Bible translation foundations – a series

I have been active in the Bible translation email discussion list and the Better Bibles Blog from their beginnings. Over these years I have observed that participants in discussions about Bible translation often have very different views. Sometimes it seems these differences are foundational, having to do with the very purpose of Bible translation.

In this series I would like to try to discover what, if any, foundational beliefs we do share about Bible translation, as well as differences that lead us to such different conclusions sometimes.

So the first question I’ll ask for you to answer in comments to this post, based on your own views about Bible translation, is:

What is the purpose of Bible translation (rather than just teaching the biblical languages to people around the world)?

21 thoughts on “Bible translation foundations – a series

  1. John Hobbins says:

    The Bible is the chief constitutional text of, in one configuration, the Jewish faith; in other configurations, the Christian faith. It serves to resource the faith and practice of billions of people.

    The resourcing has been effectuated down to very small details, with the constitutionality of the text understood to be reflected word by word (lexis) and in word order (syntax) such that translations have tended to map the source text onto a target text word by word and syntactical one-to-one correspondences.

    In light of the above, and on the assumption that the above is a productive, healthy dynamic, the purpose of Bible translation is to map the source text down to the last details such that the text can serve its constitutional purpose in translation.

  2. Davis says:

    There are three purposes: 1) for the conversion of individuals, 2) for the sanctification of individuals, 3) for the growth and development of the church body.

  3. Mark Denning says:

    I’m a seminary student who reads this blog to learn and be informed about the nuances of Bible translation. I am not a professional bible translator. I hope my answer will not seem simplistic but I think the purpose of bible translation is encapsulated in the later half of 2 Tim 3:15. To know “the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

  4. Theophrastus says:

    The chief purpose of writing a translation is to work out for oneself what the original text means.

    Why would one read a translation? Perhaps because one has not yet learned Hebrew (in other words, a temporary crutch), or perhaps to see how another person understood the original text.

    Alternatively, perhaps as a function of a community: Jews are only allowed to pray in the vernacular Aramaic with a minyan (of at least ten) — suggesting that the vernacular belongs to the community.

  5. codepoke says:

    To leverage the knowledge of the trained to reduce the burden of learning on the untrained.

    Tyndale/Wycliffe/etc. knew the Greek/Hebrew and made it available in vernacular because it was not possible that millions of regular Joes would educate themselves in Greek sufficiently to begin educate themselves about God.

  6. John Hobbins says:

    I have always been struck by the felt need for a Bible translation to be authorized and approved.

    In the Yerushalmi (Meg. 10b), Aquila’s translation of the Pentateuch into Greek is described as supervised and approved by rabbis Eliezer (ben Hurqanos) and Yehoshua (ben Ḥananyah) (תירגם עקילס הגר התורה לפני רבי אליעזר ולפני רבי יהושע); in the Bavli (Meg. 3a), the Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch by the same person and supervised by the same people is mentioned (תרגום של תורה אונקלוס הגר אמרו מפי ר’ אליעזר ור’ יהושע).

    Tradition garbled the historical details, but that is beside the point. The Yerushalmi and the Bavli attest to the felt need for an authorized translation of the Torah in the vernacular.

  7. Theophrastus says:

    John: The Jerusalem Talmud does not have standardized page format (it had no Bomberg edition.) Thus, a reference to Tractate Megilla 10b is necessarily a reference to the Babylonian Talmud.

  8. Eddie says:

    I’d rather approach this from a different direction. Yes, translation does make it easier for people to understand and to grow in faith, but I would see this as a result of the process, not the reason for it. We need to lift our eyes from humanity for a moment and to think about God. The whole story of Scripture is the story of God reaching out to mankind and this story reaches its climax in the incarnation. Now, Jesus sends us out into the world, in the same way that the Father sent him. Like our God, we are to be proactive and to reach out to the world, breaking down the barriers of language and culture that separate people from him. The reason we do Bible translation is a response to the sort of God he is. There is a video of me looking slightly dubious and talking on this theme here

    I realise that I’m talking about missionary translation here. What I say doesn’t really apply to English or other major languages which already have translations.

