theologizing translation through brackets

Nick Norelli has an interesting post on how we can tilt a Bible translation theologically through the use of brackets. Nick begins:

When it comes to Bible translation though,  the bracket is sometimes used as a way to sneak one’s theological bias into a text while safeguarding them against charges of mistranslation because, well, the addition is in brackets(!), and brackets are an indication that something is not original to the text itself.

Have you noticed the use of brackets in Bible versions to tilt them theologically?

21 thoughts on “theologizing translation through brackets

  1. Elijah-Joshua says:

    No bible can be improved upon! In the beginning God was the word and the word was one. Who is ignorant of the evil of their own hearts enough to think that they can improve God. To alter the word by one jot or one tittle is to undo creation! simple as that. It wasn’t until Naphtali and his sons made the perverse copies of the book of the law, (to conceal God from the nation of Israel for their own fear, wherein he and his Sons altered the vowel points and having read each one chose the most perverse copy of the ten)that we were even able to say that there was a different “Version” of the law or the books or the prophets or the writings. It’s time for us all to wake up and realize that our perverse “versions” of the bible are just vein attempts to get around the letter of the law, as is customary in our society. By definition a “Law” is something that holds true in all situations, there are no loopholes, no bending or breaking, no lawyers, only a judge. That is to say that our entire earths society is based upon lies. I’ve been dead 24 times, alive 25 and know that death is the most pervasive lie of all. Try that on.

    May the light of God surround you and embrace in the wisdom of truth and the will to persevere.
    How Long Oh Lord? Selah

  2. Jason Silverthorne says:

    The New World Translation used by Jehovah’s Witnesses is full of these brackets, and always near a verse that explains the trinity.

  3. Paul says:

    The New American Bible (NAB), especially in the New Testament, has the tendency to use square brackets to show that it is supplying a word or phrase not in the original text, and departing from a translation of the form and structure of the Greek. But I haven’t read the NAB to know how consistently it does this. Unlike the translations Nick Norelli speaks of, the NAB seems to do this because it wants to make the form and structure of the Greek more “transparent” to English readers, and show to readers when it is supplying terms to make the original intelligble in English.

    In my view, this is a potential strength of the NAB.

  4. Paul says:

    Just to clarify, unlike the New World Translation, the NABs square brackets seem to be to show readers that a word or phrase needs to be supplied to make the original intelligible English.

  5. Cameron says:

    I’ve seen an interesting interpretation of Genesis 1 involving judicious use of brackets. For example, take Genesis 1:11-13:

    Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

    Add brackets:

    Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” (And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.) And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

    The effect is to separate the act of command from the fulfilment of the command. The commands happen in six literal days, but they only start the process of creation, which takes much longer, and perhaps isn’t even finished yet!

    I can’t say whether this idea has any merit, but reading it was an important point in my journey from being a young earth creationist to the heretic I am today.

  6. Theophrastus says:

    The KJV of course had among the most rigorous methodology in indicating implied words — by indicating them with some regularity, and yet many criticize that practice today, and few modern translations follow it. Most simply put in implied words without indication.

    The problem is that in Hebrew, fewer words are required to indicate meaning than in English. Perhaps in translations of the now familiar Hebrew Scriptures fewer imported words are required, but in translations of commentaries (such as Rashi) it is impossible to make sense of the text without extensive brackets. Indeed, the interpolated commentary has a long and distinguished history.

    This post has inspired me to make a series of posts of my own.

  7. Michael Nicholls says:

    I didn’t really understand Elijah-Joshua’s comment with regard to this post.

    Anyway, Wayne, are you just talking about brackets/parentheses, or words in italics too that signify a word that’s been added for clarity of translation?

  8. Cameron says:


    The author used his own translation (I used the NRSV here). His claim was that deciding when material is parenthetical can be difficult and is often arbitrary. I think he was making the same point as you are here.

    I should add that he wasn’t claiming that this reading was preferred or even likely—he was merely suggesting that it is possible to interpret Genesis 1 literally in a 14 billion year old universe.

  9. Wayne Leman says:

    Michael asked:

    Anyway, Wayne, are you just talking about brackets/parentheses, or words in italics too that signify a word that’s been added for clarity of translation?

    Hmm, I didn’t think that far, Michael! I was mainly linking to another blog post that raised an interesting point. I have been too sick this month to post much more but have felt a need to get some posts up to keep this blog alive.

