The task of a translator, of any text, not just the Biblical one, if done responsibly, is excruciatingly difficult. It is exponentially more so if the translator has a serious commitment to the content of the text. This is because, in order to translate in an ethical and honest way, one must consciously resist, at every turn, the temptation to “slant” or prejudice the result in favor of his own opinion.
A translator, if responsible, is NOT an editor. A translator is NOT a commentator, and most certainly NOT a revisionist or critic. His job is consummately non-partisan. His commitment must be to the original writer or speaker: to convey, as closely as possible, in the target language, the intent of the originator of the text. He may not, under any circumstances, tamper with its content, if he is to produce honest work.
This becomes very complicated in the case of Biblical translation. Most people who undertake that task, despite doing so with the very best of intentions, approach it with a background of years of acquaintance with other people’s distillations of what “the Bible says”. I had the rather rare privilege of delving into the text near the beginning of my Christian commitment, but even so, had to be careful of the influence of “accepted teaching.” Those with a longer history have an even more difficult assignment. This is because, as any serious student will attest, one cannot encounter “the living and powerful Word of God” without having his cage rattled, his presuppositions challenged, and his neatly defined understandings of faithfulness shuffled and rearranged.
The challenge is compounded further for those who derive their employment from this monumental task. An employer, be it church or other consortium, that chooses to fund such a project, usually has a reason for doing so, and an agenda to be fulfilled.
A case in point is seen in several recent attempts to remove or replace references to gender in English “translations” of Scripture. For starters, a goal like that immediately removes the work from the realm of “translation” altogether. These people, however well-intentioned, are not “translating.” They are not rendering the original text in the target language. They are editing and revising it, thus doing violence, not only to the text and its authors, but to both languages, as well as impoverishing their readers by ignoring cultural contexts.
Let me illustrate with a single word, much abused by the “gender police” — “sons”, (υἱοί ), as in “sons of God.” With a cavalier “inclusiveness”, (they think), they rewrite the text to read “sons and daughters”, so that the ladies won’t feel left-out. Such a revision displays total cultural ignorance, diminishes the power of the statement, and obliterates the amazing inclusiveness of Paul’s original writing! Yes, I really did ascribe “inclusiveness” to our good brother Paul, who has been mightily abused for the opposite, by folks who use only the English texts of Galatians 3:26-29. Paul has just made the classic statement that there is no distinction in the Kingdom between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, when he says, “You are ALL sons of God.” To change that designation to “sons and daughters” (which he could have said), or “children” (for which he would have had a choice of two different words), completely ignores the import of the rest of the sentence, “if sons, then heirs”!!! The use of “daughters” or “children” removes the privilege of inheritance, for that was impossible in first century culture. He is saying that we are ALL considered SONS, in order that we ALL may be HEIRS – heirs of God, together with Christ! This is not a question of gender, but of elevated, equal status!
The same is true of words like “brethren” — the writers don’t mean “brothers and sisters”. They mean people of equal value and privilege! Rather than change and thereby cheapen the vocabulary, we need to teach the true meaning of the words that the writers chose. But that is the task of enlightened teachers, not translators.
There are other considerations of vocabulary. In relatively few cases does one find an exact, one-to-one correspondence between words in any two languages. In most instances, the Greek language is far more precise than English. Linguistically, one can discover the actual meaning of a word most accurately by looking at every incidence where it is used in a text. But this exercise must employ the original language, not the target language. (Young’s Analytical Concordance is an excellent resource.) One must sort out instances where one Greek word has been commonly translated by two or more different English words. This has resulted in the (incorrect) communication that there are multiple concepts in view, rather than one. Take for example, the word ἄγγελος , which means, simply, “messenger.” The early translators did not like using the same word for ordinary people and for supernatural beings, so they transliterated the Greek word to “angel” for the supernatural kind, and retained “messenger” for humans, ignoring the fact that the focus is on the function, and not the status of the individual. The same word is used of the supernatural apparitions to Mary and to Zachariah, as for the men John the Baptist sent to Jesus, and to the spies hidden by Rahab in Jericho! As a consequence, we fail to see our fellow-believers – even, occasionally, non-believers – as potential “messengers” from God!
There are also cases where two or more Greek words have been incorrectly lumped together and translated by a single English word, obscuring important distinctions. Notable for the confusion caused thereby, is the popular English word, “gift.” This word has been chosen by translators and commentators to represent no less than nine different Greek words, each with its own implications and connotations. The different words can carry the freight of the identity of the giver and receiver; the purpose of the “gift”; its character or quality; the relationship between giver and receiver; and a host of other ideas. The confusion leads to many kinds of misunderstandings of the text.
Cases do exist, of course, where a degree of ambiguity remains – and in those instances, the translator has to make a call. Some words are just less specific than we would wish. I have usually dealt with these situations by offering bracketed alternatives. Very few translators do. I consider it a matter of integrity.
In any attempts at translation, there are also instances in which two languages lack a common grammatical structure. On such occasions, a degree of circumlocution is required, in order to convey the intent of the grammar; however, this needs to be done with extreme caution. Where I have felt it necessary to supply words that are not included in the text, I enclose them in parentheses, again, for reasons of integrity. It is amazing, the extent to which “scholars” or “theologians” will hang a whole “doctrine” upon a word that does not even exist in the text. A translator may have needed it to clarify a concept, in which case supplied words are quite justified, but the translator should have admitted that it was added. It may also be necessary to use additional words to express the proper tense or form of a word – at such times, I simply include it in the translation (for example, to indicate the continuous nature of the present tense.) Please see the Appendix for other examples.
Finally, the task of a translator is never finished. As indicated in my introduction to the first edition of the New Testament translation, there will never be a “perfect” or “definitive” translation of the New Testament. Not only does any presently spoken language keep changing constantly, but the plain fact is that none of us is “smart” enough to either understand or communicate all of the purposes of our God. The “best” translation will always be one that is continually in process, as the shared effort of a group of folks whose mutual goal is faithfulness.
I began serious work on the translation project around 1980, when my husand and I began teaching techniques of Word Study, and then basic New Testament Greek, to Bible students. The initial intent was simply to sharpen my own language skills. At the request of students, the project grew. The first edition saw print in 1992; the first complete revision and correction was put in CD form in 2002; and the second revision is nearly complete. Had the work received the needed critique and feedback, it would not have taken so long, and would have been a better work – but it will never be finished. It is the work of a lifetime to “rightly handle the Word of Truth.”