generic Third Person Pronoun?

Another difficulty that English translators face is the lack of a common gender third person singular pronoun. English has only “he,” “she,” and “it.” There is not a singular pronoun that represents both males and females. For example, how is Matthew 16:24-26 to be translated? Consider the following ways in which it has been done:

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:24-26 KJV)

The KJV consistently uses the masculine forms throughout. This is a literal translation of the Greek which uses the singular masculine form. On the other hand, the NIV renders the passage as follows:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26 NIV)

The NIV replaces “man” with “anyone” in the first instance. Yet, it keeps “man” and “he” for all the remainder of the references.

The NRSV, however, substitutes plurals for the singulars:

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:24-26 NRSV)

The NRSV has no male references in this passage. In verse twenty-four, instead of “man” it uses the word, “any.” The remainder of the references are changed from the singular to the plural. Instead of “he” and “his” it is translated “they” and “their.” This tactic avoids any masculine references. The idea is to make it more consistent with Jesus’ command that both males and females were instructed to follow after Him.

The Contemporary English Version, the CEV, translates the verse as follows:

If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me. If you want to save your life, you will destroy it. But if you give up your life for me, you will find it. What will you gain, if you own the whole world but destroy yourself? What would you give to get back your soul? (Matthew 16:24 CEV)

The CEV uses “you,” “yourself,” and “your” instead of the masculine pronouns.

What does the translator do when confronted with such a problem? Should they keep the word, “he” when referring to both male and females, or should they change the singulars to plurals? Or should they change the third person singular “he” to the second person singular “you?” There is no completely satisfactory answer.

27. How Do They Translate Hebrew Poetry?

There is also the issue of translating Hebrew poetry. Contrary to English poetry, Hebrew poetry does not rhyme. Moreover, there are a number of different types of Hebrew poetry.

For example, Psalm 119 is poem that contains twenty-two sections. These twenty-two sections correspond to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each section begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet—starting from the first letter and ending with the last. How can a translator bring that out in English? The letters of the English alphabet are not only different in number than the Hebrew alphabet, they do not correspond to each other. What, if anything, is the translator to do?

28. How Do They Translate a Play on Words?

In the original languages of Scripture, Hebrew and Greek, we find a number of instances where there is a play on words. The problem is that the play on words does not translate into English. One of the famous examples of this is Jesus’ statement to Peter in Matthew 16:18:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (Matthew 16:18 NIV)

The word, “Peter” means “rock.” Therefore, when Jesus said to Peter, “on this rock,” there is a play on words with his name. How can the translator bring out this word play in the original that does not translate into English?

At times, translations indicate the play on words in a footnote. In other cases, the play on words is ignored.

29. How Should Proper Names Be Translated?

There is also the issue of how to translate proper names. Sometimes it is difficult to know if the word is to be used as a proper name or to be translated with a different meaning.

For example, the Hebrew word adam is both a noun meaning “man” as well as a proper name “Adam.” There is a question as to when the translation should read Adam rather than man. There is no agreement among the various translations as to when this should happen in the Book of Genesis.

The Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, makes the change at Genesis 2:16. However, the King James Version, the New King James Version, the New Living Translation, the New American Standard, the New English Translation, and the New International Version make the change at Genesis 2:20. The American Standard Version and the Revised Standard Version at Genesis 3:17, while the New American Bible, New Jerusalem Bible, Revised English Bible, and New Revised Standard Version do not make the change until Genesis 4:25. Which one of these is correct?

Another example of this can be found in the Book of Psalms. Psalm 84:6 reads as follows in the King James Version:

Who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well. (Psalm 84:6 KJV)

Here the Hebrew word baca is understood as a proper name for the valley. Many other translations, such as the NIV, NKJV, NASB, and the NRSV render the verse in a similar way.

However, the Hebrew word can also mean “a balsam tree.” Thus, the New Jerusalem Bible translates this verse:

As they pass through the Valley of the Balsam. (Psalm 84:6 NJB)

On the other hand, the New American Bible translates it:

When they pass through the valley of mastic trees. (Psalm 84:6 NAB)

There is more. This word can also mean to “weep.” The American Standard Version of 1901 and the New Living Translation understand it in this manner:

When they walk through the Valley of Weeping. (Psalm 84:6 NLT)

These examples show the difficulty often encountered when confronted with a word that can be a proper name or translated as something else.

30. How Should Citations from the Old Testament Be Acknowledged?

There is the issue of how to acknowledge the quotation of the Old Testament by the New Testament writers. Should the quotations be put in bold type? Should they be placed in italics? Or should they even be acknowledged at all in the text? There is nothing in the Greek manuscripts that makes any type of acknowledgment that the Old Testament is being cited. Thus, should translations of the New Testament do what the original does not?

Conclusion: Translation Is Not an Easy Job

We gave an extended answer to this question to make a point; translating the Scripture is not an easy task. Consequently, one should be careful before criticizing translations and translators on their work. As we have clearly seen, decisions have to be made and in many instances there is no right or wrong decision. This being the case, we should be gracious with the way we evaluate any translation. Each translator is painfully aware of the problems and of their limitations. We too should be aware of the problems they must face. While there are indeed times where Bible translations should be criticized, any criticism should be done with the full knowledge of the issues.

Summary – Question 3
What Are Some of the Key Decisions That Have to Be Made When Translating the Bible?

Bible translation is not a science, nor is it a simple process. There are a number of issues that need to be considered when the Bible is to be translated. First, it must be decided who is going to do the translating. Next, it must be decided which books should be placed in the translation. Then a decision must be made about which Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic texts should be used to translate from. Each of these decisions has to be made before any translation can begin.

Decisions have to be as to what to do with words which have an uncertain meaning. Should there be some type of marginal note explaining the various options? It should also be determined what type of translation will be made. Should it be a more literal word-for-word translation, or should it be more thought-for-thought? In addition, the style of the translation must be determined. Should it be for a more literate audience, or should it be more for the general public?

Punctuation is a problem since there was no punctuation in the originals. Other stylistic issues, such as how to acknowledge poetry and whether or not to break the text into paragraphs, needs to be determined. There is no right or wrong answer to these stylistic questions.

Many other issues have to be determined. Should the translator capitalize pronouns which refer to God? Should archaic pronouns such as “thy,” or “thine” be retained in prayer to God? How should the divine name of the Lord be translated?

What about the variations in the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts where the readings are not the same? How should that be noted? Should long sentences be broken up into smaller ones as English likes to do? What system of weights and measures do we use? Should we retain the ancient system, which is not understood today, or should we substitute it with a modern system? If so, which modern system?

There is also the issue of italics. Should they be employed by the translators? If so, then what words should be italicized?

Male-oriented terms are also a problem for translators. Should the terms, “men,” or “mankind” be used when referring to both men and women? If not, what terms should be employed to designate a group of people which include women as well as men?

All of these questions, as well as many more, must be dealt with by Bible translators. Many of the issues do not have a right or wrong answer; it is a matter of preference. This being the case, we should be very careful in criticizing any translation or translator for the job which they have done. While there are indeed times when criticism is valid, all too often translations are criticized out of a lack of knowledge of the issues at hand. We should not make that mistake.

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