Translation of the Bible into English
Michael D. Coogan
Principles of Translation
Bible translation, though in principle the same as any other translation, is distinguished from it by two considerations: first, the reverence in which adherents of Judaism and Christianity hold the text, leading to concerns whenever a new translation is published that the text be treated with the respect it deserves; and second, the great popularity of the Bible, which has led to the proliferation of translations to meet every conceivable need and audience. In order to find one's way among the great variety of Bible translations available today, it is important to understand the principles underlying all efforts at translation.
In any translation from one language to another—the “source” language, or the original, and the “target” language, or the translation— two basic approaches define the limits at either end of a continuum of methods. The technical names for these “pure” translation approaches are formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence. Formal equivalence is usually explained as “word‐for‐word” translation, and dynamic equivalence as “sense‐for‐sense” or “meaning‐for‐meaning.” In general, formal equivalence places more importance on the qualities of the source language, and dynamic equivalence is more concerned with the resulting readability in the target language.
Except where the source and the target languages are closely related, however, a purely word‐for‐word approach would be almost unreadable. Such is the case with translations of the Bible: ancient Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin (the languages of the original texts) are very different from modern English. Here, for example, is Mt 6.9–10 in a word‐for‐word rendering:
Father of us who in the heavens, be holy the name of you; come the kingdom of you; become the will of you as in heaven and upon earth.
While it would be possible to puzzle out some meaning from this, it is clear that it is not English, and that an entire Bible translated along these lines would never be read. Most translations, therefore, move in the direction of dynamic equivalence, at least far enough to make sure that their representation of the original text makes sense in English. Some are more strict, for example always trying to use the same English word to translate a given Greek or Hebrew word (a characteristic known as “consistency”); some are freer, trying to achieve a more colloquial English style and using what seems to be the best English word for a Greek or Hebrew word in each separate context, regardless of how the same Greek or Hebrew word might be translated elsewhere. The result is a great range of translation choices for the Bible in English, from those suited to close study to those designed for readability, and readers can usually find a translation that will make sense to them and fit their needs.
In the case of ancient documents, and especially those of religious significance like the Bible, there are further complicating factors. Translations must find ways to deal with cultural differences between the worlds of the ancient writers and modern readers; they often try to accommodate traditional phrasing or translations, especially in key passages; and they must take into account the actual uses to which the translation will be put, including uses on formal and significant occasions.
Cultural differences come into consideration when a passage to be translated presents, not a puzzle about the dictionary definition of a word, but one about the way the word was used in its original cultural environment. An example occurs in the following passages: “the two kidneys with the fat that is on them” (Lev 3.4 ); “He slashes open my kidneys” (Job 16.13 ); and “In the night also my heart instructs me” (Ps 16.7 ). The word translated “heart” in the Psalm and “kidneys” in Leviticus and Job is the same Hebrew word, kelayot (or kilyotay, “my kidneys”). Literally it means the bodily organs, and in the passage from Leviticus that is clearly its meaning: The passage is discussing which parts of an animal will be burnt as a sacrifice. As a metaphor, however, it means the inner life of the human person, and that meaning is represented in the Psalm. The verse from Job falls somewhere in between. In its context, it is part of a catalogue of images of physical torture, intended to express spiritual or psychological suffering, many of which cannot be taken literally. There is a question whether it should be translated literally here. An ancient Israelite listening to these passages would have differentiated among this range of meanings, just as we would differentiate among “stomach trouble” and “I have no stomach for that job,” or “heart surgery,” “My heart stood still,” and “Have a heart.” In the case of the Hebrew word, the translation has to make that distinction for us, since the literal rendering “kidneys” in the passage from Psalms would make no sense, or the wrong sense, to a modern reader.
A related problem sometimes arises when translators have to consider whether to add a word to the text to make something clear to a modern reader that the ancient audience would have understood without explanation. For example, in 2 Pet 2.14 , the literal translation “children of a curse” is rendered in the NRSV as “Accursed children!” This conveys the correct meaning in idiomatic English, but it does not convey to the modern reader what ancient hearers would assume, that the curse is from God. The New English Bible translation does this effectively by adding a word to make this implicit meaning explicit: “God's curse is on them.”
An example of a translation trying to accommodate traditional understanding occurs in Jn 1.18 , where the NRSV translates a Greek phrase as “God the only Son,” and a footnote calls attention to two other possibilities. The Greek in actuality has three variants: monogenes theos, “only God”; ho monogenes theos, “the only God”; and ho monogenes huios, “the only Son.” The translators first must decide how to render the Greek adjective monogenes. Older versions translate it as “only‐begotten,” but it really means something like “only one of its kind,” i.e., “unique.” Then they must determine which noun—“God” or “Son”—this adjective is supposed to modify. The manuscript evidence tends to support “God,” since that variant appears in two papyri from the early third century CE, and also in manuscripts and citations from the fourth century. The variant “Son” only appears in the fifth century, in Codex Alexandrinus, and in later manuscripts. Since “only God” is present earlier, closer to the original time of writing, and since it is awkward, whereas “only Son” could be an effort to smooth out the text, it would seem that “only God” is the original reading. The NRSV effort to combine the two phrases is probably not correct.
Variety of use affects Bible translation particularly because many translations are intended for audiences that are far beyond the classroom or the scholar's study. In particular, Bible translations are intended to be read aloud in worship services, and bearing this in mind, many translators will try to use an English style that is more formal or elevated than that in the underlying text. Passages from the Bible are used in ceremonies marking significant life events, like marriage; on important national occasions, like the inauguration of a President; and to help express and channel great communal emotions, as in the funeral of a national leader. A translation that is too colloquial could seem jarring in such contexts.
Translations, thus, rather than being static, fixed creations that plug in one word in English for one word in the original language, are dynamic mediations between different and sometimes opposing tendencies. Insofar as they take the original language seriously as a controlling factor, they will tend to be word‐for‐word renderings; insofar as they take English seriously, they will tend more toward a meaning‐for‐meaning approach. They will try to represent not just the language, but the thought and cultural background, of the original writers and audiences; but they must also be sensitive to, and aware of, the great variety of needs among contemporary readers.