  9. asiabible says:

    The purpose of translation is to render something in another form. The purpose of translation of literature is to enable a reader to experience as much as possible of the original work in another language. Scripture in Church is a human literature but also the vehicule of a divine message. Bible translation therefore should aim to provide a reader with the human experiences and the divine messages in their mother tongue.

  10. Glenn says:

    I would just like to point out to Theophrastus that knowledge of Hebrew/Aramaic & Greek is not a requirement for interacting with God and His word; nor is a lack of linguistic knowledge in said languages a “crutch” (temporary or otherwise)

    Many experts in these languages are unsaved and sadly will die unsaved. Equally, over the years, millions upon millions have come to saving faith without a knowledge of these languages and now reside with our saviour, the Christ, Lord Jesus.

    Surely the point of translation is to open up Gods word accurately, in all its fullness, to as many people as possible so that it does not return to that sad, restrictive, elitist situation where it was only available to academics & ‘priests’.

  11. David Ker says:

    The ideas of the Bible are not irrevocably intertwined with the language in which they were first written down. Translation releases those ideas back into the wild, so to speak, and allows them to impact all of humanity.

  12. J. K. Gayle says:

    The fact that the Bible already comes to us in translation makes it stand out from other literary or philosophical or religious works, say Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 or Aristotle’s τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά (MetaPhusiks) and Laozi’s 道德經(DaoDeJing) or the Prophet Muhammad’s القرآن‎ Al-Qur’an and Vyasa’s भगवद्गीता (Bhagavad Gita).

    The Bible is enmeshed in the practices of translation, and anyone who translates any of it today participates further in these practices. There’s a plurality of language in the texts, and there is no single approach to translation in or after the passages collected by any one group as “the Bible.”

    To me, then, one of the most interesting words in the entire bible is μετα-νοεῖτε. It appears to be the gospel writer Mark’s neologistic imagination for something Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed as ironically imperative. (Matthew appears to follow Mark, but puts the phrase in John the Baptist’s mouth first). We could call this “bad Greek” or at least not “good Greek” because, even though the word is used by Plato and by Aristotle, the verb phrase is never by either used in the imperative mood. Even the Septuagint translators do better than Mark, following its standard, non-command forms, albeit only 24 times or so, which follows the pattern of other Greek writers (i.e., the two philosophers mentioned and also the likes of the sophist Antiphon and the historians Thucydides and Xenophon): it’s a rarely used construction for native speakers.

    To get at what Mark (and Matthew) must be doing by so translating, it’s helpful to me to consider how some of our various contemporaries theorize (and practice) “translation.” I like, for example, Mikhail Epstein’s notions of trans-lation in multi-lingual contexts as inter-lation. And Lydia He Liu talks of non-native speaker rendered appropriations of language as trans-lingual practice (in which the translator thinks of her first language as host and the translated language as guest). And novelist Ishmael Reed calls his African American English rendition of D. O. Fagunwa’s Igbo Olodumare [The Forest of God](based on the phrasing, “Ojola-Ibinu Ti Ise Olori Ejo Aiye Gbogbo” or “Ojola-Ibinu, the King of Snakes everywhere”), a sort of after-thought of what the Nigerian author is doing with his Yoruba. And Karen Jobes, English translator of the Greek variant texts of the Septuagint translating the Hebrew book of “Esther,” speaks of the need for “bi-lingual quotation” as a needed, fresh, metaphor for Bible translation. And Elias Boudinot (aka Gallegina “Buck” Watie) produces the first Cherokee translation of the “Lord’s Prayer” from Matthew’s Greek translation of Jesus’s Hebrew Aramaic); but the Cherokee has in it subtle differences from the English back translation that appears in the first edition of the first bi-lingual di-glot newspaper “The Cherokee Phoenix.” And theoreticians and practitioners of so called “feminist translation” grapple with translation of language that comes to us already in multi-lingual forms and already in translation. These “trans-lingual” efforts look to me more like what the first bible translation did (or sought to do).

    Bible translation is (or could be) much like what Mark’s μετα-νοεῖτε is. It’s an acknowledgment of various received texts in the context of multilingual, multicultural settings for a plural at least bi-lingual audience. It’s the imperative to re-think.

