How Is a Bible Translated?

Translation is a process by which a text (oral or written) in one language is transformed into an equivalent text in another. Paraphrase, on the other hand, means to transform a text from one style into a text in another style, but in the same language. Usually the transformation involves changing from a more elevated, archaic, or difficult style to one more easily comprehended. Sometimes it involves "putting it in your own words." The Living Bible (LB) is a paraphrase because it was created by transforming the style of the American Standard Version (ASV, 1901) into a style that children could understand.

The goal of a translation, however, is usually to create a text in another language that is roughly the same style as the original. It seeks to answer the question, If the original writer or speaker were creating the equivalent text in my language, with the same information and intentions, for the same type of readers or listeners, what would that text look like? We create texts not only to convey or elicit certain information but also to accomplish certain goals and to affect our readers or listeners in certain ways. Texts don't just mean something; they also attempt to do something—perhaps to make a friend, make someone laugh, cause someone to like or be impressed with us, persuade them to take some action, teach them a skill, and so forth. A translation must attempt to match the goals of the original.

Like music, most texts are also modulated. Music almost always varies not only in pitch but also in volume and tempo. The intention may be to affect the listener emotionally in various ways. Likewise, texts create texture by highlighting certain information and backgrounding other information as supportive. Not everything has the same level of importance or emphasis. If I have a point to make, I'm usually going to include some background, justification, and clarification to make my point more effectively. But if my message is going to be successful, I must enable the recipients to discern which information is supportive and which is the most important. If I suspect I might be failing, I'll probably say something like, "My point is…" If my message is then translated for the sake of a foreigner, linguistic clues must be present in the translation to allow the new recipients to arrive at the same conclusions as the original recipients. Texts can also vary the tempo by using shorter or longer sentences, and they can vary the emotive force by word choice and the use of figurative language and illustration. It is difficult to transfer such textual aspects into another language, but a faithful translator must attempt to do so.

There is an Italian saying: traduttore, traditore—a translator is always a "traitor," because no translation accomplishes all of this perfectly all the time. I believe this is just an exaggerated way of saying that nothing humans do is perfect, especially communication. Of course that's true. But recognizing that fact does not excuse failing to do everything we can to translate perfectly and therefore accurately. The term optimal equivalence is a way of admitting the problems but committing to the highest level of excellence in trying to convey all the information in the original text in precisely the same manner that the author wanted it conveyed (more on optimal equivalence later).

Where Do They Start?

To really understand Bible translation, we have to know something about how the Bible came to us. When scholars do Bible translation, what are they translating from manuscripts? One of my seminary professors, Dr. Kenneth Barker, told me once he wanted to write a book titled No Easy Answers. I don't know if he ever wrote the book, but the question of how we got the Bible could have made one of the chapters. Although we know a lot about how the Bible came to be, many of the steps along the way are still hidden in historical mystery. All we absolutely need to know, however, is that the various biblical books began as manuscripts of some kind, which were copied many times, combined with others in various collections, copied some more, and eventually ended up as the well–defined set known as the Hebrew Scriptures (though a few parts are actually in the related language of Aramaic), and later the equally well–defined set known as the Greek New Testament (versus the Hebrew Scriptures, which came to be known as the Old Testament).

None of the original manuscripts still exist. But thousands of copies of various portions of the Old and New Testaments do exist. Very early they were also translated into languages like Greek (i.e., Greek translations of the Hebrew and Aramaic Old Testament ), Latin, Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, and Ethiopic; and each of these also exists in many manuscripts. Can we know what God's prophets or apostles actually wrote? Our Savior and Lord, Jesus the Messiah, thought that we could. Over a thousand years after Moses and seven hundred years after Isaiah, Jesus quoted and cited many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures or the Septuagint and prefaced them not only with "Scripture says," but also "God says," "Moses says," "Isaiah says," and so forth. In fact, we are more certain what the prophets and apostles wrote than we are what Julius Caesar, Herodotus, or Thucydides wrote about Greek and Roman history.

All the biblical manuscripts have been collated and studied for hundreds of years and melded into modern editions of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. The most up-to-date editions of these are used by all modern Bible translators. For the Old Testament, we use the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS; 1997), which is the modern heir of the original (1906) Biblia Hebraica edited by Rudolf Kittel. And for the New Testament, we use the 28th edition of the Novum Testamentum Graece (2012), edited originally (1898) by Eberhard and Erwin Nestle, and more recently by Barbara and Kurt Aland and others.

This article was adapted from Navigating the Horizons in Bible Translation by Clendenen and Stabnow (B&H, 2012).