Use of footnotes

Russell Allen asked on the Share page: What is the proper role for footnotes in a translation?

Since I presented an article  last year on how we used footnotes in our Danish Bible translation, let me just copy the 10 usages we had:

  1. When terms for measurements or money are used in the translation which are not in common use among the receptor audience.
  2. When the meaning of a word or expression is unknown or very questionable.
  3. When the word chosen did not quite cover the range of meaning.
  4. When a wordplay is used in the original in such a way that it needs explanation.
  5. When there are several options for the translation, especially if the passage is theologically significant and the exegesis not agreed-upon by commentators.
  6. When different denominations have significant differences in terms of interpretation.
  7. When a Biblical word is used which non-church goers may not be familiar with.
  8. When some cultural background may help in a fuller understanding of the translation.
  9. When there is a significant textual problem.
  10. When the NT quotes the OT or when the OT has significant reference to a NT theme.


5 thoughts on “Use of footnotes

  1. Tim Bulkeley says:

    Surely 2 should be wider! Translators have a duty to inform (careful) readers when a word or expression is more than just a little “questionable”…

  2. Nathan Smith says:

    If I were to choose the bare essentials from that list, I would include numbers 1, 2, 4, and 9.

    Number 3 seems like a slippery slope, because disparity of semantic range can happen quite frequently in translation. I guess the question is whether the disparity is likely to cause a failure in interpretation.

    As for number 5, I prefer translations which stick to their guns. Let the commentary remain in the commentaries. 6 is the in the same bucket for me.

    I see numbers 7, 8, and 10 in the domain of study notes as well, not as part of a translation per se. The NET Bible makes a distinction between different types of footnotes, for example.

  3. Joel H. says:

    It’s an interesting question, and one I’ve grappled with, having served as chief translator for a few series.

    I have three kinds of footnotes:

    1. Footnotes filling in areas of the original where the translation falls short.

    2. Footnotes explaining what I did and why I did it, including reference to other translations.

    3. Other interesting things.

    I don’t specifically distinguish among the three.

    So for example, if two Hebrew words rhyme and my translation does not, I add a footnote of type (1) to indicate that my translation is deficient in that it doesn’t capture the euphony of the original.

    If my English does rhyme, matching the Hebrew, I may add a footnote to indicate that I chose the rhymes on purpose. Similarly, if my translation differs significantly from standard translations, I explain why.

    As an example of the third type, Dr. Marc Brettler and I spent a marathon day reviewing an entire volume of liturgy. Right at the end, the Hebrew describes God as chai ha’olamim (lit., “life of the worlds”), which is often wrongly translated “life of the universe.” It’s wrong because olamim there expresses “eternity.” I don’t remember who thought of it, but our footnote read, “`eternal liver’ is obviously wrong.”


  4. Iver Larsen says:

    Yes, we had a footnote for the acrostic texts explaining that in order to make them acrostic in translation, which we did, we had to be slightly more free than otherwise. It is a similar to number 4. In Prov. 31:10-31 we reordered a couple of verses to make it fit in an acrostic pattern.

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