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Hard questions for Bible translators

Author: Bible Society, 9 September 2021

Translating the Bible can be a difficult task. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to keep everyone happy. 

Some of the questions translators have to ask themselves include:

Should they use 'inclusive language'?

For instance, Psalm 8.4 says in the King James Version: ‘What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?’ The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), on the other hand, says: ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’ This approach broadens out the original Hebrew term ‘son of man’ (ben adam), to make it sound less masculine.

Some people feel strongly that such translations are misleading. Others think that they fairly capture the broad sense of the original text.

Should ancient phrases be explained?

The distance of ‘a sabbath day’s journey’ (Acts 1.12) is translated as ‘half a mile’ in the Good News Bible. Half a mile was the average distance to the synagogue at the time. Similarly, agreeing to pay employees ‘a denarius for the day’ (Matthew 20.2) becomes agreeing to pay them ‘the usual day’s wage’ in the New English Bible. More traditional translators, however, think that this is a step too far.

Should debated sections be included?

Close study of ancient texts of the Bible reveals that a few passages exist in some manuscripts but not in others. Examples include 1 Samuel 10.27—11.1 (a short paragraph about eye injuries), Mark 16.9–20 (a debated ending to Mark’s gospel) and John 7.53—8.11 (a story about a woman caught in the act of adultery). Translators have to decide whether or not to keep them in. Some include them without any sign that they have a question mark hanging over them. Others mark them out in smaller text, as indented material or as additions. Still others leave them out altogether.

Should translations be word-for-word or thought-for-thought?

Some translators believe strongly that the Bible should be translated word for word, as literally as possible, because otherwise the original meaning might be distorted. Other translators adopt a more meaning-based approach. This is often known as ‘dynamic equivalence’ or ‘thought-for-thought’. It involves trying to get across the original sense of what was said without using the exact words. Those who favour dynamic equivalence often point out that no Bible translation is strictly word-for-word.

In spite of all this, there's a very large amount of agreement between translators. The books of the Bible were written for us, and are God's gift to us. However, they were not written to us, but to people who lived a long time ago and spoke different languages. These questions remind us that we need to approach the Bible text humbly and carefully. 

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