  13. Marshall Massey says:

    I see the proper purpose of Bible translation as being to allow the reader to grapple first and foremost with what the authors of the original texts said, and only secondarily (if at all) with our present understanding of what those authors meant.

    Thus, in my view, when the Bible translator encounters ambiguities, or metaphors alien to modern English, or other translational difficulties, it is not the purpose of Bible translation to conceal them. It should be the aim of the translator to make those hurdles visible in a way that does not discourage the reader, but rather invites her to grapple with the text and grow from the grappling.

    The reader should be presented with a text that, although in her own language, is nonetheless strange enough, in manner of expression and style and imagery, that she understands she is looking at alien ways of perceiving and thinking. The text should not be polished to support the translator’s theology; it should be left to the reader to stretch her own mind and question her own preconceptions in all the places where the text might seem muddy to a naïve reader of the original. Concerns about the language possibly leading the reader into error should be handled by footnotes and commentary.

    The idea of giving the reader a text that is as easy for her to read in her own language, as the original should ideally have been for the people for whom it was originally written, strikes me as quite wrong-headed. It is an invitation to false confidence, and I do not believe that the proper purpose of translation is to encourage false confidence.

  14. Dru Brooke-Taylor says:

    Simple answer, ‘so that people can read or hear the scriptures in their own language’.

    More complicated answer, ‘so that people whose first languages are neither OT Hebrew or koine can read or hear the scriptures and get as close as possible to what they would experience if their first language was OT Hebrew or koine (as the case may be)’.

    Of the other comments above, what Asiabible says is the closest to my own view.

  15. Theophrastus says:

    It seems to me that there are two very different types of translation that occur. I am going to call them closed and open.

    Closed translation is applicable when the translator completely understands all the salient features of the source text. For example consider a translator who is translating a manual for a DVD player, or a law (consider Canada where laws must be published in both English and French), or a patent, or a scientific paper, or a cookbook. In this case, the translator can (and should) grasp all the pertinent features of the source document, and produce a corresponding translated document. Now, it may be possible that the source document will have some incidental feature (maybe the scientific paper was just a bit wry) that does not come out in the translated document, but that feature was not pertinent and does not render the translated document as unusable.

    Open translation occurs when the translator may not be able to list all of the pertinent features of the document or it there is difficulty in reproducing pertinent features. For example, in a piece of literature — particularly for complex literature — translation is difficult since (a) we are still discovering pertinent features in the source text (and thus even a well-informed translator is unable to completely list them); (b) some pertinent features may be difficult to capture in the translated text (for example, capturing meter, alliteration, rhyme); (c) the translator may lack the skill to construct target language prose or poetry that represents the skill of the source material; (d) the source material implicitly requires cultural background knowledge which may not be understood by the target audience (this creates a great dilemma for the translator: if the translator explains the background, he will be producing an adaption and not a translation; if he omits it, the target audience will misunderstand references). In such a case, in open translation, the translator tries to capture the essential features of the source document and not to pre-interpret its understanding when translated into a target document.

    It seems to me obvious that the Bible is an example of a document demanding open translation, but one which usually receives closed translation.

  16. Mike Sangrey says:

    Purpose of translation?

    I’ll ask you a question first. What was the purpose of the original?

    Once you answer that, my answer to your question is simple: Fulfil that with the language of the reader.


    Actually, I’m not intending to be evasive in any way. It’s a good question. Obtaining a excellent translation of 2 Tim. 3:15-17 would be a good start.

  17. Wayne Leman says:

    Interesting answers. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I think you’re all right. I was intending this question to be narrowly focused but you all are too good for me and often find that the way I word my questions leaves something to be desired.

    In my own mind I started with the question: What is the purpose of translation? (I understand the answer to that to be: to enable someone to understand what was said or written in another language)

    Then I added “Bible” as the modifier of translation, narrowing translation in this case to translation of the biblical language texts.

    So then my answer would be the same as Dru’s.

    But those of you who understood my question to focus on the Bible, what is its purpose, and then extended that to translation of the Bible are right.

  18. codepoke says:

    I have a number of Visual Basic Scripts that I’m converting to Powershell. It’s remarkably easy work compared to “open translation” as defined above, but it’s an interesting comparison.

    When I’m done, the exact same thing will happen but in a completely new environment.

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