Posted by: austend | Friday, January 22, 2010

The Difficulty in Translating the Bible

In this lengthy post I’d like to share some of the difficulties  in translating the Bible from the original languages into English.

Many people assume that translating the Bible is not that difficult.  After all, they think, each Greek or Hebrew word has a corresponding English word, and you just substitute one for the other.  This has led to the dogmatism many people show when it comes to one particular English translation of the Bible, for example, the King James only movement or the New American Standard only people.  Proponents of only certain translations claim that their translation best captures the reading of the original language, and all other translations “interpret” too much.   This view of translation also leads to people being furious over the “change in meaning” when one translation renders a Greek or Hebrew word one way and another translation renders it a different way.

These people usually say, “Well, you just have to translate the Bible literally!”  And of course this involves the debate between the “word-for-word,” “literal” translation technique versus the so-called “dynamic (or functional) equivalent” technique.

I used to be one of these people.  I learned Greek and some Hebrew in college and was confident in my abilities to translate the Word of God.  Then I went to seminary…

There I learned that the issue of translation is really not that easy.  There’s no such thing as a “word-for-word” or “literal” translation technique.  This is true of any language.  Every language has idioms and a certain way of writing that simply does not convert at a one-to-one level with another language.  Take, for example, the Hebrew word “shalom” that most of us know.  In Hebrew this has multiple ideas including, “peace,” “hello,” “completion,” “goodbye,” “welfare,” and so forth.  No single English word can communicate all of the ideas embedded in this one Hebrew word.  There is no “word-for-word” or “literal” translation that can communicate across languages at a one-to-one level.  Every translation, no matter what languages are involved, is a study in interpretation.  Here’s another example. English has many words for boat-type vessels: ship, boat, cruiser, dinghy, etc.  How would you translate one of these words, with all of the connotations that come with it, into another language that only has one word for all boat-type vessels.  Sure you can do it, but you are losing some of the English connotations as soon as you translate it into the more limited language.  This is the challenge of translation–you must interpret the message.

I’d like to provide you with an example of the challenge/difficulty of translating the Bible from Greek into English that I had to work through this past week in class.

This is Philemon 1:6 in Greek:

ὅπως ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου ἐνεργὴς γένηται ἐν ἐπιγνώσει παντὸς ἀγαθοῦ τοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν εἰς Χριστόν.

If you look at different English translations, hardly any two end up exactly the same.  Eg,


I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.


and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake.


That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.

See also the ASV, NET, ESV, HCSB, TNIV.

As you can see, the versions handle verse 6 very differently.  Why?  It is because the Greek is somewhat ambiguous, and the translator must interpret Paul and try to decide what Paul means and how to communicate it in English.  Let’s break the verse into its parts and study its difficulties:

The first issue is the word ὅπως (“hopos”).  It probably is communicating the content of Paul’s prayer (v.4) [“that”], but it could also be (as it often is) introducing a purpose clause linked to v.5 [“in order that”].

The second issue is the phrase ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου (“he koinonia tes pisteos sou”).  Firstly, what does κοινωνία (“koinonia”) mean?  Is it “fellowship,” “participation,” or “sharing”?  Secondly, what kind of genitive is τῆς πίστεώς (“tes pisteos”)?  Thirdly, what kind of genitive is σου (“sou”)?  This phrase could be legitimately translated any of the following ways:

  1. “your fellowship [with Christ] that is characterized by faith”
  2. “your sharing in the faith [Faith]”
  3. “their participation in your faith”
  4. “our fellowship with you as believers”
  5. “your fellowship [with Christ/with other believers] that arises from your faith”
  6. “your faith, that enables you to share in Christ”
  7. “your generosity, which arises from your faith”

[These options gleaned from Murray Harris, Colossians & Philemon, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.]

There is nothing in the Greek text itself that can tell you which translation option is right.  Those are all perfectly valid translation options.  Which one do you pick?  It’s up to the interpreter to sift through the possibilities and make a decision based on his/her understanding of what Paul was trying to say.

A look at the English translations illustrates the different ways their translators have taken the phrase.  The NIV takes it as evangelism: “you may be active in sharing your faith,” as does the ESV: “the sharing of your faith.”  The ASV and NASB translate it basically word-for-word: “the fellowship of your faith,” but you, the reader, are left to determine what “the fellowship of your faith” means.  The NET takes it as a sharing in the common Faith: “the faith you share with us.”  The HCSB translates it as participation in the Faith: “your participation in the faith.”  The TNIV translates it as partnership in a common faith: “your partnership with us in the faith.”

You can translate the phrase with the typical first-year-Greek-technique word-for-word (as the NASB has done), “the fellowship of the faith of you,” but then you are left with understanding what that means.  The job of the translator is to communicate meaning, not just words.  And, as mentioned above, the Greek does not help you very much in deciding the right meaning among the available options.  The translator must decide based on context, and that is certainly not always easy.

The third issue is what does the phrase ἐνεργὴς γένηται (“energes genetai”) mean?  Options include “become active,” “become effective,” “become effectual.”  What is Paul saying?  The interpreter must decide.  There is nothing in the language to make that call.

The fourth issue is what does the prepositional phrase ἐν ἐπιγνώσει (“en epignosei”) mean?  It typically is translated “in the knowledge,” but what does “knowledge” refer to?  Is it “knowledge” or “full knowledge”?  Does the preposition ἐν (“en”) mean “in,” “by [means of],” or something else?  It can mean any of these; only context can decide.

The fifth issue is what does παντὸς ἀγαθοῦ (“pantos agathou”) mean?  What kind of genitive is it?  Is it, “of every good thing” or “of every good blessing” or “of all good”?

The sixth issue is what does τοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν (“tou en hemin”) mean?  Is the definite article τοῦ being used as a relative pronoun, as is usually suggested?  Is the preposition ἐν about position truth (“in”), sphere (“in”), means (“by”), or “among”?  And what about the text critical issue?  Some manuscripts (some very good ones, in fact) have ὑμιν (“humin”) [“you”] instead of ἡμῖν (“hemin”) [“us”].  Is Paul talking about himself, Christians in general, Philemon, or Philemon, Archippus, Apphia, and the church in Philemon’s house (v.2)?  Once that issue is settled, the interpreter must decide how the phrase relates to the previous phrase παντὸς ἀγαθοῦ.  Is he talking about positional truth as he has in Ephesians?

The last issue is what does the phrase εἰς Χριστόν (“eis Christon”) mean?  This phrase is only used once elsewhere in Paul (Col 2:5).  Why doesn’t he use his normal phrase ἑν Χριστῳ (“en Christo”)?  Is it merely a stylistic change since he already used ἑν twice in the near context?  Does εἰς mean “in” or “to” or “into”?  Is it “for the sake of” (as the NASB)?

So, all this discussion has hopefully demonstrated to you that the translation of the Bible from the original languages into English is NOT easy.  All translation involves interpretation as the translator struggles to determine what the author meant, since the language often has several possible ways of being translated.

The translation I came up with, as I understand the Text is:

that your sharing in the Faith might become effective by means of the knowledge of every good thing which is in us in Christ.

So, I hope that this encourages you to be careful in what you say and think about Bible translators.  There is no one version that is “the best.”  It is not an easy task, and those who do it for those of us who cannot read the original languages should be highly honored for their thoughtful diligence.

By the way, this is not to suggest that the translators manufacture whatever meaning they want to twist out of the Greek text.  Certainly the Greek has limits as to its meaning, and usually context makes it clear what the author was saying, but there are some difficult passages that could have several different perfectly legitimate translations, and it is then up to the translator to do the best he/she can in communicating what the author intended.


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