Meeting the Challenge of Bible Translation
THE Holy Bible, by early 1974, was translated wholly or in part into 1,526 languages and dialects. Not only is it being translated into more languages each year but more and more translations are being made in the same languages. A case in point is the English language, in which it seems that of late almost yearly new translations have been made.
Regarding the art of translation a professor of languages once stated that “the problems that arise with translation are infinite.” Translating the Bible presents the greatest challenge of all. Well has it been said: “Biblical translation is an endless process.” It involves translating from ancient languages idioms that are no longer in common usage. And it involves religion, and religion always has associated with it strong feelings, which at times may get in the way of a translator’s judgment. The Bible being the inspired Word of God, it should be translated with the greatest care and skill. Unless one accepts the Bible’s claim to be the inspired Word of God one cannot fully do justice to it. Bible translation should be a labor of love, as well as an art and a science.
Among the many challenges that Bible translation poses is that of accuracy. Is the translation as explicit as is the original? Does it do justice to the flavor as well as the words of the original? Often translations come short in this regard. Thus there are two Greek words that most translations render “anoint,” namely, a·leiʹpho and khriʹo. Whenever a·leiʹpho appears it always refers to the use of oil or ointment applied to the body, as after a bath, or in sickness or in death. (Matt. 6:17; Mark 6:13; 16:1; Luke 7:38, 46; Jas. 5:14) But khriʹo is used only in a spiritual, sacred and figurative or symbolic sense and therefore deserves the word “anoint,” as at Luke 4:18, where we read: “Jehovah’s spirit is upon me, because he anointed me to declare good news to the poor.” Few, if any, aside from the New World Translation (NW), uniformly distinguish between these two Greek words.
Another challenge as to accuracy has to do with what is known as the “present imperative” in Greek.* It denotes continuous or repeated action. Its distinctiveness is, by and large, ignored by Bible translators. For example, at Luke 11:9, 10 nearly all read as does the New English Bible (NEB): “So I say to you, ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks receives, he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”
But such a rendering misses the entire point of Jesus’ illustration. In it he tells of a man whose guests arrive at midnight and who goes to his neighbor for bread. The neighbor at first refuses because he is in bed with his children. But finally the neighbor does get up and gives him bread, not because the one asking is a friend but because of his “bold persistence.” And so what Jesus said in applying the lesson of the parable was: “Keep on asking, and it will be given you; keep on seeking, and you will find; keep on knocking, and it will be opened to you. For everyone asking receives, and everyone seeking finds, and to everyone knocking it will be opened.”—NW.
GUARDING AGAINST BIAS
There is also the matter of fidelity to the original. At times Bible translators let their religious bias show through in their renderings. For example, modern translators appear to have an aversion to using an equivalent for the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, YHWH or JHVH. Some object to using the name “Jehovah” as an equivalent. But if Yahweh is more nearly correct, why do not more of them use that form? Since Rotherham’s translation (1897) apparently only The Jerusalem Bible has used Yahweh. Obviously the Tetragrammaton is a proper noun and so cannot be properly translated by using such common nouns as “Lord” or “God.” True, in some translations these common nouns are printed in all capitals, but that does not make them truly distinctive. Besides, when Bible texts are read aloud the listener is not aware of the capital letters, is he?
Then again, John 2:3, 4 in the Catholic Confraternity Version (1941) reads: “The wine having run short, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘What wouldst thou have me do, woman? My hour has not yet come.’” This is just the opposite from the way Jesus actually spoke to his mother, even as indicated by his calling Mary “woman” instead of “mother.” What he actually said was: “Woman, why turn to me? My hour has not come yet.” (The Jerusalem Bible) A footnote states: “A semitic formula not infrequent in the O[ld] T[estament]. . . . It is used to deprecate interference or, more strongly, to reject overtures of any kind.” Jesus was putting Mary in her place; he did not regard her as being on a pedestal.—Luke 11:27, 28.
Furnishing similar examples of religious bias is The Children’s Living Bible by K. N. Taylor. Thus at 2 Timothy 2:8 it reads: “Don’t ever forget the wonderful fact that Jesus Christ was a Man, born into King David’s family; and that he was God, as shown by the fact that he rose again from the dead.” But the original says nothing about Jesus’ being God, even as can be seen from the way the New English Bible renders this verse: “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, born of David’s line.”
