The Challenges of Biblical Translation
Ronald D. Witherup
For the average person in the pew, the need for new biblical translations can be bewildering. “Why do we need new translations?” or “What translation is the best one?” are common questions. The task of biblical translation is, however, quite complicated. There is no one biblical translation that is the best and serves all purposes equally. The translation used in this Study Bible is the New American Bible (revised), and special attention will be given to it. But first, one should have a general overview of the challenges posed by translating the Bible into modern English.
The need for biblical translation should be self‐evident. The Bible has come down to us in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, languages that few but scholars can use today. The Bible itself witnesses to the necessity of translation. After the Babylonian exile (sixth century BC), when the Jews dispersed throughout the ancient world and began to lose command of their native Hebrew tongue, the need arose to produce a translation of their Hebrew Bible into the vernacular of the empire, which at the time was Greek. Thus was produced one of the great translations of all time, the Septuagint (LXX), which had a major influence on the writers of the New Testament. Without translation, many of the traditions of Israel may have been lost over time, as the Jewish people struggled to retain their identity in the midst of the multiple influences of the Greco‐Roman world.
No translation is perfect, however. Scholars frequently quote the adage that every translation is an interpretation. There is no such thing as a purely objective translation, yet there are some guiding presuppositions that modern translators acknowledge. The following list of five orients the discussion.
1. Language is a living reality. By nature it changes with usage and experience. No translation stands forever. The following quotation from Ronald Knox, one of the great translators of the Bible into English, affirms this reality:
Words are living things, full of shades of meaning, full of associations; and, what is more, they are apt to change their significance from one generation to the next. The translator who understands his job feels, constantly, like Alice in Wonderland trying to play croquet with flamingoes for mallets and hedgehogs for balls; words are for ever eluding his grasp. (The Trials of a Translator [New York: Sheed & Ward, 1949] 13)
Because living languages change, translations‐even of ancient texts‐must take this growth into account.
2. The task of translating from one language to another involves primarily two interrelated values: (a) preserving faithfully the meaning of the original text, and (b) enunciating the original text in clearly understood terms of the receptor language. Generally, the one cannot take absolute precedence over the other because this can lead to distorted translation. A literal translation could, for instance, lead to a total misreading of the original text because the words were translated but not the meaning. Fidelity to the original might well require a less literal translation in the receptor language. One must also consider the range of meaning of words in both the original and receptor languages.
A related value in the task of translation is the need to preserve in the receptor language as much as possible the form and structure of the original. Poetic and narrative forms are quite different, for example, and require separate attention. Literary form and genre is as important for translation as the actual words. Some might approach this task more loosely than others, since every language employs unique formal conventions that may or may not appear in other languages. Hebrew, for instance, has certain tendencies for repetition and simple, staccato expressions that, when translated literally into English, can seem stilted. The careful translator attempts to bridge this gap in a way that respects the linguistic uniqueness of both languages.
3. In the recent past there has been a tendency to bifurcate the task of translation into two categories: (a) formal equivalence (word‐for‐word), and (b) dynamic equivalence (thought‐for‐thought). The first is the more literal style of translation in which each word is produced as nearly as possible to preserve both the sense and the form of the original. The second approach translates more fluidly, not by replicating words and form but by conveying the meaning of the original in the proper form of the receptor language (that is, thought‐for‐thought rather than word‐for‐word). A third category not included in this twofold division is commonly called a paraphrase. This is not a translation as such but a total rephrasing of the text. It is strongly interpretive.
Recent translation theory has recognized that this duality can be misleading. Instead, translation is better viewed as a continuum ranging from a formal, one‐to‐one literal translation on one end to a totally free form translation or paraphrase on the other, with a range of options in between. This continuum allows for many more diverse approaches to biblical translation, which are in fact seen in the wide variety of English translations currently available. It also recognizes that the complexity of biblical translation requires more than a choice between two mutually exclusive opposites.
4. Every translation involves some interpretative moves, even if the goal is to capture as accurately as possible the original intention of the author of the text. If this principle is acknowledged, then it must be seen that not even a literal word‐for‐word translation constitutes the same reality as the source text. As Eugene A. Nida, a notable Bible translator, indicates, translation always involves three realities: (a) loss of information; (b) addition of information; and (c) alteration of information (“Principles of Translation as Exemplified by Bible Translating,” in On Translation [Reuben A. Brower, ed.; NY: Oxford University, 1966], 13). Words in any given language have a multiplicity of meanings and shades of nuance that do not permit one‐to‐one correspondence into other languages. Thus, fidelity to a biblical text does not necessarily involve an overly literal approach. This is particularly true of idioms. By their very nature idioms cannot generally be translated in literal fashion but must be compared to an appropriate, corresponding idiom in the receptor language.
