Volume 5, No. 4 
October 2001

Ilias Chatzitheodorou





Translation and International Politics
by Gabe Bokor
Index 1997-2001
  Translator Profiles
How to Become a Translator
by Isa Mara Lando
  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
Choosing the Best Bid—An Application of Two Managerial Decision-Making Theories
by Aysel Morin
An Easy Translation Job
by Danilo Nogueira
  Bible Translation
Problems of Bible Translation
by Ilias Chatzitheodorou
  Literary Translation
Fidélité en traduction ou l'éternel souci des traducteurs
by Nassima El Medjira
The Power of Sound
by Joanna Janecka
  Translation Theory
Constructing a Model for Shift Analysis in Translation
by Dr. Mohammad Q. R. Al-Zoubi and Dr. Ali Rasheed Al-Hassnawi
  Translator Education
Trial and Error or Experimentation or Both!
by Moustafa Gabr
  Book Review
Virgin Birth and Red Underpants—The Translator's Responsibility in Shaping Our Worldview
by Zsuzsanna Ardó
  Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature XXV
by Chester E. Claff, Jr., Ph.D.
  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
  Translators’ Tools
Translators’ Emporium
Translators’ Events
Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
Translation Journal
Bible Translation

Problems of Bible Translation

by Ilias Chatzitheodorou

t is well known that the Bible is the most translated book in the world. In 1994 the United Bible Societies recorded that, of the estimated 3,000 languages in the world, 341 had complete Bibles, 822 some parts of the Bible, and that Bible translation was in progress in an additional 1,000 languages (Institut perevoda Biblii, 1996; 227). The lack of ability to speak the languages in which the Bible was originally written and continual changes in the languages we speak have created the need to translate the Bible. Therefore, throughout the years, there have been many who have translated or tried to translate the Bible.

One basic problem inherent in Bible translation is that we do not have the original manuscript of the Bible, but copies of copies of copies.
However, translating the Bible is not an easy task, since there are many problems inherent in Bible translation. If we think how hard it is to translate modern languages into English, then how much more difficult it must be to translate 3,000-year-old Hebrew and 2,000-year-old Greek! The purpose of this paper is to consider some of the basic problems of Bible translation that have been encountered in the past and will certainly be encountered in the future.

One basic problem inherent in Bible translation is that we do not have the original manuscript of the Bible, but copies of copies of copies... and this causes many problems because translators do not know which of all these copies is correct and which is not, since none of them are identical. The differences are not very significant in the Old Testament, but they are in the New Testament. According to research, "about 3 per cent of the Bible's texts varies across all the manuscripts. Nowadays, we have about 1,500 complete or partial manuscripts of the New Testament." (http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/robert_beecham/whichbib.htm). There are two main approaches to solving this problem. The more common one is called the ecletic approach. Scholars put together a text from all the available manuscripts using various rules to sort out differences. For example: what do the oldest manuscripts say? What do the majority say? What do the best say? Which reading is more likely? But this approach is not accepted by many people, for it gives too much scope to human judgment. Another approach that has been used in the past is that of Ivan Panin. In 1890 Ivan Panin, after his conversion from atheism, discovered that the entire Bible was full of hidden numerical patterns largely based on the number seven. This discovery had two major implications. First, it gave striking proof of the inspiration of the Scripture. Every sentence, every word and even every letter had the divine seal upon it. The patterns could never have been placed there by human wit. Second, it gave him a method of deciding in every instance which was the correct text; and this numerical theory even enabled Panin to resolve ambiguities of punctuation (ibid). However, Ivan Panin's work has been almost entirely ignored by academics.

As most people know, the Bible in its original untranslated form is a collection of ancient writings; the New Testament in Greek (though parts may have been previously written in Hebrew or Aramaic and then translated into Greek), the Old Testament in Hebrew and Aramaic, some passages of the Old Testament, mostly in Daniel, spanning many cultures and more than a thousand years. The 66 books into which the Bible is divided represent "a greater variety of literary styles e.g. historical narrative, prophecy, poetry, instructions and exhortation etc. than any other piece of literature in the history of mankind" (Snell-Hornby et al., 1998; 275). This variety of text types makes Bible translation a hard task for the translator, especially when translating into languages which do not have a long literary tradition.

Another problem that many translators face in Bible translation is that the Bible is addressed to a huge variety of people, e.g. theologians, adults, children, believers and non-believers, etc. And as Snell-Hornby states, the Bible is written for different uses, i.e., for both readers and listeners (ibid, 275). Thus, we could say that it is very difficult for a translator to translate the Bible since s/he must 'reproduce' an equivalent text in the Target Language, which can be 'used' for the same purposes as that of the Source Language.

