Difficulties of Bible Translation, Part Two

OK, I said I’m going to start blogging my series on “That Book in Your Hand”, and I will.  Maybe even later today, Lord permitting.

And I don’t want to give the impression that your translation is untrustworthy.  It isn’t, and I’m going to speak to that directly, and just how much God wants you to rely on and trust “That Book in Your Hand”, over the coming days and/or weeks.

But David Hosaflook wrote something yesterday about preaching with an interpreter, and some of the things he said apply to Bible translation as well.  He’s talking about Americans speaking with an interpreter in other countries, but some of these issues apply to any translation.


#5 Avoid American idioms.

An idiom is an expression, word, or phrase that has a particular meaning within a culture which is different than the literal meaning.  Perhaps we could use the example of “Let’s roll,” which doesn’t necessarily (any longer) have any connection to rolling anything or anyone.  We used to say, “Let’s roll,” before starting a cross-country race, and rolling on the ground is not the fastest way to cover 10K.

Why does this make Bible translation difficult?  Because the Scripture obeyed David Hosaflook nicely, and included no American idioms :), but does include Hebrew and Greek idioms.  The translator has to A) recognise that this IS an idiom B) recognise the meaning of the idiom within a culture 2000 years old (or more) and C) decide how to communicate the whole thing (idiom and meaning) in English.  You can easily see the difficulty (which is why David tells those preaching for interpreters/translators to avoid this).

#7 Make it simple. This doesn’t mean dumb it down, just make it concise (you have to cut it down anyway, right?).

The Scriptures aren’t always simple.  They are dealing with the nature of a God who is far beyond our full comprehension.  Peter said that the Scriptures which Paul had written included some things that were hard to understand.  If Peter as a contemporary Greek speaker found them hard to understand, we would certainly expect Bible translators to find it hard to translate them effectively.

#8 Be aware of your expressions like, “Lead, guide and direct us.” In some places, that might translate as “Lead, lead and lead us,” because there just aren’t so many synonyms.

One language has three ways to say something, with shades of difference in the meaning, while another language uses one word for all three cases.  Perhaps the best known example of this in Bible translation is that Greek has three main words for “love”.

That’s not so hard, because the translator can just translate all of them in English as “love” (though “charity” is sometimes used as well).  But what if it goes the other way?  What if there are three English words that could be used to translate a single Greek word?  What should the translator do?  Always translate it the same way, or try to determine from the context which is the best English word in this particular verse?

Finally, there’s his hilarious story about the joke.  There are wordplays in Scripture that usually just don’t carry over from one language to another.  Yet, sometimes the translator CAN bring out some of this, and should if possible without obscuring the main message of the text.

So, is Bible translation hopeless?  Should we forget about it and make everyone who wants to get saved learn Greek and Hebrew?  Of course not.  The last three verses of Romans:

25 Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began,
26 But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith:
27 To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ for ever. Amen.

Look at verse 26.  God commanded that the Gospel of Christ (or maybe we should say the Christ of the Gospel) would be made manifest by the Scriptures to all nations.  That’s Bible translation, whether we are talking about translating out of Hebrew and Greek into English, or into some other language.  Bible translation may have many difficulties, but since it was God’s idea and commandment, we do it and — we trust Him to help.

Part One

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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