Translations, methods of
How translation occurs
It is important to realize -- and most people who have not
learned a second language wouldn't know -- that there 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 Hebrew does not have a true past tense; but there is no other way
to indicate perfect aspect (completed action). However, when one of the 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 -- hardly translatable into English at all.
Having said all this, one would 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 languages. Then the translator reads the foreign text
and understands it. Having understood it, he or she then puts it into the best
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 do not 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 the way any farmer or fisherman of 1611 would 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 risque. Shakespeare was like an ordinary television
drama or sitcom is for us today.
One other change since the time of the King James translation,
of course, is the improvement in the texts that are available to today's
translators. They are older and that much closer to the original (although that
fact, by itself, does not guarantee greater accuracy). Moreover, the methods of
textual criticism -- the science of comparing the different and sometimes
inconsistent manuscripts and determining which one is the closest to the
original reading -- have advanced considerably since the 1600s.
The history of the Biblical texts shows clearly that all of
them stand far removed from the originals both by time and by the process of
transmission. They contain not only scribal errors, but even some actual
transformations of the text, both deliberate and accidental. By means of textual
criticism we attempt to find all the alterations that have occurred and then
recover the earliest possible form of the text.
Textual criticism proceeds in three steps:
The most important Hebrew manuscripts for Old Testament
textual criticism are:
- All the variant readings of the text are collected and arranged. Of course,
this is the very reason textual criticism is necessary at all. If we had only a
single copy, there would be no questions, but since we have several, which all
say different things, we have a problem. Which text accurately records the
- The variants must then be examined.
- The most
likely reading is then determined. For the OT, in order to carry out these
steps, it is necessary to use the Masoretic Text, which ordinarily serves as the
basis from which the textual critic will work. Combined with the Masoretic Text
the critic will consult all the ancient Hebrew manuscripts and versions that
might be available.
- The St. Petersburg (or Leningrad) Codex, 1008 AD. It is the largest and
only complete manuscript of the entire OT.
- The Aleppo Codex, 930 AD. It used
to be a complete copy of the OT, but was partially destroyed in a synagogue fire
- The British Museum Codex, 950 AD. It is an incomplete copy of the
- The Cairo Codex, 895 AD. A copy of the Former and Latter
Prophets (Jos, Jdg, 1Sa, 2Sa, 1Ki, 2Ki, Isa, Jer, Eze, and the twelve minor
- The Leningrad (St Petersburg) Codex of the Prophets, 916 AD,
containing only the Latter Prophets.
- The Reuchlin Codex of the Prophets,
- Cairo Geniza fragments, 6th to 9th century, AD.
Manuscripts (the Dead Sea Scrolls), 200 BC -- 70 AD.
The most important ancient translations of the Old Testament
into languages other than Hebrew are:
a. The Septuagint (several versions)
b. The Aramaic Targums (several versions)
c. The Syriac Peshitta
d. The Samaritan Pentateuch
e. The Latin Vulgate
Ideally, the work of textual criticism should proceed with all
of these ancient versions and copies readily available. There are then some
basic rules that help place the textual criticism of the Bible, whether OT or
NT, on a firm basis that generally avoids arbitrariness and subjectivity.
For the OT, where the Hebrew manuscripts and the ancient
versions agree, we may assume that the original reading has been preserved.
Likewise, with the NT, where the various manuscripts agree, we may assume the
original text has been preserved. To our great relief, this covers 95 per cent
of the Bible.
Where the mss differ among themselves, one should chose either
the more difficult reading from the point of view of language and subject matter
or the reading that most readily makes the development of the other readings
intelligible. In order to make this choice, it is necessary that the critic have
a thorough knowledge of the history and character of the various mss. It needs
also to be realized that these criteria work together and complement one
another. A "more difficult reading" does not mean a "meaningless reading."
However, the critic must not assume that just because a
reading appears meaningless that it necessarily is. Scribes are not likely to
turn a meaningful passage into gibberish. Therefore, if a passage is not
understandable, that is often as far as we can go. We must, as scholars,
acknowledge our own ignorance.
With the OT, where the Hebrew manuscripts and the translations
differ, and a superior reading cannot be demonstrated on the basis of the above
rules, then one should, as a matter of first principle, allow the Hebrew text to
stand. With the NT, one will generally choose the shorter reading because of the
tendency of scribes to try to "explain" passages.
