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Linguistics Of The Bible Translation

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An in-depth consideration of Bible Translation processes offers useful points of reflection for translators across a variety of specializations. Such work brings to light the essentialism of cultural and artistic content held within original texts. By understanding the history of bible translation, challenges and approaches taken by bible translators, language experts can benefit. Scholars and professionals reflect upon the usefulness of sense-for-sense translation compared to literal translation and a number of techniques used to navigate the lack of relevant vocabulary within a language. Eugene Nida, a dominant scholar in contemporary translation studies played a lead role in the development of translation approaches. Toward a Science of Translating, which was published by Nida in 1964 has been referred to by some as the bible of translation (Wilt22). Despite Nida’s orientation towards language in religious context, it’s concepts have provided useful frames of reference for translators in general (Wilt 22). Nida co-authored The Theory and Practice of Translation with Charles Taber which outlined ‘new attitudes’ as approaches to bible translation (1969:3-9). This work identifies a number of key principles shared by translation scholars today including the concept that “each language has its own genius” and that in order to translate effectively, “one must respect the genius of each language” (qtd in Wilt 22). Said ideas have provided a foundation for the current understanding of bible translation. Taking into account the broad relevance of these principles, I will synthesize a number of scholarly works related to Bible Translation in order to provide a general overview of their most prominent themes.

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William Tyndale, is the first known scholar to translate the Latin bible into English. Leading up to the 16th century, the bible was completely inaccessible to lay people. This required the consultation of clergymen to understand the sacred texts. Although bible translation today does not carry the same risk and controversy as it did during the Reformation period, scholars may be interested in the history of bible translation, challenges faced by translators, and the approaches adopted to navigate them. Bible translation is unique as it carries cultural significance. The content of the sacred text having had a profound impact on historical events, societal norms, and the everyday lives of many religiously-inclined individuals, warrants thorough consideration. Reproduction of its meaning requires a profound understanding of the implications of language in both the source and target.

Bible translation takes on various forms including interlingual and intralingual and intersemiotic translation. Efforts have been made to translate the New and Old Testament from the original Greek and Hebrew languages into other target languages, including formerly unwritten ones. Intralingual translation work has built upon the aim of accessibility by providing the bible in registers of language more understandable and commonly spoken by average people. Intersemiotic translation, while most neglected among the three forms of bible translation has been carried out by a few organizations, namely into American Sign Language.

Translators across all genres face the challenge of reconstructing meaning through entirely different sets of linguistic codes. The German word, “Waldeinsamkeit” has been referred to by many across a number of linguistic sites as “untranslatable”. Russian linguist and translation expert, Roman Jakobson found “the dogma of untranslatability” to be unfounded (Jakobson). In On Linguistic Aspects of Translation Jakobson maintains that “all cognitive experience and its classification is conveyable in any language” (Jakobson 234). Although languages often do not share perfect one-to-one relationships, their facilitation still is possible. Although no single word exists to convey the thought behind the German word Waldeinsamkeit, it may yield the English translation “The feeling of solitude and connectedness to nature when being alone in the woods.”[footnoteRef:0] It is possible for translators to overcome the lack of correspondence between such words and phrases by focusing on meaning. According to Nida and Taber, it is possible to translate any utterance unless the form is essential to its meaning. In fact, they argue that form must be changed to preserve the content of the message (1969: 3-9). Within the discipline of translation however, there is no overall consensus as to which approach is preferable. Some bible translators and organizations argue that word for word or literal translation upholds the original use of language. Brunn proposes a balanced view of form and meaning, arguing that they are inseparable in every language. Therefore, fidelity to both these aspects are essential in bible translation. “Each form is worthless without its meaning, and meaning can be communicated only by some kind of form”, Brunn explained (38). It is not possible to completely mirror the form of the original text. In fact, Brunn argued that translation intrinsically requires a change in form(38). In many cases, translators may completely abandon the literal use of words, in order to preserve its meaning. Brunn provided examples of such changes through the substitution of the English word “heart” for the Hebrew word “kidneys” to express deep feelings or intentions (47). Such a change reflects the need for translators to consider the cultural implications of their choices. [0: ]

Distinct features of language make it difficult and sometimes impossible to preserve the artistic or cultural content of an utterance. According to Jakobson, “poetry by definition is untranslatable (Jakobson 238).” Linguistic components such as syntax, morphology, and isochrony are a few factors which work together to produce an artistic effect. As it is impossible to entirely duplicate such elements into another language, creative transposition, which is defined as a recreation of poetic form, is the only route. Robert Alter argues that the rhythmic characteristic of the Hebrew bible has largely been abandoned by modern English translators, citing Everett Fox, Buber and Rosenzweig’s American emulator as exceptions (24). In The Art of Bible Translation Alter argues that poetic and narrative texts can be translated in some, but not all cases:

This artfulness, which cannot be separated from the religious meanings of the texts, sometimes can be conveyed effectively in English; sometimes an English solution can be found that to a degree intimates the stylistic strengths of the original, though imperfectly; and sometimes, alas, the translator must throw up his hands in despair because there seems no workable English equivalent for the stylistic effects of the Hebrew (25- 26)

The organizational aspect of translation is also worthy of consideration. The bible, being the most widely translated book in the world, has over 670 complete translations, as well as a number of partial translations. The accessibility of the bible across languages is the common goal of most translation teams. But some organizations particularly support and facilitate the translation of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures into less commonly spoken languages. Scholars have found that such translations present unique challenges not experienced by translators of common languages. Citing the New International Version as a point of comparison, Nico Daams distinguishes between minority and majority language groups in the process of delivering accurate, natural, and clear translations. The translation body of the NIV benefited from adequate funding which afforded them highly trained language experts and bible scholars, with the best original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic texts (288).

