Bible Translation Today

THE CONSENSUS IS IN: Bible translating is a very difficult job and, considering his situation and what he had to work with, William Tyndale did a remarkable job. Many reputable translators today acknowledge that Tyndale’s work was an amazing accomplishment, and are full of examples as to why the task he undertook was so difficult in his time, as well as today.

Why, not even considering the numerous persecutions he endured, Tyndale’s task and mission were difficult enough: almost certainly with no other English version of the Scriptures to refer to (Wycliffe’s hand-written version from a century before was almost certainly not available to him), and using only very limited Greek, German, Latin and Hebrew sources, he almost single-handedly translated some two-thirds of the Bible into English. His linguistic work is even more laudatory because so much of it has stood the test of time.

Without any earlier version to set precedents, he had to make thousands of personal judgment calls in choosing “just the right words” or expressions to best convey the meanings of the original text. Sometimes he could find no equivalent English expression, so he would coin new words to get to the heart of the meaning. For example, his coinage of the phrase “loving-kindness” to express the meaning of the Hebrew word hesed used so often in the Old Testament.

His translating skill and verbal sensitivity are obvious, and not only in the fact that the “Authorized” or King James Version’s translators used about 90 percent of Tyndale’s choices. His genius is further confirmed by the fact that, in several cases where the KJV translators chose to disregard Tyndale, later translators with more manuscript backing chose to go back to Tyndale’s choices. A good example is found in 1 Corinthians 13, where Tyndale translated agape as “love,” the KJV translators translated it as “charity,” and nearly all modern translations have gone back to “love.”

Tyndale set a worthy example for modern Bible translators who, though they have more ancient sources and more-modern tools, like computers, still face an arduous and complex task.

In accurately communicating the message and intent of the original writer, modern Bible translators say they have several important jobs, including:

• To find out what the original language says, not just the meaning of the individual words, but the meaning of those words as they were understood by the person who wrote them and the people who read them for the first time;

• To say the same thing in words that the target audience will understand;

• To say it in such a way that the target readers will understand the subject in the same way that the readers of the original document did.

Straightforward as that may sound, Bible translation is far from a simple thing to do, and always involves several potentially problematic steps.

First, the translator must find out what the original language says. This begins with an understanding of vocabulary—the words themselves. Vocabulary problems can be confusing—and often “confusing” means “comical.”

The classic example of misunderstood vocabulary occurs in one of the early Spanish translations of the New Testament. John 20:14f describes Jesus approaching the bereaved Mary Magdalene in the garden following his resurrection. She turned to face him and mistook him for the gardener.

But the early translator did not fully recognize the difference between the several Spanish words for turning. The word he chose is the same one the Indian women used to describe turning over a tortilla. The meaning it conveys is roughly the same as flipping a pancake. Taken literally, this translation would imply that the bereaved Mary was an acrobat: in order to turn and face Jesus, says this version, she did a flip.

One missionary translator considered himself fortunate when he found a member of his target language group who understood the phrase “What is this?” The missionary proceeded to point to an item and ask the man for its identifying name. The language helper gave him a word, and the missionary wrote it down. Then he pointed to a second item and asked again, but the helper gave him the same word as before. In fact, no matter what the missionary pointed to, he always got the same answer. The missionary had not yet discovered that members of this tribal group never used a single finger for pointing. So when the missionary stuck out his finger and said, “What is this?” his patient helper told him again and again—a finger.

Tyndale and the other translators of his era faced vocabulary problems all their own. Four centuries ago scholars knew much less about the ancient languages than they do today. In some cases the translators faced words they had never seen before. They could only guess at the meaning. That’s why the KJV, in Proverbs 30:31, says “greyhound” when it should say “rooster,” and in Job 30:29, it says “dragon” when it should say “jackal.”

