Reflections from Pastor Jennifer
Mother's Day Ladies Fellowship
May Focus: Study
A Little Bit About Bible Translation
Most Christians know the Bible was not written in English. The writings we find in our Bibles were written in a few languages—ancient Hebrew (most of the Old Testament), Aramaic (a few parts of the Old Testament, including the book of Daniel), and Greek (the New Testament). Specifically, Koine (meaning “common”) Greek. Koine Greek was spoken all over the Mediterranean and Middle East during the time of the New Testament.
Jesus would’ve known Koine Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. He probably spoke Aramaic in his daily life, and would’ve used Hebrew and Greek in particular settings.2 This means that most of Jesus’ words in the Greek New Testament were themselves translated from Aramaic to Greek.
Though the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (based on oral tradition), it was translated into Koine Greek even before Jesus was born. This translation was done by seventy scholars, and is called the Septuagint (often abbreviated LXX), from the Latin word septuaginta, meaning “seventy.” New Testament writers often quote the Septuagint rather than the original Hebrew texts.
A translator needs something to translate. We have none of the original documents that make up our Bible. Fortunately, though, they were copied many, many times, so we almost always know what the originals said. But not always, and not without debates. What if a scribe made a mistake while copying a text? Or added a comment that someone else later inserted into the text?
Every language comes with a culture. A translator has to keep in mind that different cultures categorize the world differently, and language reflects these differences.
A New Testament translator for the Tausug language (Philippines), while translating the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 21, got to where it says that the vineyard owner, “went into a far country.” He and a team of native speakers tried various words to convey the idea of a man going on a long journey.
Viaje, a word borrowed from Spanish, means to take a trip for a specific purpose—a purpose like smuggling or carrying passengers. This didn’t seem to fit, since the parable didn’t mention a specific purpose for the owner’s trip.
Layn means to change one’s residence. The parable doesn’t say that the vineyard owner was moving, so they looked for another word.
The translator asked the team, “The owner of the vineyard didn’t give his destination, didn’t say how long he planned to stay, or when he was coming back. How would you say that?”
The team replied, “We would say, ‘he paddled.’”
The people live over the water in houses on stilts, and they earn their living from the sea. From birth, they spend time in their boats. “But,” the translator said, “this vineyard owner lived in the interior, not near the shore, and he didn’t go on a boat.”
“That doesn’t matter,” the team replied, “This is the word we’d use even if he went by truck or on foot.”
So in that New Testament, the owner of the vineyard “paddled” to a far country.
If that seems odd, consider that English does the same kind of thing. We just don’t usually notice it because the translation sounds natural to us.
In ancient Hebrew culture, the kidneys were considered the center of feelings and desires. The heart was viewed as the center of thought.6 In English, we feel with our hearts and think with our minds, and we don’t speak of our kidneys figuratively at all. So when we translate a passage like Psalm 7:9, we swap body parts: “. . . you who test the minds [Hebrew: hearts] and hearts [Hebrew: kidneys], O righteous God!” (ESV, emphasis mine).
These kinds of differences of expression are needed to allow God’s word to speak to the reader’s hearts (or kidneys, if you prefer).
This article barely scratches the surface of Bible translation. The challenges are many and important, but we can never give up on getting it right so that God’s Word speaks to our hearts. The Bible’s been in English for hundreds of years, but we’re still trying to make sure we’ve got it right. Whether or not we follow God faithfully depends on how we understand the Bible.
When faithfully translated, each challenge presents an opportunity to produce notes in a symphony. If the notes ring clear and true, the majesty of the music will be heard and felt the way the composer intended. God uses his translated Word to speak with a clear and powerful voice to those whom he loves—female and male—in the native languages of tribes and nations, large and small, in every corner of the globe.