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Bible Translation

One lesson I have learned my latest study is the potential pitfalls of Bible translation. From my anthropology studies I remember one professor saying " language leaks".

Language is ever changing words change meaning over time, (linguistic drift), accrue meanings that attach themselves. In short a word can change to mean the exact opposite of what it once did.

Translating from one language to another in some cases is virtually impossible, on a word for word basis. For example take the phrase "lilies of the field", try to use this phrase with some one who lives in the Amazon rain forest, they have never seen a Lilly and perhaps never seen a field. Or how about a culture that considers the liver the seat of feeling. (The Bible) you would come up to a good looking gal and say" hay babe you make my liver quiver".

There are a couple of basic truisms

1 A culture has all of the words that it needs.

2 lack or presence of a word is extremely indicative.

If I remember correctly the Inuit have approximately 20 words for snow. What you don’t say is often as important as what you do, e.g. too common place to be a concern.

For some cases you can do work around or go for equivalents if there are any.

Some factors in translations

1 language differences (lilies= orchids)

2 changes in languages over time

3 bias of the translators

4 lack of originality (not bucking the majority).

5 misunderstanding the context.

You can not isolate facts from their context and have them still be true.

We have to look at Bible passages in a number of ways.

Context, Historical


Original language

Is the theme repeated elsewhere? Is the specific concern repeated elsewhere? How do others refer to the passage elsewhere?

Do I believe in the inerrancy of scripture? Yes in the original language, context, and culture!

Does this leave a large potential area of conflict? Absolutely and not as much as you might think.

One fact that we have in essence with ancient manuscripts an unchangeable base to start from and biblical proscriptions against making changes (that jot and tittle thing) have succeeded.

One major area of conflict is the fact that a number of words with varying nuances have been translated in to one English word prime example is Sin.

One word used to translate many. Sin, 7 words with very different meaning.

Hamartia  is, literally "a missing of the mark," (and so not share in the prize)

Hasebeia   actively doing something you know is wrong.

Parakoi  Failing to hear when god speaks or ignoring what he has to say.

Anomia means lawlessness, a contempt of Gods law.

Parabasis  Or the active breaking of a commandment. It means more than hamartia in that it implies intention.

Hittima   A sin of omission.

Agnoima ignorance of what one ought to have known:

 So we lose a great deal of vital information in the lack of English equivalents and hence meaning.

 Now for a little demonstration this is a rather non-controversial passage.

Jeremiah 5:8

Septuagint [They became horses mad after females]

Vulgate     Equi amatores et emissarii facti sunt [They have become passionate and wandering horses]

LB          Wie die vollen mtifiigen Hengste [Like full, idle stallions]

RDV         They are become as amorous horses and stallions

KJV           They were as fed horses in the morning

RSV           They were well-fed, lusty stallions

JBF            C'dtaient des chevaux repus et bien membrds [They were well-fed and well-endowed horses]

JBS             Son caballos lustrosos y enteros [They are shiny and robust horses]

JB               They were well-fed, lusty stallions

JBG             Feiste, wohlgebaute Hengste sind sie [Fleshy, well-built stallions they are]

NEB            Like a well-fed and lusty stallion

NAB            Lustful stallions they are

NIV             They are well-fed, lusty stallions,

NASU          They were well-fed lusty horses,

The Jersulem Bible had the same translation team for all three languages.


. Jer 5:8

They were hayah (haw-yaw); a primitive root [compare OT:1933]; to exist, i.e. be or become, come to pass (always emphatic, and not a mere copula or auxiliary):


9999  inserted word (x); 

fed zuwn (zoon); a primitive root; perhaps properly, to be plump, i.e. (transitively) to nourish: 

horse cuwc (soos); or cuc (soos); from an unused root meaning to skip (properly, for joy); a horse (as leaping); also a swallow (from its rapid flight):

 in the morning: shakah (shaw-kaw'); a primitive root; to roam (through lust):

 every one 'iysh (eesh); contracted for OT:582 [or perhaps rather from an unused root meaning to be extant]; a man as an individual or a male person; often used as an adjunct to a more definite term (and in such cases frequently not expressed in translation): 

neighed tsahal (tsaw-hal'); a prim root; to gleam, i.e. (figuratively) be cheerful; by transf. to sound clear (of various animal or human expressions):

 after 'el (ale); (but only used in the shortened constructive form 'el (el)); a primitive particle; properly, denoting motion towards, but occasionally used of a quiescent position, i.e. near, with or among; often in general, to:

 his neighbour's rea` (ray'-ah); or reya` (ray'-ah); from OT:7462; an associate (more or less close):

wife. 'ishshah (ish-shaw'); feminine of OT:376 or OT:582; irregular plural, nashiym (naw-sheem'); a woman (used in the same wide sense as OT:582):

LiterThe Gender Treeally: They were plump (engorged) horses in the morning, (to roam through lust):every one neighed cheerfully after his neighbor’s woman.

Last modified: 12/24/13