    But since you have asked, I would say that, in the spirit of the blogger, to whom I linked, *any* kind of marking, whether brackets, parentheses, etc. that indicates information added for *theological* reasons is something we need to be cautious about in Bible translation.

    The kind of italics or bracketing included in the different KJV revisions (not everyone knows there have been several) is not at all what is at issue here. The KJV “additions” are just to indicate something which those translators felt wasn’t actually in the original text but was needed in English so a sentence would be grammatical. IMO, those KJV markings are not even necessary since the meanings marked are actually in the biblical language texts. Since languages differ, as you well know, words do not match up word-for-word. They never do in translation. So it is not necessary to indicate any time when words do not match up. It’s just part of the translation process, and, fortunately, most English translations since the KJV have dropped the practice of marking words which are part of the original meaning but somehow felt not to be “literally” in the biblical text. This, of course, shows the problems with use of the word “literal”. It can mean a variety of things and is difficult to define and use as a measure of scholarly translation practice.

  10. Peter Kirk says:

    Michael, we indeed need more clarity here.

    In most Bibles material marked in parentheses () is part of the original text which has been translated but judged to be parenthetical by the translators. This does not mean it is less important, rather that it breaks the flow of the discourse. For example, John 1:15 is in parentheses in TNIV partly to indicate that the main flow of thought continues straight from verse 14 to verse 16. See also John 1:38,41,42 where “(which means “teacher”)” etc are in parentheses because they are clearly the biblical author’s additions to the words being quoted; in this case the modern scholarly convention would be to use square brackets. This is not the kind of material which Nick Norelli had in mind.

    Some Bibles mark in square brackets [] or half square brackets the kind of material which is italicised in KJV etc, words added to the text to make sense of it in English. TNIV does this quite rarely, only where the added words are important ones, not just small words added to make the English grammar good. But for example in John 1:14,18 “Son” is added in half brackets as an indication that the Greek word monogenes translated “one and only” in context implies a reference to a son although it does not literally mean “son”. There is always a danger of introducing one’s theology into such additions, even when they are very simple, so a lot of care is needed – and there may be places where printed translations have not done a perfect job. But this again is not what Nick was referring to.

    A third type of parenthetical material, which is what Nick was objecting to, is the kind of lengthy explanatory addition which he found in square brackets in NWT and Wuest’s Expanded Translation; this is also found in the Amplified Bible. It is not surprising that these additions are very often theologically tendentious. I would consider that such material would be better put into footnotes or study notes. But at least readers of Wuest’s and the Amplified are told what to expect in the titles of their Bibles.

  11. Theophrastus says:

    Wayne, Peter — I don’t think the line between Peter’s three categories of interpolated phrases is anywhere as near clear-cut as you suggest. Indeed, the phrase “slippery slope” comes to mind.

  12. Peter Kirk says:

    Theophrastus, please can you explain why you disagree with me. I accept that there is something of a slippery slope between my second and third categories. But my first category is something very distinct from the others, not an “interpolation” in any sense but an editorial decision on added punctuation (and note that ALL punctuation is added, none is original).

  13. Theophrastus says:

    Well, first, the claim “that ALL punctuation is added, none is original” is demonstrably false: verse divisions are marked using the silluq accent mark in the Hebrew, further marked by the sof pasuk; special formatting is found in portions (e.g., the Song of the Sea); paragraph divisions (both setumah and petuchah) are indicated as well.

    As to the slippery slope of punctuation, it merely suffices to find a single verse for which punctuation is ambiguous; e.g., Ps 42:9, where both translations are possible:

    I will say unto God: “My rock, why hast thou forgotten me?”


    I will say unto God, my rock: “Why hast thou forgotten me?”

  14. Michael Nicholls says:

    Ok, here’s one that fits the topic, although it’s not really a serious theological bent, but it is used to point the interpretation a certain way.

    This week we were doing consultant checks of Luke 1 & 2, and in Zacharias’ song we had to deal with this:


    69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
    in the house of his servant David
    70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
    71 salvation from our enemies
    and from the hand of all who hate us—

    The NASB has:

    69 And has raised up a †horn of salvation for us
    In the house of David His servant—
    70 As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old—
    71 Salvation FROM OUR ENEMIES,

    It looks like the NIV has used parentheses and punctuation to show that God said that he would raise up a horn of salvation. The NASB uses punctuation to show that God said [there would be] (salvation) from their enemies (and) those who hate them. ([] & () added by me for textual clarification ;)).

