There is an old Italian saying: “Translators? Traitors!” The meaning behind this short couplet (the two words actually sound even more similar in Italian than they do in English) is that no matter what a translator accomplishes, he or she is going to find his work questioned and criticized. Worse, once some work has been translated, any attempt later to make corrections later will be condemned as sacrilegious or worse. Consider how some people react to newer translations of the Bible, expressing outrage that the Bible is being “changed”—thus apparently forgetting that the Bible did not spring from the pen of the English King, James I in 1611, but was actually written thousands of years previously in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. New translations of the Bible, Homer, and other authors who did not write in English occur for several reasons, mostly because of changes in English over the years (obviously we don’t talk like the people in King James’ day anymore, unless you happen to be Amish), or because we discover better copies of the original from which the translation was made. Sometimes, newer translations are necessary because our understanding of some obscure language has improved. And, to be honest, sometimes a new translation is made just because a publisher figures they can make a nice profit on book sales.

My graduate training was in ancient dead languages, specifically those belonging to the language family called “Semitic” a designation derived from a list in the biblical book of Genesis of the descendents of one of Noah’s sons, named Shem.

Given that most Americans have never taken a foreign language, the nature of translation is something of a mystery for most. Somehow, many people imagine it works something like the magic decoder rings one used to get in Cracker Jacks, back when Cracker Jacks still had interesting prizes in them. That is, the thought for many is that you just twist a dial and replace one word in language “a” with its equivalent in English, and there you go. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work quite that way—which is why computer generated translations are still, to put it charitably, bad.

So how does translation really occur? It is important to realize that there simply is no such thing as a one-to-one correspondence between languages. You cannot have a word for word translation that is at all readable, because the word order is different, the nature of the grammar is different and even the sense of a word may cover a wider or smaller range than the corresponding English word.

For instance, the word “house” in Hebrew can mean “immediate family” or “a royal dynasty” besides the equivalent English idea of a building where a person dwells. Therefore to have an accurate English translation you cannot simply translate the Hebrew word with “house”; you need to translate it according to which of the possible meanings is intended.
Idioms, likewise, do not translate across directly: for instance the English phrase “I’m sick and tired of apple pie” if translated literally could give a reader in another language the false impression that the individual in question is sleepy and ready to throw up.

Consider the following “literal translation” of the first verse of the Bible, which maintains the Hebrew word order and phrasing and ask yourself if it is easily comprehensible:

In-beginning he-created God (definite direct object) the-heavens and-(definite direct object) the-earth.

But even this is not entirely accurate in a word for word sense, because biblical Hebrew does not have past tense; however, there is no other way to indicate perfect aspect (completed action). But when one of the Hebrew prophets makes use of the perfect aspect to show the certainty of the prophesy, to translate it as a past tense can create the false impression that the prophet is speaking of things that have already happened when that is not the case at all! And in front of the single words (they are only one word in Hebrew) “the-heavens” and “the-earth” is the Hebrew word that indicates that what follows is a definite direct object—as you can see, hardly translatable into English at all.

Having said all this, one might imagine that this first verse is a complicated sentence. Not at all. It is remarkably simple. It only becomes difficult if we expect translation to be “literal”. It isn’t. All translation, by its very nature, is paraphrastic and interpretive.

The way translation happens is as follows. The translator learns a foreign language and learns it well. Learning Hebrew or Greek is just like learning French or Spanish in high school. There is nothing mysterious or special about the ancient biblical languages. Then the translator reads the foreign text and understands it. Having understood it, he or she then puts it into the best English possible.

There is no mystery associated with the translation of the Bible, nor are there any significant disagreements between translations. However, by the nature of what translation is — the work of individuals with their own separate styles — the wording of say, Today’s English Version is not going to be identical to the King James Version or the New International Version. Not because anyone is trying to twist something or make it say what it doesn’t, but only because each translator is going to word it as he thinks best. But the meaning will be the same. And of course between the King James and the more modern translations there is also the gap caused by the change in the English language — we don’t speak like the people in Shakespeare’s time did, but their way of speaking is no “grander” or any more “eloquent” than ours. King James English was sort of the way any well-educated individual of 1611 might have talked, just as Today’s English Version or the New International Version is the way an average person speaks today. For all the snobbishness of attitude on the part of some regarding Shakespeare today, in his own day he was considered somewhat vulgar and not a little risqué. Shakespeare was much like an ordinary television drama or sitcom is for us today. Or perhaps an extraordinary one, like Taxi or Cheers.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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