Then again, Taylor’s translation of Matthew 7:13 reads: “Heaven can be entered only through the narrow gate! The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide enough for all the multitudes who choose its easy way.” But the original says nothing about either Hades or Gehenna, the two Greek words often translated “hell.” Instead, it contrasts “life” and “destruction.”
LETTING GOD’S WORD ITSELF DIRECT
When there is a choice of alternatives, as when punctuation becomes vital, what the Bible itself says must be permitted to direct. (When the Bible was first written, there was no such thing as punctuation.) But Luke 23:43 is almost invariably rendered as if Jesus said: “I tell you verily, today you shall be with me in Paradise.” (The Bible in Living English, Byington) However, others, such as the New World Translation and Rotherham, put the comma after “today”: “Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.” Which is correct?
All that we need to do is to ask, Did that malefactor merit going to heaven after a life of crime just because he expressed sympathy for Jesus and asked to be remembered by him? Did he ‘work out his salvation with fear and trembling’? (Luke 13:24; Phil. 2:12) Moreover, the Bible says nothing about Jesus as having gone to a heavenly Paradise that day. On the contrary, Peter said that Jesus went to Hades when he died and was buried, and from it he was resurrected. Jesus himself said that, even as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a fish, so he would be—not in heaven but—“in the heart of the earth three days.” Besides, after being raised from the dead, Jesus told Mary that he had not as yet ascended to his God and to her God. (Matt. 12:40; John 20:17; Acts 2:22-33) So in view of these facts, what other conclusion can the objective Bible translator come to than that Jesus must have said, not “Today you shall be with me in Paradise,” but, rather: “I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise,” that is, at some future time.
The same principle holds true in beginning names with capital letters; it is up to the translator as to what use he makes of these. Thus those who believe the holy spirit to be the third person of a Trinity will, of course, capitalize “Holy Spirit,” as at Acts 1:8, which reads (NEB): “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” But in the actual account when Jesus’ words were fulfilled, what do we read? “This will happen in the last days: I will pour out upon everyone a portion of my spirit.”* (Acts 2:17, NEB) Where is the capital letter? It is not there! Why not? Because God could not pour out a portion of a coequal God; “spirit,” as used here, clearly could not refer to a person. Since this text relates to the very thing Jesus foretold at Acts 1:8, it must follow that he did not have a person in mind when he spoke of his apostles as receiving holy spirit, and so in Acts 1:8 it should not have been capitalized either.
All of this is in harmony with the words of John the Baptist that, while he baptized with water, the coming One “will baptize you with holy spirit.” (Mark 1:8) One cannot be baptizing with another person but one can baptize others with water or with an active force, which is what God’s holy spirit is. Yes, translators must let the rest of God’s Word direct when there is a choice between renderings.
Illustrating this principle also are the words of Jesus at Matthew 24:3-8. Thus after Jesus tells of wars, famines and earthquakes, the New English Bible has Jesus saying: “With all these things the birth-pangs of the new age begin.” But not so. Rather, these things mark the death throes of an old order. The birth pangs leading to the new system of things are described at Revelation chapter 12, which tells of the birth of God’s Messianic kingdom followed by a war in heaven, between Michael and the great dragon, Satan the Devil.
THE IDEAL IS TO COMMUNICATE
It might well be said that no one translation is superior in every instance. While some freer translations may err as to accuracy, more literal ones may at times not communicate as well as do others. Thus, time and again, we read of some being “brought to silence.” (Isa. 6:5; Jer. 49:26) The actual thought is being brought to the ‘stillness of death.’ (Jer. 49:26, NEB) Likewise that expression of contempt, “anyone urinating against a wall” (1 Ki. 14:10; 21:21; 2 Ki. 9:8), is idiomatic, referring to males only, and so some translators simply render the expression “every mother’s son.” (NEB) But in other instances the New English Bible does not communicate as well as do other translations, as, for instance, when it reads: “They shall beat their swords into mattocks,” and “thy staff and thy crook are my comfort.” Not everyone reading will be familiar with a “mattock,” nor with a “crook” as referring to a shepherd’s staff.—Isa. 2:4; Ps. 23:4.
Truly, doing justice to translating the Bible presents a real challenge. It is indeed a blessing that there have been produced so many different translations. However, from the foregoing examples it may well be said that, as an accurate translation, the New World Translation has much to recommend it.
See A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, Dana & Mantey, pp. 300-303.
See also The New American Bible.