TranslationFive Decisions Every Bible Translator Must Make Knowing the hard decisions Bible translators face inspires gratitude for our Bibles and encourages us to read them. Peter J. GurryDetail at Luke 1 from the earliest datable copy of the complete Bible in English (14th c.). Egerton MS 618 (f. 35v)December 20, 2021 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level A Bible translation is a major undertaking. A good one can take more than ten years to finish even when a full team is involved. Besides the translators, there is often a team of editors, proofreaders, publishers, printers, marketers, and more. Along the way, a translation committee has thousands of decisions to make, many of which go beyond the most obvious one of deciding how to translate any given word or phrase. Here are five decisions that every translator has to decide—whether their readers know it or not. 1. Who’s the audience? The first decision is arguably the most important because it will determine many other decisions along the way. The first way to define a translation’s audience is, of course, based on what’s called the target language. A translation into German will have a German-speaking audience; a French translation will have French speakers, etc. Though target language is the most obvious form of this question, there is much more to it. Since some language groups like English are so vast and have so many translations already, translation teams often aim their work at a narrower set of readers. American Bible readers are sometimes surprised to learn that major English translations usually result in an American edition and a separate British edition that has British spelling and, in some cases, different word choices. The ESV, for example, has both an Anglicized version and an American version. There is now even a Catholic edition that includes the Apocrypha. In other cases, the choice is not about geography or theology, but reading level. The original NIV was designed to be especially readable, and so was designed for a seventh-grade reading level. But even that audience could be narrowed. That’s why it was revised in a special edition published in 1996 called the New International Reader’s Version or NIrV. It was aimed at a third-grade reading level with the hope of reaching children and readers whose first language isn’t English. This was accomplished by using smaller words and shorter sentences whenever possible. Psalm 23:2 was changed from the NIV’s “He makes me lie down in green pastures” to “He lets me lie down in fields of green grass.” The Lord’s prayer became “Our Father in heaven, may your name be honored. May your kingdom come. May what you want to happen be done on earth as it is done in heaven” (Matt. 6:9–10). These small translation choices add up, but they are all the result of a much larger decision about who the audience is. It’s a choice every translator needs to make. 2. Will it be a fresh translation or a revision? The example of the NIrV illustrates another question that translators have to answer and that is whether their work will be a new translation from the original languages or will instead use the originals to revise an existing translation. The original NIV, for example, was a fresh translation. It was not based on any prior English Bible. The NIrV, as we just saw, started with the NIV and then revised it. It was revised again in 2014. English Bible readers are often surprised to learn that it’s this second approach that is by far the more common one historically. Completely new translations are a relative rarity. The reason is obvious to translators but probably not to most readers. It’s simple: translating the entire Bible is a massive undertaking. Starting from scratch increases the work exponentially. It’s much faster to start from something and change it than to work with nothing. Besides that, revising a well-known translation often gives the new one a much-needed boost in respect and authority. The translators of the most famous English Bible—the King James—knew this well. That’s why in the original preface, they make clear that their work is a revision of previous English Bibles. Their expressed goal was not to “make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one,” but only “to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.” That tradition of revision continues right up to the present. A special insert in the Chicago Tribune on May 22, 1881 printed the entire New Testament of the Revised Version. It took 92 compositors working 12 hours to produce all 118,000 words from a telegram from New York City. In 1885, the King James itself was finally revised for the first time since 1611 in a major translation.1Dates given in this section are the date when the entire Bible was first published. In many cases, the publication of the New Testament preceded the Old by several years. The result was published to great fanfare as the Revised Version. This was then further revised by a team of scholars in North America and published as the American Standard Version in 1901. The Revised Version was again revised in 1952 as the Revised Standard Version and that, in turn, became the New Revised Standard Version of 1990. Even now, an update to the NRSV is set for release in 2022. A separate translation team went back to the Revised Standard Version in 2001, producing the English Standard Version. Even this doesn’t tell the full story of revisions in the KJV lineage. Objections to translation choices in the RSV (like “young girl” instead of “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14) led to the revision of the ASV known as the New American Standard Bible published in 1971. The NASB itself received a major update in 1995 and now exists in two further revisions known as the NASB 2020 and the Legacy Standard Bible. So, the cycle continues with revision upon revision, each one claiming to improve on its predecessors. Only rarely does an English translation team start from scratch. 3. What text will it translate? Mark 1:41 in Codex Bezae (5th c.), showing the reading with Jesus becoming indignant. British Library Another question that follows closely on the last one is which Hebrew and Greek texts the translators will work from. Because our manuscripts of the Bible have differences and because some of these differences affect translation, translators must sometimes decide what text to translate. Does Jesus become “indignant” before healing a man in Mark 1:41 as the NIV 2011 has it, or does he have “compassion” as virtually all other English Bibles have? In this case, the NIV has (unwisely, in my opinion) chosen to follow the text found in a single Greek manuscript from the fifth century known as Codex Bezae. (The NIV does footnote the alternative reading.) In Genesis 4:8, the English Standard Version, following the standard Hebrew text, says that “Cain spoke to Abel his brother” before killing him in the field but does not tell us what he said. But the Christian Standard Bible, follows the evidence of several ancient translations, including the Septuagint, so that Cain says to his brother, “Let’s go out to the field.” In both Mark 1:41 and Genesis 4:8, the differences are not matters of translation philosophy but of text. In places where textual differences affect translation, translators must decide which text they think is the original and then translate that. Sometimes the choices are difficult, and these are places where Bibles will often alert the reader with a footnote. These decisions illustrate why the finely tuned skill of textual scholars is so important. 