In Matthew 6:2, Jesus says that people who make a public display of giving alms “have their reward.” Or so says the KJV. But the word translated here as “have” is the Greek word apecho, which occurs nowhere else in the New Testament and nowhere in any other work of Greek known in the time of King James. So the translators made an educated guess based on similar known words. Only within the past 100 years have archaeologists discovered that the word was commonly used in Jesus’ day in regard to commercial transactions, with the noun apoche meaning “receipt” and the verb apecho meaning “paid in full.” Thus, modern translations have generally translated Jesus’ words as “they have received their reward in full.”

But solving the vocabulary problems is only the first step in solving the problems of translation. Several of those scholars who worked on the translation of the New International Version of the Bible are quick to point out that language is more than just words; language is the way people use words. A good translator must know how those words work together, they say, both in the original language and in the target language into which he or she is translating.

Dr. Bruce Waltke, a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, emphasizes that words only come to their full meaning “within context.” Waltke talks about “the father of modern linguistics,” Ferdinand de Saussure, and how Saussure likened language to “a chess game.”

Waltke explains that “in a chess game, every piece on the board can make certain moves. But the value of any given piece depends upon the shape of the board, where the other pieces are. Every time you move one piece you change the value of every other piece. Sometimes you can make a move that’s very decisive, and it changes the total shape of the board.

“Words are like that,” says Waltke. “Words can have differing meanings, but their true value is determined by every other word in the sentence. So you can’t touch one word without changing the value of all the other words in the sentence.”

Waltke illustrates: “If I say, ‘I sang before President Reagan,’ You might think that I sang in his presence, that I stood before him and sang. However, if I say, ‘I sang before President Reagan spoke,’ I’ve changed the value of the word before. In the first example it had to do with space. In the second example it had to do with time.”

Obviously, then, the translator must know more than the meanings of mere individual words. He must deal with the words in context, in relation to the other words in the sentence, the paragraph and the entire work. He must deal with grammar and usage, which are almost always different in different languages. He must reach behind the string of individual words to find the heart and meaning in the phrases and sentences.

Some might ask, Doesn’t this phrase-by-phrase rather than word-by-word approach mean a decrease in literal accuracy? The answer is, Not at all. In fact, the very opposite is true. Consider, for example, this word-by-word translation of a familiar passage:

“But if also is covered good news our in those perishing it is covered in whom the god of this age blinded the thoughts of the unbelieving so as not to beam forth to them the radiancy of the good news of the glory of the Christ who is image of God.” Translated in this way, this passage is difficult, if not impossible, to understand—especially by readers unfamiliar with the Bible.

Now, here’s 2 Corinthians 4:3, 4 in what the translators of the New International Version believe is a more dynamically equivalent rendering for 20th-century English-speaking readers:

“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

In regard to this dynamic-equivalence concept, Dr. Ronald Youngblood, a translator and professor of New Testament and Greek at Bethel Theological Seminary, says, “There’s a common misunderstanding that only a word-for-word translation can be a literal translation. When I use the term literal I mean a normal translation, one that gets across to the reader what the original author intended.”

So even after considering the vocabulary, context, grammar and usage, the translator’s job is still only beginning. For even when he has determined what the words say, he still must determine what the original writer intended those words to mean.

Dr. Larry Walker, a professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, says: “We have to decide sometimes whether to translate what the word says or what it means. And sometimes that’s a big difference. For example, figures of speech. Obviously, what they say is not necessarily what they mean. If I say to you, ‘Stop pulling my leg,’ well, we know what the words say, but they don’t mean stop pulling my leg.”

Using a biblical example, Walker notes that “in Hebrew, you have many expressions that we do not use in English. In Hebrew you can speak of the heart as the center of emotions and feeling. We do that in English. No problem speaking of love in our heart. But the Hebrew will also use other organs of the body, in addition to the heart, to express these concepts. You also see words like bowelsliver and kidney used to express seats of feeling. All of these have to be translated according to what they mean rather than to what they say.

“When the prophet Jeremiah was very upset over the fall of Jerusalem,” says Walker, “he said his liver was poured out on the ground. That’s exactly what the Hebrew says. There’s no question about what it says. But it doesn’t mean that his liver was poured out on the ground. It means he was very upset and distraught.”