The Pontifical Biblical Commission, an international body of professional consultants who provide expert advice to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, reinforces this point.
The literal sense is not to be confused with the “literalist” sense to which fundamentalists are attached. It is not sufficient to translate a text word for word in order to obtain its literal sense. One must understand the text according to the literary conventions of the time. When a text is metaphorical, its literal sense is not that which flows immediately from a word to word translation (e.g., “Let your loins be girt”: Lk 12, 35 ), but that which corresponds to the metaphorical use of these terms (“Be ready for action”). (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church [Boston: St. Paul Books & Media, 1993], 82)
5. Translation must also take into account the influence of culture. This is a controversial point. Some believe that only a literal, word‐for‐word, translation is authentic to the original text. This position, however, denies that the value of all translation is to communicate faithfully the sense of the text in other cultures and contexts. If fidelity to the original text is always viewed as the ultimate value, serious mistranslation can occur. One need only ask the experience of expert Bible translators who have undertaken the task of translating biblical texts for very foreign cultures (African, Asian, indigenous peoples, etc.) to know how serious this challenge is. For example, one cannot utilize properly the biblical image of sheep and goats and shepherds in a culture that only has experience of cattle, as in the case of some African tribes. The culture(s) represented in the biblical text are not the only ones that must be respected if the Word of God is to be communicated in modern contexts.
Again, the Pontifical Biblical Commission emphasized this point when they wrote:
A translation, of course, is always more than a simple transcription of the original text. The passage from one language to another necessarily involves a change of cultural context: concepts are not identical and symbols have a different meaning, for they come up against other traditions of thought and other ways of life. (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, 122)
Similarly, Pope John Paul II, in an Italian address to the United Bible Societies (November 26, 2001), spoke of a threefold requirement for translators.
A good translation is based on the three pillars that must contemporaneously support the entire work. First, there must be a deep knowledge of the language and the cultural world at the point of origin. Next, there must be a good familiarity with the language and cultural context at the point where the work will arrive. Lastly, to crown the work with success, there must be an adequate mastery of the contents and meaning of what one is translating.
Taking into account at least these five presuppositions helps to see the complexity of the translation process. It also implies that the act of translation is as much an art as it is a science. Balancing the different factors and remaining true to both the original and receptor languages and cultures is an enormous challenge.
The availability of so many modern English translations can be confusing to people. How does one choose? There are, in fact, different goals for different translations. Some are intentionally directed to a specific denominational audience, be it Catholic, mainstream Protestant, evangelical, Orthodox, or fundamentalist. Some are intended for private study, others for public reading or worship services. Many modern English translations are available in Catholic editions; they purposefully include the Old Testament apocrypha, which are often excluded from Protestant editions of the Bible.
The table below and opposite lays out some of the choices among the most well known contemporary English translations.
Now we will take a closer look at some differences of approach among these translations.
Mark 2, 1 narrates Jesus' return to his hometown. The NAB translates: “When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it became known that he was at home.” The italicized phrase literally reads “in (the) house” (e.g., NJB), but most translations use the expression “at home” (RSV, NRSV, NIV). The NLT provides
|Translation, Date||Brief Description||Sample Text: Ps 86, 14|
|New American Bible (NAB) 1970 (Revised New Testament, 1986; Psalms, 1991)||The basic American Catholic translation intended for study, prayer, and use in liturgy; uses modern American English with an attempt to balance literal and thought-for-thought translation suitable for oral proclamation as well as private reading||O God, the arrogant have risen against me; a ruthless band has sought my life; to you they pay no heed.|
|New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) 1989||Based upon the classic Revised Standard Version (RSV), which remains a good literal translation but with sensitivity to inclusive language; uses modern idiomatic English intended for a broad appeal||O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life, and they do not set you before them.|
|New International Version (NIV) 1984||Intended for broad ecumenical appeal; attempts a balance between literal and thought-for-thought translation||The arrogant are attacking me, O God; a band of ruthless men seeks my life—men without regard for you.|
