Introduction to Bible Translation

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Considering the source language[edit]

The starting point for translating the Bible must be the the language in which the Bible was originally written. For the Old Testament, this is mostly Hebrew though a few parts (mostly in the Book of Daniel) are in Aramaic. For the New Testament, nearly all scholars agree that the original language was Greek, though a few claim that all or some parts were originally in Aramaic.

For hundreds of years, Latin (and the Latin Vulgate) was considered the sacred text for Christians (and later Catholics). It was forbidden to translate the Hebrew or Greek, or produce a Bible in any other language. The implications are staggering - it could be that since Latin is a translation of the Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek, there would be many hundreds of errors and mistakes that could occur. For example, there is no copula (definite article) in Latin. There is in Greek and Hebrew and this would make a tremendous difference in translating the text.

There is no question that in order to translate correctly, one has to be knowledgeable in the source language. Some might argue that one has to be fluent in the source language. This is obvious. If one does not know the language one is translating from, it will be difficult to obtain an accurate translation.

Considering the canon of the Bible[edit]

As important as the text is deciding the canon of the Bible, namely which books are in the Bible. Jews reject the New Testament. Most Protestants include in the Old Testament only those books accepted by Jews. However, the Roman Catholic and many other churches accept additional books, corresponding roughly to the Apocrypha found in many editions of Protestant bibles.

Considering the quality of the text[edit]

It may be that we do not have the original text of the Bible as it left the hands of the people who originally wrote it. Over thousands of years, errors and even deliberate alterations could have crept in. This issue is addressed in Textual Criticism of the Bible.

Considering the translation language[edit]

Many agree that one has to be fluent in the language one is translating to. Subtleties and differences in style can radically alter meaning. For example. In English, there is only one word for a sheep. In Biblical Hebrew there are at least two: כבש and שה. In Hebrew, a flock of Sheep is a צאן but this can also mean sheep (singular). To capture this, one has to be aware that in English there is no distinction in types of sheep; a female lamb is no different from a male lamb with the designation: "lamb". In Hebrew שה can be either gender, and כבש is only masculine.

The word נערה could mean young maiden. She could be under 12 years of age, or she could be in her teens. In English, a young maiden usually refers to a woman of marriageable age (around 16-30), who is not married, but is eligible. In Hebrew נערה can be used for a young girl between 9 and 12 and a young maiden between 16 and 20. (These numbers are approximate). If one translates therefore, the word נערה as young maiden, you are excluding the definition of a young girl. If you translate the word as girl, you exclude the definition of young maiden.


As with all translation, identifying audience is of fundamental importance when choosing translation. For example. English Christian missionaries had a very difficult time teaching people the King James Version of the bible in colonial Africa, precisely because the inhabitants of the land were not fluent in English, and did not have enough grammatical and vocabulary skills to understand the subtleties of King James English.

For this reason, many people adopted other translations that had a less extensive vocabulary, and explained concepts for people who were unaware of these. The Bible in Basic English is one of these translations that has a similar 'audience'. The Jerusalem Bible written by French Catholics in Jerusalem, and translated into English and published in 1966, served the needs of a French-speaking, and English-speaking Catholic audience. Their bible includes the Apocrypha, which is accepted as part of the Canon by Catholics.

The Artscroll Stone edition is a translation aimed at religious Jews. The translation itself is American-English, and tends to follow the standard Jewish commentaries (such as Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchaki) in its approach to understanding difficult passages. It includes a Hebrew text on the facing page.

When approaching Bible Translations, the first step is to identify who the translators identified as an audience. The King James Version of the Bible (with numerous revisions made until about 1769) focussed on an Anglican English population, who would keep their bibles at home. Hence, the translation uses English from that period, and the size of the volume is compact. Its translation is also Christian, and does not appeal to a Jewish Audience.

Using other sources[edit]

Bible Translation is unique in that the translator could be a religious individual, and would therefore change his outlook and translation methods, that would not necessarily apply in other works. A Christian translator understands that this is the word of God, but may sacrifice meaning for support in the text for Jesus. An orthodox Jew understands that the text is the word of G-d, and will resort to classical Jewish sources for understanding difficult passages. A secular scholar will use sources such as Ugaritic, and other ANE or Semitic languages, to help understand the text. This is also dependent on audience.

Illustrative translation[edit]

The subject is being illustrated by the linked project A Translation of the Bible.

See also[edit]