Where the different mss differ and none of them seem to make
any sense, one may attempt a conjecture concerning the true reading -- a
conjecture that must be validated by demonstrating the process of the textual
corruption that would have lead to the existing text forms. Such a conjecture,
however, must not be used to validate the interpretation of a whole passage in
that it might have been made on the basis of an expectation derived from the
The Causes of Textual Corruption
The goal of textual criticism is to remove the textual errors
and restore the original readings. To aid in this goal, it is helpful if the
textual critic has an idea of what sorts of errors he or she is likely to find.
When copying out a text, errors occur in every conceivable
way, as we no doubt know from our own experiences. Sometimes it is difficult to
explain, even to ourselves, how we might have come to make a particular error.
Therefore it is unlikely that we will be able to correct or explain everything
that has eluded the scribes over the centuries. A reading that appears doubtful
or corrupt to us today may have been caused by a hole or some other damage to
the copyist's manuscript. Or maybe the letters or words in a given section of
his text were faded and nearly illegible, forcing the copyist to make his best
guess. Moreover, a single error can give rise to many others, leaving us with no
clue as to how it might have happened.
And of course, as always, the assumption of a textual error
may really be only a cover for our failure to understand the language or the
Beyond these unrecoverable sorts of errors, there are two
categories of errors that may be distinguished and often corrected: errors due
to an unintentional, mechanical lapse on the part of the copyist (often called
Errors of Reading and Writing), and two, errors that are the result of
deliberate alteration (called Intentional Alterations).
a. Errors of Reading and Writing
- Confusion of similar letters In Hebrew, there are several letters which
look very similar to one another: the B and K, R and D, H and T, W and
- Transposition of Letters,
- Haplography -- a fancy word that means when
there were two or more identical or similar letters, groups of letters, or words
all in sequence, one of them gets omitted by error. Of course, there is some
evidence that some of these supposed "errors" are actually equivalent to English
contractions like "don't" instead of "do not" and therefore are not errors at
- Dittography -- another fancy word that refers to an error caused by
repeating a letter, group of letters , a word or a group of words. The opposite,
really, of Haplography.
- Homoioteleuton -- an even fancier word which refers
to the error that occurs when two words are identical, or similar in form, or
have similar endings and are close to each other. It is easy in this sort of
situation for the eye of the copyist to skip from one word to the other, leaving
out everything in between.
- Errors of Joining and Dividing Words. This is
more a problem in the NT than it is in the OT, for while the Greek manuscripts
were written well into the Medieval period without spacing or dividing signs
between words, there is no evidence that this was EVER the case with the OT
Hebrew texts. In fact, the evidence is very strong to the contrary; inscriptions
on walls from the time of Hezekiah actually had dots between each word to
separate them from each other.
b. Deliberate Alterations
The Samaritan Pentateuch, as an example, is notorious for its
purposeful changes designed to help legitimize some of their sectarian biases.
A more substantive change in the Hebrew text came after the
Babylonian captivity in the time of Ezra (fifth century BC) when the alphabet
changed from the Old Hebrew Script to the Aramaic Square Script -- in which all
copies of the OT except for the Samaritan Pentateuch are written.
It should not surprise us that there have been a certain
amount of alteration in the text over time, since the Bible was not intended to
be the object of scholarly study but rather was to be read by the whole
believing community as God's word to them. Thus, the text would undergo
adaptations to fit the linguistic needs of the community. For instance in Isa
39:1 the Masoretic Text preserves a rare word, hazaq, which has the sense of "to
get well, recuperate." The community that produced the Dead Sea scrolls altered
this word to the more common Hebrew word for "to get well", "zayah". Other
examples of adaptation to colloquial usage are likely. The lack of early
material for the OT makes it impossible to demonstrate these sorts of
alterations on a larger scale. But a few small alterations are easily
The treatment of the divine name Baal is an example of
deliberate change for theological reasons. In personal names which included the
word "Baal", which simply means "master" or "lord", the scribes deliberately
replaced "Baal" with "Bosheth," which means "shame". Hence, Jonathan's son was
actually named "Meribbaal" rather than "Mephibosheth" (cp 1Ch 8:34; 9:40 and 2Sa
9:6; 19:24; 21:7).
Another example of deliberate alteration is found in Job
1:5,11 and Job 2:5,9 -- where we now read the word "berek", to bless (with God
as the object) even though we should expect to find the word "qalal", to curse.
The scribes replaced the offensive expression "to curse God" with a euphemism --
motivated no doubt by their fear of taking God's name in vain.