|New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) 1985, 1990||A more poetic translation from a French edition, noted for its extensive explanatory footnotes and some sensitivity to genderinclusive language issues||Arrogant men, God, are rising up against me, a brutal gang is after my life, in their scheme of things you have no place.|
|Revised English Bible (REB) 1989||A modern English version utilizing spellings and idioms of English common to the United Kingdom (Great Britain, etc.)||Violent men rise to attack me, a band of ruthless men seeks my life; they give no thought to you, my God.|
|New Living Translation (NLT) 1996, 2004||A thorough revision of an earlier paraphrase, The Living Bible (TLB), but now based upon a translation from the original languages; leans toward explanatory translations of ambiguous passages||O God, insolent people rise up against me; a violent gang is trying to kill me. You mean nothing to them.|
|Contemporary English Version (CEV) 1995||Uses simple, modern, colloquial American English intended for the broadest American audience, especially young people||Proud and violent enemies, who don't care about you, have ganged up to attack and kill me.|
|New King James Version (NKJV) 1982||Based upon the traditional King James Version (1611) but with some refinement of the antiquated Elizabethan language; largely retains the structure and some familiar terms of seventeenth-century English||O God, the proud have risen against me, And a mob of violent men have sought my life, And have not set You before them.|
|New American Standard Bible (NASB) 1997||An updated edition of a very literal and conservative translation in contemporary English, aimed primarily at evangelical Christians||O God, arrogant men have risen up against me, And a band of violent men have sought my life, And they have not set You before them.|
|NET Bible (NET) 1996–2003||A totally new concept in Bible translation, making use of the Internet (www.netbible.com) and allowing for frequent changes in translation and extensive explanatory notes as new information emerges; uses contemporary American English||O God, arrogant men attack me; a gang of ruthless men, who do not respect you, seek my life.|
The Greek text of Mark 2, 19 uses an expression that is an obvious Hebraism, namely, “sons of the wedding hall.” Virtually all translations recognize that this is an idiom that cannot be accurately translated in literal fashion. There is a divergence in the terms that are used, however. Some use “wedding guests” (RSV, NRSV, NAB, RSV, NLT, NET), while others use “the bridegroom's attendants” (e.g., NJB).
More serious issues arise when the text is somewhat ambiguous. Hebrews 12, 2 provides an example. Many translations follow the RSV: “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…,” assuming that the text refers to the faith of believers (e.g., NRSV, NJB, NIV, NLT, NET). However, the context indicates that Jesus' faith is most likely the object of attention in the text; the modifier “our” is not found in the Greek text. Thus the NAB translation preserves the ambiguity of the text: “keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.” It is left to the reader to decide whether our faith or Jesus' faith is intended. An earlier version of the NLT read: “Keeping our eyes on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from start to finish.” This is overly interpretive and exceeds the import of the text. The revised NLT reads: “Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.”
At times a more literal translation whose meaning is obscure is best left literally, even when it is universally recognized as a saying whose meaning is not intended to be taken literally. An example is found in Romans: “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head” (Rom 12, 20 NAB; cf. RSV, NRSV, NJB, NET). The saying is a proverb from the Old Testament (Prv 25, 21–22 ), the exact meaning of which has been debated through history. The text is not likely meant to be taken literally to pour live coals on someone's head. Rather, it appears to be an expression of bringing shame or humiliation to one's enemy by paradoxically providing a kindness.
This is the way the NLT takes the passage, which it renders: “Instead, ‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.’ ” While this interpretive translation may communicate the meaning of the text, this is not self‐evident from the passage. Since Patristic times, various interpretations of the passage have been proposed from which one can choose an acceptable option. Thus the majority of translations simply retain the reference to burning coals. Footnotes, commentaries, or study Bibles can then offer a variety of interpretations that lie beyond the scope of the translation itself.
The Case of Inclusive Language
In the late twentieth century modern English translations have had to confront a special translating challenge that became a politically charged issue, namely, the question of “inclusive language.”
Inclusive language means language that includes rather than excludes. It is usually identified with feminist concerns that traditional English translations of the Bible exhibit a vocabulary that is too patriarchally oriented and excludes the viewpoint of women. Thus, some speak of “gender‐inclusive language,” but the concept of inclusive language, as we will see below, actually is not restricted to feminist concerns. Yet we must acknowledge that the Bible grew out of a patriarchal culture, one in which men were dominant and women generally secondary. Thus it is not surprising to find a dominant male perspective expressed in biblical texts.
