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The Word: On the Translation of the Bible

The Word: On the Translation of the Bible by John Barton Penguin Random House, Milton Keynes, 2022

The Word: On the Translation of the Bible is an informative and entertaining analysis of biblical translation over many centuries by John Barton, a professor of theology. At first, this might seem a dry academic subject. However, on closer inspection, it is an interesting and detailed exploration of the various factors that have resulted in contemporary versions of the Christian Bible. Refreshingly, it avoids touting any specific religious dogmas or doctrinal debates. Instead, it highlights the many factors – historical, linguistic, cultural – that have converged and diverged over centuries and resulted in the slightly different contemporary versions of the Bible, particularly the New Testament.

Since the Bible is a central text of Christianity, it is important to understand the circumstances in which it emerged. All sorts of religious leaders claim it as their authority – a range as varied as the Pope to the various tele-evangelists and pastors who run their own personalised ministries. While constantly cited as an authority, comparatively little is known about how this collection of writings originated and how it has evolved into slightly different versions over the centuries.

This book explores the fundamental issues (and often insurmountable difficulties) of translating ancient texts into modern English. It also examines the history of biblical translations over the centuries from the King James Version of the seventeenth century to more contemporary versions and highlight the subtle changes over time with each version. The central issue for any translator is how to render the original text. However, certain linguistic factors impede simple, clear translation of biblical texts. Both New and Old Testaments, were originally written in languages which have not been spoken for several centuries and which are not closely related to English.

The Word: On the Translation of the Bible by John Barton, 2022.

The translator is faced with one basic issue when it comes the Bible: does the translator prioritise an accurate word-for-word rendering of the original work (formal equivalence) or do they try to create an equivalent text which will be intelligible to the contemporary reader? Functional equivalence aims to create a passage that contains the gist of the message but in so doing, it diverges from the original text.

The disparity between these two tasks – formal and functional equivalence – is exacerbated when dealing with a language which is longer spoken; a dead language. Over time language changes: words become obsolete; others emerge; expressions are coined. As a result, the subtle nuances attached to certain words and phrases at the time of writing might become lost in subsequent decades or centuries. For example, contemporary terms such as ‘podcast’ or ‘laptop’ would mean nothing to someone living 50 years ago. Furthermore, we don’t know how they might be interpreted in another century or two. Would their meanings remain exactly the same or change slightly?

With Bible translation, there is the added complication of more than one translation from very ancient languages: ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and koine Greek. With the New Testament, there is the issue of the source documents which are in a different language to the original speakers it quotes.

Christ spoke Aramaic a language related to ancient Hebrew. However all of the original books of the new testament were written in koine Greek – the scholarly language of the period and it is not known whether Christ had any knowledge of this language. In addition, it was written decades after the death of Christ. Therefore, the record is based on sayings and memories passed down the generations. Already when we come to the King James Version, we are faced with a translation of an ancient language which is based on verbal records which were in another unrelated language.

Consequently, whenever we read: ‘And Jesus said…’ what follows is unlikely to be a word for word dictation of original speech but more likely an approximation of verbal memory from decades earlier. More accurately: ‘This is the sort of thing Jesus is likely to have said.’

Even with simple words such as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’, there can be contentious to clear translation. For example, we hear about ‘James the brother of Jesus’ as well as his ‘sisters’ (Matthew 13:55). Do these terms refer to biological siblings, half siblings, step siblings or do they refer to relatives such as cousins or to fellow disciples ‘brothers (and sisters) in arms’? It is not clear as we do not know the nuances of the language of the time. especially in the absence of further clear corroboration. While a seemingly minor issue, it has implications for subsequent catholic dogmas of the virgin birth or immaculate conception.

With the Old Testament, the issue is even more complex. It was originally written in ancient Hebrew. Even before the advent of Christianity, it went through translations: first into ancient Greek centuries before Christ and later into Latin. The first Greek translation is known as the Septuagint. The author shows how these translations differ from the original Hebrew. For example, there a number of books in the Septuagint which are not in the original and have subsequently been classed by Hebrew scholars as apocryphal or of doubtful origin. During the early Christian era this Greek translation rather than the original Hebrew version was the one referred to by the early church fathers such as St Paul.

The use of this version is an important factor in the biblical translation as the author shows there are significant differences between the two. Emphases and interpretations of the same concept diverge. For example, the concept of salvation in the Hebrew Bible refers more to the restitution of original rights and property rather a metaphysical salvation. More generally, there is a greater emphasis on the afterlife, on angels and demons in the Septuagint  Greek version. The author shows that these changes were the consequence of the Greek philosophical traditions which educated Hebrews would have been exposed to at the period.

In summary, there are many ways of translating what is the ‘word of God’ and they vary according to the motives of the translator. For example, do they prioritise loyalty to the original text which might make any translation unintelligible to the contemporary reader? Or, do they try to construct a version which is relatable to the target audience? The former will produce a translation that will be difficult to understand; the latter will sidestep the issue but in the process alter the original words and nuances and so alter the original text. Either way, the end result will produce different versions.

Scribes and translators are all mere mortals and occasionally mistakes are made, some are not corrected but survive into the existing text. The author cites a clear example of such mistake, specifically Samuel 13:1. ‘Saul was one year old when he became king and he reigned for two years over Israel.’ As this section deals with Saul’s military exploits, marriage and subsequent children, this is a clear mistake by a scribe who did not check their text and it was copied and maintained ever since.

This is a scholarly work by a professor who is an expert in his field. However, it is not a weighty academic tome and the points made are easy to comprehend. Furthermore, it does not go into debates about dogma or attempt to justify one version of translation over another. Nor does the author claim to have a definitive translation of the Bible. Instead it highlights the relevant issues and difficulties in translating an ancient text from source languages that are no longer spoken. In addition, it explores the subtle differences that emerge over time and become more marked with time and subsequent translations. To get to an accurate translation, context is everything and after millennia, it can often be impossible to accurately reconstruct the context. What a particular passage actually means depends on interpretation and there can be more than one of these. Furthermore, a living language changes over time and translations will vary to accommodate these changes.

Author John Barton

The complicated history of biblical translations reflects the religious and ethnic conflicts in which these biblical texts were formed. Clearly, the Bible was not created in a cultural vacuum. The Hebrew scriptures were a chronicle of the trials and tribulations of the Israelites recorded in the distant past. Centuries later Alexander the Great’s armies conquered these lands and brought Hellenic culture including philosophy and a scholarly language which resulted in a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. In the process, aspects of Greek philosophy found their way into these translations. These cultural traditions persisted well after the Roman invasion nearly three hundred years later.

Similarly the New Testament did not instantly appear as one cohesive volume. The earliest books were recorded decades after the death of Christ. By the time Christianity became the offical religion of the Roman Empire three centuries later, a number of books had been added, all in a language he was unlikely to have spoken.

The Bible might be divinely inspired but – as this work effectively illustrates – the scribes who originally recorded it as well as those who copied it over the centuries were mere mortals, people working within the constraints of their own language and culture. Occasionally they made omissions or mistranslations or even clear mistakes.

The ‘Word’ always needs to be interpreted, assuming it can be translated accurately in the first place. This book illustrates that this will not always be possible.