    Either way, it’s not a big deal, but it’s the only example I could think of. And it’s on topic too. 🙂

  15. Peter Kirk says:

    Sorry, Theophrastus, I should have restricted my “ALL punctuation is added” comment to the New Testament. There is indeed a form of punctuation in the Hebrew Bible, although it is highly debatable whether this in any form goes back to the original text, via a continuous tradition of reading, or whether it is simply later readers’ and editors’ interpretation.

    In Psalm 42:9 there is of course an ambiguity, but it is an ambiguity in the original text. Any translation using modern punctuation is obliged to disambiguate (although the alternative could be given in a footnote). But this is irrelevant to the topic of this post.

    Michael, it seems to me that the only real difference between NIV and NASB in the verses you quote is that the former has used parentheses and the latter dashes to mark the parenthesis. Maybe the latter is less ambiguous in a case like this. NASB has also followed the convention of capitalising the first letter of each line of poetry. I don’t see any reason to read verse 70 as applying backwards in NIV and forwards in NASB, which appears to be your point. Anyway I’m sure the author’s intention is to refer backwards and forwards.

  16. Edward Pothier says:

    The use of brackets in biblical translation is not always done for theological reasons. I wish to comment on the use of square brackets in the Catholic New American Bible (NAB), specifically the 1986 Revised NT of the NAB.

    The Preface for the 1986 NT of the NAB says (with my added emphasis):
    “The Greek text followed in this translation is that of the third edition of The Greek New Testament, edited by Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, Carlo Martini, Bruce Metzger, and Allen Wikgren, and published by the United Bible Societies in 1975 …
    The editors of the Greek text placed square brackets around words or portions of words of which the authenticity is questionable because the evidence of textual witnesses is inconclusive. The same has been done in the translation insofar as it is possible to reproduce this convention in English. It should be possible to read the text either with or without the disputed words, but in English it is not always feasible to provide this alternative, and in some passages the bracketed words must be included to make sense. As in the first edition, parentheses do not indicate textual uncertainty, but are simply a punctuation device to indicate a passage that in the editors’ judgment appears parenthetical to the thought of the author.”

    There are two samples of this which come immediately to mind (chosen only because I recently looked at them!)
    1. In the beginning of chapter 10 of Luke, Jesus appointed and sent out seventy or seventy-two other disciples (not just the 12). The return of these disciples is in Luke 10:17-20. There is some uncertainty in the early manuscripts about the number. In both of these places the Greek UBS edition and the NAB place the word for the distinguishing the numbers (“duo” or “two”) in square brackets, i.e. “seventy[-two]”.

    2. Another place is the last verse of John 20. Here the NAB reads: “But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah …” The UBS text has a single letter “sigma” in square brackets, i.e. “pisteu[s]ēte”, to show the uncertainly between the aorist subjunctive or the present subjunctive. This could be the difference between “coming” to believe or “continuing” to believe.

  17. Michael Nicholls says:

    Sorry Peter, I should have used a translation that was clearer.

    Here are some which seem to make the ‘as he said’ go specifically with the information that follows it:

    KJV (which uses a colon)

    69 And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David;
    70 As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began:
    71 That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us;

    REB (which puts a space)

    69 He has raised for us a strong deliverer
    from the house of his servant David.

    70 So he promised: age after age he proclaimed
    by the lips of his holy prophets,
    71 that he would deliver us from our enemies,
    out of the hands of all who hate us;

    The NLT seems to make it more exclusivly with the preceeding verse:

    69 He has sent us a mighty Savior
    from the royal line of his servant David,
    70 just as he promised
    through his holy prophets long ago.
    71 Now we will be saved from our enemies
    and from all who hate us.

    But anyway, this passage isn’t a big deal. I’ll keep looking for a ‘better’ exploited passage.

    Btw, the KJV turns the noun ‘salvation (from our enemies)’ into the verb phrase ‘that we should be saved (from our enemies)’. Adding to the Word of God…. didn’t realise they were so into dynamic equivalent translation philosophy. 🙂

  18. Peter Kirk says:

    Edward, thank you for pointing out yet another use of brackets in Bible translations. I knew of this convention in the original Greek, and of similar ones in translations into other languages, but not in English translations.

    Michael, thanks for the further examples. Yes, REB and NLT seem to have rather different interpretations, but most others are somewhat ambiguous.

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