Issues Surrounding the Translation of the Bible

Introduction

An "interlinear" translation of one language into another is simply a word-for-word rendering, in the same word order as the original. This would seem to be as literal as possible, wouldn't it? But even an interlinear rendering requires the interjection of some degree of opinion into the text. Some words have more than one meaning, and how the words are translated will depend on how the translator views the context of the word. The simple Greek word logoV (logos) can be translated any of the following ways: a word; phrase; saying; statement; message; account; speech. Some translators even leave the word UN-TRANSLATED in places, writing it as "logos." When this is done, the practice is called "transliteration".

Still, an interlinear translation would be a MESS, due to the different rules of grammar in the different languages. In Greek, for example, words are often arranged in an order that is pleasing in a poetic way. It isn't necessarily the case that we would read the words from left to right, like in English. And of course, Hebrew is written from right to left anyway, which means the word order would have to be rearranged to suit an English reader. Still, translating verbatim produces a translation that is essentially unreadable, especially if the author was trying to reproduce an expression of some kind.

Idioms

A common Hebrew example of an idiom would be the practice of repeating something to create a superlative. In English, we change "er" to "est" to create a superlative, but that's not how it's done in Hebrew. There are also plenty of other idiomatic expressions. Here are a few examples:
"king of kings" most royal king
"lord of lords" highest lord
"ages of ages" most remote age
"ancient of days" old one
"eat dust" experience defeat

Structure

Another snag that translators must wrestle with is that of poetic structure. When translating unstructured prose, a translator has more freedom. But how do you render a passage that was deliberately structured a certain way by the author? In some cases, we CAN'T. For example, some of the psalms were written to the tunes of popular songs, so that they would be more easily remembered. Others of the psalms (9, 34, etc.) were written as acrostics, with the first letters of each verse in Hebrew following the alphabet. Again, it is almost impossible to reproduce this structure without making the English translation a bizarre one indeed!

John 1:1-5, a familiar passage, contains an interesting structure in Greek. The ends of certain phrases tie in to the beginnings of the phrases that follow:

"In the beginning was the message,
and the message was directed toward God,
and "God" the message was.
The same one was directed toward God in the beginning. "

Notice how the last sentence ties together the elements of the earlier phrases. Then we have two pairs of opposites, followed by more of the structure above.

"Through it, all things were done,
And without it nothing was done.

What has been done in it was life.
And the life was the light of humanity.
And the light shone in the darkness,
But the darkness did not understand it. "

The Non-Ecclesiastical New Testament attempts to reproduce this structure, but doing so loses that easy "flow" that comes from reading a book that was written in your own language (i.e., not a translation of something).

Word Games

In addition to the acrostics found in various passages of the Old Testament, even the NT contains various word games. How can these be reproduced? Many times, they cannot. Here's an example from Matthew 3:9:

"God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones!"

John the Baptizer was certainly speaking his native language of Aramaic, and in that language a word game appears. The word for "children" (sons) is banim, while the word for "stones" is abanim. John uses a word game to help the people remember more easily that God could turn these abanim into banim!

Here's another word play, courtesy of John 12:25. There, Jesus contrasts two words that convey almost the same thing in English, but the first refers more closely to one's natural or earthly life, while the second refers to life or growth in general:

"Whoever loves his life (yuch) will lose it,
and whoever hates his life (yuch) in this world will keep it into
eternal life (zwh).

Another similar game appears in John 21:15-17, where two words for love, two words for feed, and two words for sheep are used!

Much has been made of this next play on words (Matthew 16:18), but in the original language, there is little there. Since meeting Jesus (John 1), Simon's nickname had been Peter (rock), which in Aramaic is Kefa. In Aramaic, Jesus made a play on Peter's name:
"And I am telling you that you are Kefa, and on this kefa I will build...."

Written in Greek, the word for "rock" is feminine and must be masculinized to become a male name. Still, the word game is supposed to be the same:

"...you are PetroV, and on this petra...."

Some have tried to take a point of doctrine from the forms of the words used, but in reality, nothing can be said from the words themselves, which were meant to be the same. Any doctrinal points need to be made from the context of what is said. Still, in English, this comes out as:

"...you are Peter, and on this rock...."

Consequently, translators have to provide a footnote to indicate that Jesus is playing a word game, prompted by Peter's confession of faith.

Transliterations

Some words are often transliterated rather than translated. In some cases, doing so provides a mystical or cultic meaning that was not present in the original language. The NET attempts to avoid this, but in some cases, transliteration may be justified, especially if the normal use of the transliterated word is accurate. Here are a few transliterations and their meanings.

Transliteration Language Meaning
angel Greek messenger
deacon Greek servant
minister Latin servant
bishop Latin overseer
apostle Greek envoy
exorcist Greek one who binds by oath
demon Greek spirit being
devil Greek (corrupted) accuser
Satan Hebrew enemy
Christ Greek Anointed One
baptize Greek immerse in water

In some cases, transliteration is taken to such an extreme that the meaning becomes completely lost. For example, many take "Christ" to be Jesus' last name. Consider John 1:41, where it is proclaimed "We have found the Messiah (which, translated, means Christ)." The author was trying to relate to the Greek-speaking reader the meaning of a certain Hebrew/Aramaic word. In English, we have one foreign word explained in terms of another!

Establishing a Text

Speaking of text, the translator's FIRST priority is not to deal with any of the above problems but to "establish a text." This means asking what the Hebrew or Greek text is that we will be translating. Someone following a purely Byzantine manuscript might come up with a very different translation of certain passages than someone translating from an Alexandrian or D-Type manuscript. It is therefore the translator's goal to attempt to determine what the original text read before making any translation whatsoever. Before one English word gets written down, the translators have to know what words, phrases, books, etc.. they are translating. Most commonly today, translators use one of the published editions, such as Nestle-Aland 27. This leaves the decision of establishing a text to the people who compiled the Greek New Testament.

For a more thorough analysis of the issues in translating the Bible in to English see: Translating the Bible into English

Proceed to Comparison of English Translations