Inclusive language is divided into two categories, “horizontal inclusive language” (i.e., concerned with human beings) or “vertical inclusive language” (i.e., language about God). Bible translators have had to deal with this question directly. The NAB, for instance, has taken the stance that moderate attention to horizontal inclusive language is appropriate for a contemporary English translation. Where possible the translators avoid using the words man or mankind where the text is meant to embrace all human beings, because these terms have become increasingly more restrictive in modern English than in previous eras. Also, the literal term sons of Israel (an idiomatic Hebrew expression) is translated Israelites, since that is what the term means in most contexts. When the Pauline letters address the audience as “brothers” (Greek adelphoi), the NRSV utilizes the translation “brothers and sisters” (e.g., Rom 1, 13; 7, 1; 1 Cor 1, 10; etc.) because the word clearly applies to the entire community Paul is addressing. The NAB recognizes the principle (see footnote for Rom 1, 13 ) but has chosen to stick with the literal translation “brothers” in deference to convention. When the NAB translation was adapted for use in Roman Catholic lectionary, however, the more inclusive “brothers and sisters” has been employed where appropriate.
While the expression “inclusive language” is most frequently tied to feminist sensitivities, it has also been applied to other categories. Some translators, for instance, object to traditional expressions like “the lame” or “the blind” because they overly emphasize the handicap of an individual or class of people rather than their human dignity. They propose alternative translations like “the one who is lame” or “the one whose sight is impaired.” A similar concern has arisen regarding the biblical contrasts between light and darkness (Mt 10, 27 ), day and night (Jn 11, 9–10; 1 Thes 5, 5 ), or white and black (Ps 51, 9 , “whiter than snow”), because such contrasts allegedly denigrate people of color. An even more aggressive position is taken regarding a biblical title like “the Son of Man,” which has Christological significance (e.g., Mk 10, 45; Jn 8, 28 ). They translate the phrase “child of the human one,” an odd and clumsy translation that ignores the Christological implications of the title. (See New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Language Version [New York: Oxford University Press, 1989].) Most translators view such attempts as excesses that are overly intrusive in the translation process. These are examples of the imbalance of allowing modern cultural concerns to dictate absolutely how to communicate ancient texts. Such instances do not respect the integrity of the biblical text.
The principle of inclusivity has also been applied to biblical language about God (e.g., vertical inclusive language). Some object to the overabundance of masculine terminology for God in the Bible, although it is an understandable outgrowth of a patriarchal culture. They attempt to counteract this by avoiding the masculine pronouns he or him or by repeating the word God frequently or designing other circumlocutions for the Deity. Theologically, since God is a spirit and is neither male nor female, biblical language about God, in fact, has its limitations. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out:
We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image‐bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God‐“the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable”‐with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God. (#42)
To refer to God as “he” or to call God a rock or a fortress (2 Sm 22, 2; Ps 18, 3 ), a shepherd (Pss 23, 1; 80, 1 ), etc., is to use metaphorical and analogous language to describe how God acts toward people or how we experience God. These are not literal descriptions of God's identity. There are also feminine images for God in the Bible that should be remembered and that can provide some counterbalance to the predominance of masculine images (e. g. the image of God as a woman in labor [Is 46, 3–4 ] or as a tender mother [Is 49, 15; 66, 13 ]).
Another aspect of inclusive language is the limitation of English when utilizing singular forms of pronouns. Unlike some languages (e.g., French or Spanish), English has a limited form of third‐person pronouns. For example, in French the same expression “sa croix” (or Spanish “su cruz”) can mean his or her cross, depending upon who is envisioned as the antecedent. But English requires the use of both modifying pronouns if one wants to apply the expression to men and women alike.
Let's take a biblical example. Jesus' saying about the necessity of taking up one's cross (Mt 10, 38 ) obviously applies to all Jesus' disciples, male and female. The NAB translates: “whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” The NRSV tries to make the saying more inclusive by deleting the modifying pronoun: “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” This solution, however, has the unfortunate side effect of making it seem that each disciple is to take up Jesus' cross rather than his or her own cross. The NLT avoids the problem by transposing the saying into second person: “If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine.”
Another example is the translation of Jesus' famous saying in Matthew 6, 24 , which also applies to all followers of Jesus: “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” The NRSV attempts to solve the more restrictive phrasing by inserting an implied word that is not literally present in the biblical text: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” One also notes in this latter example the difference between the NAB's retention of the original word mammon‐an Aramaic or Hebrew word for money or goods‐and the NRSV's wealth, which presumably is intended to be better understood by a broad audience (cf. also NJB, NIV).
In short, English poses a peculiar problem for inclusivity that can be quite vexing for translators who wish to preserve the meaning of the original text and to remain sensitive to modern concerns. While this is not the only contemporary issue affecting biblical translation theory, it has become one of the more controversial.
Translation and Interpretation
It was noted above that all translations are essentially an interpretation. Regardless of how objective translators attempt to be, biases exist that can enter into the process. This accounts for the oft‐quoted Italian saying attributed to Dante, “Traduttore traditore” (A translator is a traitor). Inevitably, in the history of Bible translation there have been many instances of external issues that creep into the translation process.
