Task of a Translator

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.”

12 Responses to Task of a Translator

  1. E.A. Harvey says:

    What a great introduction, and what a difficult task translating is! I don’t know if I could do it– I don’t know if I could squelch down my desire to expand, revise, and edit to make it say what I want it to say. We all would do well to think like translators when we are studying and applying the Bible.

    I understand your examples of the gender revisions and how they end up changing the true and full meaning of the text. I used to be very against those translations, until a certain experience made me rethink it. I was teaching Sunday school to 5th and 6th grader bilingual children (Spanish being their first language, English their second). We were reading a particular passage–I can’t recall which one– that used “men” and “he” repeatedly. I do remember it was a passage we use a lot in explaining salvation. Anyway, a 5th grade girl looked at me with tears in her eyes after we read that and said, “So, that doesn’t mean girls too?” I was stunned. But today’s youth have been so used to gender-inclusive language in everything else they read, that when they come across “he” and “men” they think it only means males. It feels very alienating to females who aren’t used to being lumped into the term “men.”

    You mentioned in your “Why a New Translation?” entry that since English is constantly changing, there is always a need for new translations. I think this is one case where we have to think about how we can best convey what the original texts truly say while being sensitive to how it will be understood by new generations of readers. If a verse says “men” and it really means “everyone,” then I would have no qualms saying “people” or “men and women.” In the examples you gave where the term is gender-specific for reasons important to the meaning, I’m not sure the best way to handle it. In our culture today, males and females both “inherit” from their parents, so being “children” with the rights of inheritance would mean much the same to the reader today as being a “son” with the right of inheritance would to readers in ancient cultures. Of course, I think it is vitally important for Christians to learn the context and the history in which the NT was written so that we can better understand these nuances. But for the average reader who is clueless about context, a gender-inclusive Bible can be a huge blessing in understanding the meaning of scripture.

  2. ruthpmartin says:

    I can see where you are coming from; however, I believe that such explanations need to be somewhere other than within the text of a translation. If a “translator” changes what was said, he/she is no longer translating, but editing.
    A competent teacher could simply explain the cultural difference.
    Of course, competence is not always a “prerequisite” for a teaching position, unfortunately.
    I do use “people” where it is appropriate, and “person” where it fits — also “someone”, “anyone”, etc. depending on the context. Those are all legitimate translations of anthropos.
    The problem is, once you start tampering with “what it says,” where are you going to stop? This is one of your “slippery slopes.” There has been far too much editing done in most “translations” — and not just by the “gender police.” It is pretty easy to tell the theological bias of a translator (person or group) by looking what they do with a few select passages. They add prepositions that are not in the text (without indicating that they are added); they ignore the tenses of verbs; they rearrange all sorts of grammatical constructions in creative (but unwarranted) ways.
    My point is simply to ask for clear differentiation between translation and commentary. To me, that is only academic honesty, and has nothing to do with anyone’s “doctrine.” I believe strongly that accuracy trumps “doctrine” any day. If they are contradictory, it is the text that should call the shots. I am well aware that that perspective is not widely shared. Historically, many folks were burned, drowned, or fed to lions for refusing to conform to someone’s idea of “correct doctrine” and insisting, “Show it to me from the Scriptures!” Nowadays, we are simply ignored, or written off as kooks. Is that more “civilized”? Maybe; I have no burning desire to be lion-chow — but neither will I be crammed into anyone’s doctrinal “box.”
    And I treasure the status of “sons of God”!

  3. Richard O. Estes says:

    Dear Ruth P. Martin,

    I just have a short question to you. In your New Testament what do you use for God’s Name? What do you use at Mark 12:29-30? Acts 2:21? Romans 10:13?

    Any comment will be appreciated, Richard

    Gutenberg Research Center
    Director – Richard O. Estes
    P O Box 691
    Walnut, CA 91788

  4. ruthpmartin says:

    In each of those cases, and many others, I use the word “Lord”, because it is the word kurios in the text. Any variant would have to be because the translator had some sort of an agenda. Kurios is a very common Greek word for addressing a superior, (equivalent to English “sir”), or a servant’s acknowledging of his master. It is almost universally used in the NT text, either alone or in the phrase literally translated “the Lord your/our God.”

  5. I have yet to see that any blog or web article that explains the words/actions of Jesus in their correct hebrew/aramaic and cultural context ever disappointed me.

    Conversely, the wresting of the 4 gospels into post-biblical western society has ended up in, for me, confusion and ultimate sadness.

    Thanks for doing what you do.