Youngblood, in describing the approach used in translating the New International Version, says: “We wanted to make an idiom-for-idiom translation rather than a word-for-word translation, because sometimes literal idioms don’t translate well into other languages. If I were, for example, to say to someone who lives in Japan, ‘Five years ago my grandfather kicked the bucket,’ that Japanese person would have no idea what I was talking about. Or, if he did, he would picture my grandfather going out into the back yard and booting a pail around . . . . There are idioms that cannot be translated word-for-word into English without making nonsense.”

The importance of treating every idiom so carefully is highlighted by remembering that the goal of translation is faithfully and accurately communicating the intent of the author in a different language.

“Faithfulness moves in two directions,” says Dr. Kenneth L. Barker, academic dean of Capital Bible Seminary and a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew. “On the one hand, it moves back toward the original Hebrew and Greek. On the other hand, faithfulness relates to the target or receptor language. It is just as important to be faithful to the target language as it is to be faithful to the original language from which one is translating.”

Says Dr. Murray Harris, a professor of Greek and New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School: “The art of translating is like a high-wire act; the essence of the art is maintaining one’s balance. The balance for the translator is between an accurate translation on the one hand and a contemporary translation on the other. There is always the danger of falling off one side or the other—of being accurate but not contemporary, or of being contemporary but not accurate.”

Careful attention to the original language without equal care and respect for the target language results in only half a translation. And there’s still another element. When the translator has considered the meanings of the individual words, their context and the idioms and grammar and usage of both the original language and the target language, there is more work to do.

“For example,” says Larry Walker, “there is no punctuation in the original that corresponds really to English. There is some punctuation in Greek, but it’s not exactly what we work with. There’s no punctuation in Hebrew, basically. So in talking about everything from periods to question marks to commas to semicolons to colons to dashes to hyphens to parentheses to brackets, all of these are put in by the translators. And they have tremendous ramifications.

“Even a small comma can make a complete difference in meaning,” says Walker. He uses a modern-English example: “‘John having left, his wife, Kathy, needs our prayers.’ That means one thing. But look what happens if I move the commas around a bit: John having left his wife, Kathy needs our prayers.’ That changes the meaning completely.”

Exhaustive knowledge of vocabulary in both languages. Exhaustive knowledge of context in both languages. Exhaustive knowledge of idioms, grammar and punctuation in both languages. Exhaustive understanding of the original writer’s intent.

All these are prerequisites for the perfect Bible translator, who of course does not exist in this world. Still, many people around the world have committed themselves to moving closer to this ideal, both by studying and by translating, by daily wrestling with the multiplexity of English and hundreds of other languages. 

Obviously, their work is not simple—and never has been. A translator some 400 years ago, one Martin Luther, said in his old age, “It is good for me that I have been involved in translating the Bible, for otherwise I might have died with the fond persuasion that I am learned.”

Today, men and women of conviction and discipline carry on the legacy of those, like Luther and Tyndale, who devoted themselves to getting the Bible into the languages of all peoples. These determined people continue to press for ways to cross every language barrier .

With pens and paper, with typewriter and computer keyboard, they press on, typically in very difficult circumstances. Increasingly, in several parts of the world, there is opposition to Bible translators, sometimes including physical assault and abuse. Some, like the Wycliffe Translators’ Chet Bitterman, have even been killed.

Tyndale, no doubt, would not have been surprised nor chagrined. In fact, he asserted all through his persecutions that the task of getting the Bible into the language of the people was worth the risk of his life. He would encourage these who follow in his footsteps. As he translated the Bible into the language you are reading now, so they translate it into other languages, so that people in all the world may share the truth that the English Bible makes available to us. CH

By Richard K. Barnard

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #16 in 1987]

Richard K. Barnard is a minister in the Reformed Episcopal Church, a media consultant, and a writer living in Lewisville, Texas. For five years he was director of communications for the International Bible Society.
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