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Fragments of the New Testament, Old Testament, or single books are available in at least 3,000 languages. A number of worldwide organizations dedicate their efforts to increasing accessibility of the Christian scriptures. One of the most well known bible translation organisations, Wycliffe, operates with the mission to spread their message to those who have not been reached due to language barriers. Since being founded in 1942, Wycliffe has played an important role in bible translation worldwide (Hong 21). The organization has since grown to have more than 3,600 members in more than 2,200 countries (Hong 34). According to Joseph Hong, the organization’s outreach is increased by its’ ethnic diversity. Hong argues that a number of mandates found throughout the bible call for christian solidarity which supersedes ethnic and cultural differences (Hong 44). Recognition of this unifying principle is said to contribute to the success of Wycliffe as a world leading bible translation organization.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, have undertaken the project of translating the bible and bible literature into as many languages as possible. The first edition of The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures became available in English in 1950[footnoteRef:1]. Jehovah’s Witnesses prioritized the rendering of the Divine name “Jehovah” found in the original Greek and Hebrew texts, which has been omitted from other translations. Since 1961, bible translation committees have continued to produce translations in over 120 languages. February 20th of 2020, they announced the world’s first complete American Sign Language bible, which has been distributed progressively since 2004. [1: ]

Each target language into which the bible is translated poses unique challenges. Linguistic relativity or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis maintains that an individual’s perception of the world and interpretation of events is informed by one’s native language. In particular languages, a lack of adequate vocabulary, contextual differences, and connotations may pose challenges to bible translators. According to Monica Romano’s essay Terminological issues in Bible translation, it has been found that many principles and concepts found in the Christian bible are either nonexistent or opposed to “Chinese culture and religious-philosophical tradition”. Two approaches are taken to approximate biblical language in Chinese: “borrowing indigenous religious-philosophical terms” which [are] familiar to the Chinese” and “using phonetic transcriptions or neologisms” (85) For example, early missionaries in China struggled to most effectively translate ‘God’. Initially, a phonetic transcription of the Latin Deus was used. Jesuits later decided to transpose the term into familiar language, using the Chinese words for ‘heaven, supreme god, and ruler’. Some were opposed to this choice, arguing that such language use is incompatible with Christianity. Such negotiations have continued concerning a number of terms including the Tetragrammaton (JHVH), Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ.

Bible translation involves a series of drafting, consultation, and reviewal. Katharine Barnwell found that while the order of events varies, each must take place to produce a translation. Before the second or final draft is completed, the copy must be reviewed by native speakers to test the naturalness of the production. This process though is not trouble-free. According to Stafaniw, the involved members of the translation process are each deeply invested in their work. Disagreements that arise may not necessarily be rooted in dogma, but differing ideas surrounding the sanctity of the bible, translation practices, and the limits of bible translation. Consultants and translation teams may take a variety of routes when resolving disagreements which Stafaniw categorized as “reacting to the conflict” or “resolving the conflict”. This study found that establishing mutual trust and respect is crucial in forming a successful bible translation team.

Ni Wayan Swarrniti identified 11 translation techniques by means of a content analysis of the Gospel book, Mark: Transference, Cultural Equivalent, Functional Equivalent, Descriptive Equivalent, Synonymy, Shifts or Transpositions, Modulation, Compensation, Paraphrase, Couplets, and Notes (189). Transference is described as the process of transferring a word from the source language into the target language. This, being a common understanding of the practice translation, it is noteworthy that it only constituted 8% of the translation (Swarniti 189). On the other hand, shifting or transposition is shown to be a well-favored approach to biblical utterances .The process involves a change in grammatical form between the source and target language. The findings concerning transposition were ultimately divided into three kinds of transposition “singular to plural changing, structure changing, and class of word changing”(192), Swarniti concluded that 21% of the data was found to be shifted or transposed. Such findings illustrate the complexity of the translation of cultural content (187). It is made clear through this content analysis that a holistic approach would be inadequate in rendering an effective translation.