Eugene Nida points out that "since no two languages are identical, there can be no absolute correspondence between languages. Hence, there can be no fully exact translations. The total impact of a translation may be reasonably close to the original, but there can be no identity in detail" (cited in Venuti 2000; 127). It is accepted that exact translation is 'impossible' since meanings of words and grammatical structures in any two languages do not generally correspond. We can illustrate that with the Greek word λόγος. No one English word is exactly equivalent to it. It can mean a word, a thought, a saying, a discourse, a narrative, a matter and many other things. The translator must choose the best equivalent in each situation. To illustrate grammatical problems we can consider tenses. English has two present tenses whereas most other languages only have one. Εσθίω in Greek or ich esse in German can mean 'I eat' or 'I am eating'. Pronouns are also full of problems. Hebrew has four words for you distinguishing between masculine and feminine and singular and plural. English has only the one. In the Song of Solomon, in the Hebrew it is always clear from the gender whether the bride or bridegroom is speaking, but some English versions lose the distinction (See Notes for a discussion of specific biblical passages). So from the above examples we can see that it is totally impossible to take a document in one language and make an exact word for word equivalent of it in another. Frequently the translator must grasp the meaning of the original as best he can and then seek to reproduce that meaning in the Target Language. This, however, can be done if the Bible translator "respects the features of the receptor language and exploits the potentialities of the language to the greatest possible extent" (Nida and Taber 1974, 4). And as Nida says, "unfortunately, in some instances translators have actually tried to 'remake' a language; but this was unsuccessful" (ibid, 4). For example, one missionary in Latin America insisted on trying to introduce the passive voice of the verb into a language which had no such form. Of course, this was not successful. One should simply accept the fact that there are many languages which do not have a passive voice and find a way to report actions in the active voice.

Another problem inherent in Bible translation is comprehension of the intended meaning. Here, in fact, there are at least three problems. First, there is the problem of understanding the ancient languages in which the Bible was written. No one who spoke those languages is around to tell us what they mean. We all know that languages continually change over time. New words are always being added and others take on different or added meanings. For example, only recently have we begun using the word 'Internet' as part of the everyday speech. And when we hear the word 'cool' in a conversation today, it is not always referring to the weather. Therefore, it is obvious that words do not have only one meaning, and many are not used in the same way that they were used in the past. It is also well known that even modern Greeks and Israelis cannot understand the Bible from its original manuscripts; they need a translation. However, to understand the Bible, words must be studied in all the places where they occur in available writings and compared with similar words in related languages. Then, we might be able to understand or guess their meaning. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that of the Bible expected to be understood. The Bible is not a collection of cabalistic writing or of Delphic oracles. As Nida says, "the writers of the Bible were addressing themselves to concrete historical situations and were speaking to living people confronted with pressing issues" (ibid, 7). Thus, we should assume that the writers of the Bible expected to be understood, and also that they intended one meaning and not several, unless an intentional ambiguity is linguistically 'marked.'

There is also the problem of cultural understanding. With an imperfect knowledge of ancient cultures it is not always possible to understand references of various kinds. Bible scholars are continually learning things about ancient Israel and the Near East that can help us understand the historical and cultural context out of which the Bible emerged. For example, we understand much more clearly today the way the various social classes interacted in the ancient world, as well as the more intimate workings of families, clans and tribes in ancient Israel. Such discoveries sometimes affect how we understand the words and the stories of the Bible. In addition, archeologists continue to find documents and libraries that can help translators understand the ancient Hebrew and Greek languages better, and so help them translate the Bible more accurately. For instance, the King James Version translates 1 Samuel 17.22 like this:

"And David left his carriage in the hand of the keeper of the carriage, and ran into the army."

The translators had difficulty with one of the Hebrew words in the manuscripts they used, and translated "his carriage" and "keeper of the carriage" based on the context of the narrative. As translators learned more about the Hebrew language and its vocabulary they understood that the verse did not talk about David's 'carriage,' but about the 'carried things' or 'baggage' that he had with him for the soldiers in the army. And so the translators of the Revised Standard Version (published in 1952) were able to translate the same verse more accurately:

"And David left the things in the charge of the keeper of the baggage, and ran to the ranks" (http://www.biblelearning.org)

At this point, we should mention that even if translators know the cultural setting of the Biblical era, it is very hard for them to reconstruct this cultural setting in which the writing first took place since there are great differences between it and the current one.