4. How will it handle culturally specific terms? A fourth question that translators must wrestle with is how to handle terms that are specific to the time and culture of the Bible. Some of the most common ones are terms for weights and units of measurement. No English speaker knows what an ephah of flour is without help or how much a denarius could buy. And how long is a cubit or a span or a stadion? These are all terms found in the original languages, but translations handle them differently. In some cases, a translation may include a table of weights, measures, and monetary units at the back. The NIV and ESV have one after Revelation, for example. A translation may also explain these terms in footnotes. The ESV footnotes often tell the reader that a denarius is about a day’s wage in the first century. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: Another solution is to try to convert these terms into their closest modern equivalent. Paraphrases often take this route. The Living Bible, for example, starts the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23 with a debtor who owes his master, not 10 thousand talents, but 10 million dollars. Later, he reveals his unforgiving heart by trying to collect on $2,000 instead of 100 denarii. The New Living Translation, the successor to the Living Bible, is less specific with “millions of dollars” and then later “thousands of dollars.” Both do a great job conveying the vast difference in amounts, but they must do so by sacrificing something from the original culture in the process. And this is just the tip of the cultural iceberg. Beyond such ancient units of measurement, translators must deal with terms like “Leviathan,” “kinsman-redeemer,” “legion,” “centurion,” not to mention difficult terms for diseases, animals, plants, peoples, and places. Sometimes, translators are at a loss because the precise meaning of the original term is lost to us. At other times, they need to avoid anachronism as with biblical terms for skin ailments that do not actually refer to what we know as “leprosy” or Hansen’s disease. Perhaps future discoveries will clarify, but translators must work with what they have. So, they do the best they can. Their solution is often determined largely by the first question we mentioned: who is the audience? 5. How (much) will the translation explain itself? Finally, many of these questions give rise to this last one which is how and how much the translators will try to explain their decisions to the reader. Most often, this happens through footnotes, but we have already seen other ways that translations can explain their work such as the table of weights and measures. There is also the introduction—but who reads that? (You should!) Translators also have at their disposal features like headings, book introductions, maps, concordances, cross references, appendices and, of course, sometimes study notes. Such aids to the reader can be quite helpful and are found as far back as Bible translations go. It’s little wonder that the first English Bibles, produced by John Wycliffe and his followers in the 14th century, have them too. The Wycliffe Bible oriented its readers with prologues, here showing the one for Mark (left) in Egerton MS 618 (c. 1390–1397), ff. 21v–22r. British Library. The modern Bible that goes the furthest to explain itself is certainly the New English Translation or NET Bible. It was novel at the time, not only because it was provided freely online, but because the translators received mountains of online feedback from its first readers. Today, the NET Bible has over 60,000 translators’ notes, explaining virtually every decision made. The result is a Bible that “explains itself,” pulling the curtain back so to speak. Because of this, it has become something of a favorite among an unexpected audience: other Bible translators. Appreciating Translators These are just five decisions translators must make. There are also many decisions that translators don’t have to make because of the long history of the Bible in English. Things like the names and order of the biblical books as well as their division into chapters and verses are well established by tradition. But that still leaves plenty of work to do besides the most important one which is actually putting Hebrew and Greek into another language. In some cases, one decision affects the others (such as audience) and at other times, decisions cause tension. If you revise a beloved translation too much, for example, you may lose your intended audience. Our judgment of which translation is “best” should always take into account who the audience is. Knowing this leaves us with two important lessons. The first is that our judgment of which translation is “best” should always take into account who the audience is. So many translation decisions are affected by this decision that any fair assessment of a new translation must begin by understanding that. Sometimes, your dislike for a given translation may reflect more the fact that you aren’t the intended audience than it does any failure on the translators’ part. Second, the multitude of decisions translators face should give us a deep appreciation for good translations—and we have many in English. What we’ve covered here are just some of those that have to be made. We haven’t touched on matters like idioms, word order, word plays and other figures of speech, and more. But considering just these five decisions should make us very thankful for the Bibles we have and encourage us to do what every good translator wants us to do with the Bible and that’s to read it. The ESV is a revision of the RSV not the RV as an earlier version of this article stated. It also wrongly called the New Living Translation the New Living Bible and the NET Bible the New English Bible.Notes1Dates given in this section are the date when the entire Bible was first published. In many cases, the publication of the New Testament preceded the Old by several years. Peter J. Gurry Peter (PhD, University of Cambridge) is Associate Professor of New Testament and Codirector of the Text & Canon Institute at Phoenix Seminary. He is the author of Scribes and Scriptures: The Amazing Story of How We Got the Bible (with John Meade) and Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (with Elijah Hixson).