Among religious scholars, there is no consensus as to whether or not accurate bible translation is possible. Naomi Tadmor in the Social and Cultural Translation of the Hebrew Bible in Early Modern England examines the cultural implications of translating the Old Testament. This chapter details the limitations found in early English translations of the Hebrew bible. The sanctity of the bible was believed to call warrant word-for-word translation, emphasizing order and structure rather than sense. Christo Lombaard compares bible translation to a game of hide and seek, affirming that translation offers only some meaning offered by the original text rather than all. In this way, translators play the role of narrators; balancing an interplay between content and form. “With religious texts, such as the Bible, the problem is compounded by a complex matrix of attitudes and expectations on the part of the intended readers and, though differently, on the part of the translators”(Lombaard 5). A lack of context from the societies in which religious texts are written presents bible translators with a complex challenge. The instability of meaning, creates uncertainty in the process, due to the traditional implications of language, which somehow can be lost in time.

Translators take advantage of a number of reference tools, such as study notes, in order to approximate the Greek and Hebrew utterances found in the bible. Ernst Wendlands reflects upon this in “Theologizing” in Bible Translation with Special Reference to Study Notes in Chichewa. As previously outlined, bible translation is complicated by the number of idiosyncrasies involved with the transfer of rich meaning including the “historical, sociocultural, linguistic, literary, and ecological” contexts in which it was produced (Wendland 317). Wendland concurs with previous bible translation scholarship that it is not possible to fully convey its theological meaning as it was originally intended. This is especially true within the context of the Chichewa language. Wendland’s preparation of the Buku Loyera version of the Chichewa bible led him to one main conclusion concerning the translation effort in this particular language. Bible translation can be summarised as the task of “re-representing” the content through a “functional equivalent” (318). Such an endeavor required special focus on the intended audience of the translation, by considering the cultural context in which the project was situated. In overcoming linguistic interference, footnotes are oftentimes insufficient in preventing confusion and misunderstandings (322). Study notes on the other hand, provide in-depth explanations of translation choices including the historical or cultural context that the utterance seeks to describe. Although the transfer of such content between languages is by no means perfect, study notes allow translators to approximate meaning in a transparent manner.

Consideration of the studies and reflections above provide an overview of the common issues faced by bible translators, ongoing scholarly debates surrounding biblical translation, and a look into the production process. Such an overview demonstrates the creative nature of bible translation as well as the implications of word choice. Such insight may be useful to translators across a wide range of genres. By analyzing the challenges associated with one most unique and complicated texts, translators can borrow such tactics in their translation endeavors.


  1. Alter, Robert. The Art of Bible Translation. Princeton University Press, 2019. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Mar. 2020.
  2. Barnwell, K.. An introductory course for mother-tongue translators (1st ed.). Jos, Benue-Plateau State Nigeria: Institute of Linguistics. 1975
  3. Brunn, Dave. One Bible, Many Versions : Are All Translations Created Equal? . InterVarsity Press, 2013.
  4. Daams, Nico. “Quality Bible Translation in Minority Languages: Can It Be Done?” The Bible Translator, vol. 66, no. 3, Dec. 2015, pp. 287–297, doi:10.1177/2051677015608613.
  5. Griffith, Sidney H. The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the ‘People of the Book’ in the
  6. Language of Islam, Princeton University Press, 2013, pp. 1–6. JSTOR, Accessed 30 Jan. 2020.
  7. Hong, Hyunmin, and Samuel H. Larsen. “Enriched by Diversity: The Transformation of Wycliffe Bible Translators USA into a Multiethnic Organization.” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2010. Web.
  8. Jakobson, Roman. “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation.” On Translation, edited by Reuben A. Brower, Harvard University Press, 1959, pp.232-239.
  9. Lombaard, C. “Hide and Seek. Aspects of the Dynamics of Bible Translation.” Acta Theologica, vol. 29, University of the Free State Faculty of Theology, Jan. 2009, pp. 1–15,
  10. Nida, Eugene A, and Charles R. Taber. The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden: Published for the United Bible Societies by E.J. Brill, 1982. Print.
  11. Nida, Eugene A. Toward a Science of Translating: With Special Reference to Principles and Procedures Involved in Bible Translating. Leiden: Brill, 1964. Print.
  12. Romano, Monica. “The Reception of Christianity in China: Terminological Issues in Bible Translation.” Talking Literature: Essays on Chinese and Biblical Writings and Their Interaction, edited by Raoul David Findeisen and Martin Slobodník, 1st ed., Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2013, pp. 85–100. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Mar. 2020.
  13. Stefaniw, Roman W. Negotiating Bible Translation: Text, Teams, and Conflict, Biola University
  14. Swarniti, N. W. “The Translation Procedures of Bible Translation”. RETORIKA: Jurnal Ilmu Bahasa, vol 5 no.2, 2019 pp.187-196,
  15. Tadmor, Naomi. “The Social and Cultural Translation of the Hebrew Bible in Early Modern
  16. England: Reflections, Working Principles, and Examples.” Early Modern Cultures of Translation, edited by Karen Newman and Jane Tylus, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015 188. JSTOR, Accessed 30 Jan. 2020.
  17. Wendland, Ernst R. “‘Theologizing’ in Bible Translation with Special Reference to Study Notes in Chichewa.” The Bible Translator 53.3 (2002): 316–330. Web.
  18. Wilt, Timothy. Bible Translation : Frames of Reference, Routledge, 2002. ProQuest Ebook Central,

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