The third and most important problem in understanding the Bible is the spiritual problem. "The natural mind does not receive things of the Spirit of God" (1 Cor 2:14). Anyone who knows God has had the experience of reading a Bible passage a hundred times and then suddenly seeing what it means. As we grow in spiritual understanding, the Bible continually reveals its deeper meanings. The Holy Spirit guides us into all truth. Who then would claim to understand every word of the Bible? Hidden gems may well lie beneath the surface of its every sentence. (http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/robert_beecham/whichbib.htm)

Finally, another problem facing the translator is the proper understanding of his or her own role. Is translation, for example, an art or a science? Is it a skill which can only be acquired by practice, or are there certain procedures which can be described and studied? Nida claims that the truth is that the practice of translating "has far outdistanced theory; and though no one will deny the artistic elements in good translating, linguists and philologists are coming increasingly aware that the processes of translation are amenable to rigorous description" (Nida 1964, 3). When we speak of the 'science of translating,' we are of course concerned with the descriptive science, so the transfer of a message from one language to another is likewise a valid subject for scientific description. According to Nida, those who have insisted that translation is an art, and nothing more, "have often failed to probe beneath the surface of the obvious principles and procedures that govern its function" (ibid, 3). Similarly, those who have espoused an entirely opposite view have rarely studied translating enough to appreciate the artistic sensitivity which is an indispensable ingredient in any first-rate translation of a literary work' (ibid, 3).

To conclude, we should admit that the task of the Bible translator is not an easy one since there are many problems inherent in Bible translation. The Bible is a book that was written long ago in three ancient languages, which are unfamiliar to present-day laymen. It involves a greater variety of literary styles than can be encountered in any other piece of literature in the history of the mankind. The Bible is addressed to a huge variety of people and was written for different 'uses' e.g. listening, reading etc. This makes the Bible hard to translate since it is very difficult—for some people impossible—to transfer all these features from the Source Languages into the Target Language. Because of all the above-mentioned problems (as well others which were not mentioned in this essay) inherent in Bible translation, we have many dozens of Bible translations today. Nevertheless, no one translation (for instance, The King James Version) can be declared the 'correct' one, since each of them has contributed to our knowledge and understanding of the Bible. Finally, it should be added that in the future we should expect more translations, for languages continually change and Bible scholars are continually learning from archeological findings and newly discovered documents that help translators understand the ancient Greek and Hebrew better. It is certain that there will always be a need for new translations of the Bible because we still have a lot to learn about it.



Many words found in the Bible have lost or changed their meanings, and some of them no longer have modern-day counterparts. The Greek of the first century uses verb tenses and prepositions, that have no real English equivalent. Biblical Hebrew often uses word repetitions and a poetic structure, which are difficult to convey in another language.

For example, Genesis 32:20-21 is translated in most English versions like this:

"...For he said 'I will appease him with the present that it goes before me. Then afterward I will see his face; perhaps he will accept me.' So the present passed on before him, while he himself spent that night in the camp."

But the Hebrew original reads something like this:

"...For he thought 'I will pacify his face with the gift going ahead of my face; and after that I will see his face; perhaps he will lift up (or 'receive') my face.' The gift crossed over ahead of his face, but he spent that night in the camp."

Peneh, the Hebrew word usually translated 'face,' occurs five times in the original of this passage, not just once as implied by the English translation. That this deliberate repetition of peneh is not a mirror detail, but a key word in this passage, can be seen a few verses later in Genesis 32:30, which reads:

"So Jacob named the place Peniel (from peneh = face and el = God), for he said, 'I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.'"

Few English translations convey this, however.

Another example is Genesis 2:25-3:1. English versions read something like this:

"And the man and wife were both naked and were not ashamed. Now the serpent was more crafty (or 'subtle') than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made..."

What is not apparent in this English version is that the Hebrew words translated 'naked' (arom) and 'crafty' (arum) are identical in spelling and pronunciation in this passage, and they serve to connect the two verses. The best attempt I have seen to convey this aspect in an English translation was to make the words rhyme:

"And the man and his wife were nude... Now the serpent was more shrewd..."

As these two examples show, the translator often has to choose between translating the original text word for word at a risk of being unclear (as with the phrase 'he will lift up my face'), and translating the meaning of the passage at the expense of losing the richness and poetry (and hence even some of the meaning) of the original.
Source: http://home1.gte.net/eweiss/translat.htm




  • Nida, E. A. 1964. Towards a Science of Translating Leiden: Brill.
  • Nida, E. A. and Taber, C. R. 1974. Theory and Practice of Translaion Leiden: Brill.
  • Institut perevoda Biblii 1996. Lingvisticheskie, istorikokul'turnye ί bogoslovskie aspekty. Materialy konferentzii. Moskva, 28-29 noyabrya 1994. Moscow: Institut perevoda Biblii.
  • Snell-Hornby, M., Hönig, G. H., Kussmaul, P., Schitt, P. A. 1998. Handbuch Translation Verlag.
  • Venuti, L. 2000. The Translation Studies Reader London: Routledge.