One example is the tendency at times for translations to make up for perceived or real mistakes in the biblical text. Matthew 1, 17 provides an example. The RSV text translates in a fairly literal fashion (see also NAB, NRSV, NIV):
So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.
While the text is clear, anyone with a knowledge of the history of Israel recognizes that Matthew's genealogy has telescoped that history into an artificial construct and has left out of the list numerous kings and generations. This is for theological reasons. The genealogy is likely based upon a symbolic number (fourteen) that alludes to King David and reinforces Jesus' background as the Davidic Messiah. The NLT, noting this deficiency, consequently translates the passage more loosely to rectify the apparent mistake, in a way that glosses over Matthew's theological intention:
All those listed above include fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile, and fourteen from the Babylonian exile to the Messiah.
Critical questions arise also when passages of profound Christological significance are considered. A passage in the Letter to the Hebrews provides an example, especially because it quotes an Old Testament Psalm that it then applies to Jesus Christ. The NAB sticks with a fairly literal translation of Hebrews 2, 6 , quoting Psalm 8, 5 :
Instead, someone has testified somewhere: “What is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man that you care for him?”
In the context of Hebrews, the text's use of “the son of man” is meant to evoke the mysterious Christological title that the New Testament associates with Jesus (e.g., Mt 8, 20; 9, 6 , etc.). At issue is not what the original meaning of Psalm 8 was, but what use was made of it by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. The more literal translation preserves the Christological connection. The NRSV translation, however, in an effort to make the passage more inclusive, obscures the meaning of the text and glosses over its Christological significance by use of plural expressions and the substitution of “mortals” for “son of man”:
But someone has testified somewhere, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?”
In instances such as this, good translation requires careful attention to the context as well as the words.
Characteristics of the NAB Translation
Since the NAB is the basis for this study Bible, it is appropriate to highlight some of the characteristics of this translation.
1. The NAB falls in the middle of the continuum mentioned on RG 69 yet leans toward a more formal translation. It seeks to offer an exact rendering of the biblical text in good, modern, American English that is not overly literal. For instance, no attempt is made to duplicate fully the Hebraisms of the Old Testament, although the parallelism of many poetic passages is retained.
2. The NAB takes into account recent finds in ancient manuscripts, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and more current decisions about the various families of manuscripts that are in existence. Textual critics are always attempting to ascertain the most authentic reading of ancient manuscripts based upon the latest scholarship. This is one reason why new translations are needed on a periodic basis as our knowledge of ancient texts grows.
3. Unlike its predecessor, the proposed Old Testament of the revised NAB would leave the verse order of the Masoretic text (the authoritative received text of the Hebrew Bible) intact instead of attempting a reorganization based upon scholarly theories of a more original word order.
4. A common flaw in translations can be the unevenness of translating the same word in the original text with a different English word. Unless the meaning is clearly otherwise, the NAB tries to translate the original terms with the same English equivalent consistently throughout its translation.
5. The NAB utilizes modest horizontal inclusive language wherever possible and where it would not distort the text. As much as possible, where the text necessarily requires an inclusive reading, such is rendered in the English translation. The translation does not employ vertical inclusive language.
6. The proposed NAB takes into account modern American English in its rendering of the biblical text. There is an avoidance of terms that might confuse or offend modern readers, such as holocaust (which can be confused with the Holocaust‐the Nazi atrocity of attempting to exterminate the Jews during World War II) and cereal offerings (which can be confused with breakfast food rather than “grain” offerings).
7. The exegetical notes, essential for clarification and interpretation, have been thoroughly revised in the proposed NAB Old Testament to bring them more in line with the approach taken in the earlier NAB New Testament translation.
8. For Catholics, it should be noted that the NAB is published with full ecclesiastical approval and has followed the required principles for Bible translation that are standard in the Roman Catholic Church. It is thus a reliable and faithful translation that is useful for both spiritual and scholarly purposes.
The Future of Biblical Translation
In conclusion, there will always be a need for new translations. Every translation has strengths and weaknesses. In as much as translation is both a science and an art, there will always be room for improvements as time goes on. The fund of knowledge about the Bible and its world, about the ancient languages and cultures out of which it emerged, grows daily. In order for the Word of God to seep into the very lifeblood of modern English‐speaking peoples, new English translations will have to take into account not only the results of scientific investigations but also the changes that continue to occur at a rapid rate within the English language. This reality ensures that Bible translation will remain an exciting field for succeeding generations who will continue to seek ways to communicate the Word of God effectively in their time and place.