  6. ruthpmartin says:

    Thank you for your message.
    I agree completely that the cultural context is essential to proper understanding. However, I do not line up with the contingent that insists upon Aramaic. It is true that Aramaic was a locally spoken language; however, NO SUCH MANUSCRIPTS have been found until several centuries later. Like many people in the world today, most folks would have been more or less fluent in three languages, if not four. Very little ancient Hebrew was used after the third century BC (when the Septuagint was translated because so few Diaspora Jews were familiar with Hebrew any longer). People would have commonly spoken their local dialect (Aramaic for some — but there’s a long list in Acts 2), Latin for affairs connected with the occupying government, and Greek for anything intellectual or scholarly. First and second century manuscripts were uniformly in Greek.
    The culture also was very mixed at that time. Roman laws were in force; the Jewish authorities insisted upon their own Law; but Greek culture predominated in most affairs. Family and social contacts could get badly scrambled, hence many of the admonitions that are poorly understood today.
    I believe that the most necessary “cultural” thing that needs to be understood is that Jesus’ description of life in his Kingdom critiques and challenges EVERY culture that has ever existed, from the one in which he originally taught to EVERY one since that time. If his followers could only understand that, and commit their efforts to creating HIS style of a “culture”, it would be a wonderful thing!

  7. jason says:

    Hello Ms. Ruth, I found this quite interesting that you decided to make a new translation. I have considered this but have no solid education in Greek. I wanted to get together with those who do. What are your thoughts concerning basileia? Would the early church not consider this to mean “empire” such as we would envision the Roman Empire? Also Logos Theos, “the Word of God”, this would not be referring to the Graphe as is so commonly envisioned today. Logos the Son, the Word, with His eternal and all powerful attributes is reduced to the canonized Graphe of 66? books. Blessings to you – Jason

    I only look at the strongs on Esword so I am probably not placing the proper Greek form to the words, of which I am interested in correcting.

  8. ruthpmartin says:

    Please see “Kingdom” (three postings: #19,20,21) for basileia. Absolutely NO connection to the Roman empire. Kingdoms were the absolute domain of a single ruler. See also “the word” (#66) (logos) and “Scripture” postings. Graphe is the word translated “scripture” (#148), and also refers to ANYthing written. These are NOT synonyms. Your biggest mistake is using Strongs, as that is nothing but standard evangelical “doctrine” and bears no resemblance to actual linguistic scholarship. You need a real lexicon: see my bibliography at the end of “Translation Notes” (free download.) If you are serious about real study, you DO need a working knowledge of Greek, which is not all that hard, if you find a linguistic approach. You do NOT need doctrine-specific “dictionaries”. They universally do more harm than good.

  9. GARY ROBBLE says:

    To support your point about translators in my words, going overboard, a few years ago I researched the use of the word “happy” in dozens of English New Testament translations using http://www.bibiegateway.com – I was startled. For those interested here a just a few along with the number of times “happy” is used: ESV – 0, NASB -1, ASV-2, KJV – 6, NKJV – 2, NIV – 4, MESSAGE – 13, NLT – 16, NINRV – 26, CEV – 54, APMLIFIED – 55 AND NCV – 74. I Three of the Greek words that were translated “happy” were Strongs 3107 makarios whose meaning is “happy/blessed”, 5463 chairo whose meaning is “rejoice” and 5479 chara whose meaning is “joy/gladness”.
    As a final note – the two word verse “Jesus wept” in John 11:35 is translated 7 different ways in the 53 translations I checked.

  10. ruthpmartin says:

    Thank you for that contribution. Look also at “joy” — for which you will find similar cases of “going overboard.” Most of these “variations” are chosen to “prove” somebody’s preconceived idea or pet “doctrine.”
    I would, however, encourage you to use a more scholarly lexicon than Strong’s, which often shows a decidedly “acceptable evangelical” bias. Historical usage is much more reliable in understanding the “meanings” intended by first-century writers.
    Likewise, Young’s concordance (the back of the book) makes it easy to find alternate translations for any of the Greek vocabulary, so you are able to compare passages that really DO use the same original word. See the “Helps for Word Study” entry for details.
    Keep up your good work.

  11. happihart says:

    I just stumbled upon your blog as I was looking for the conjugation of a Greek word. I downloaded your PDF of Word Studies and eagerly read the first entry. My eyes were opened to a deeper revelation and understanding of Faith and my heart flipped over in gratitude! How beautiful is the work you do! I cannot wait to dive deeper and deeper into the work of your hands. What a priceless treasure you are! Thank you from my whole heart!

  12. ruthpmartin says:

    Thank you for your kind words. I am glad if you found the work helpful. May we all help each other to greater faithfulness.

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