Principles of Bible Translation
The Bible was originally written in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Today it is available in whole or in part in over 3,000 languages. The vast majority of people who read the Bible do not understand the original languages and therefore must rely on a translation. What principles should guide how the Bible is translated, and how did these govern the rendering of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures?
Some might conclude that a strict, word-for-word, interlinear-style translation would enable the reader to get closest to what was expressed in the original languages. However, that is not always the case. Consider a few of the reasons:
No two languages are exactly alike in grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure. A professor of Hebrew, S. R. Driver, wrote that languages “differ not only in grammar and roots, but also . . . in the manner in which ideas are built up into a sentence.” Different languages require quite different thought patterns. “Consequently,” continues Professor Driver, “the forms taken by the sentence in different languages are not the same.”
No modern language exactly mirrors the vocabulary and grammar of Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, so a word-for-word translation of the Bible could be unclear or at times could even convey the wrong meaning.
The meaning of a word or an expression may vary depending on the context in which it is used.
A translator may be able to mirror the literal rendering of the original language in some passages, but this must be done very carefully.
Here are some examples of how word-for-word translation can be misunderstood:
The Scriptures use the expressions “sleep” and “fall asleep” to refer both to physical sleep and to the sleep of death. (Matthew 28:13; Acts 7:60) When these expressions are used in contexts that refer to death, Bible translators can use such wording as “fall asleep in death,” which helps the modern reader avoid confusion.—1 Corinthians 7:39; 1 Thessalonians 4:13; 2 Peter 3:4.
The apostle Paul used an expression found at Ephesians 4:14 that can be literally translated “in the playing of dice of men.” This ancient idiom alludes to the practice of cheating others when using dice. In most languages, a literal rendering of this allusion makes little sense. Translating this expression as “the trickery of men” is a clearer way to convey the meaning.
At Romans 12:11, a Greek expression is used that literally means “to the spirit boiling.” This wording does not convey the intended meaning in English, so it is rendered “aglow with the spirit” in this translation.
During his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used an expression that is often translated “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” (Matthew 5:3, King James Version) But in many languages, a literal rendering of this expression is obscure. In some cases, a strictly literal translation could imply that “the poor in spirit” are mentally unbalanced or lacking in vitality and determination. However, Jesus was here teaching people that their happiness depended, not on satisfying their physical needs, but on recognizing their need for God’s guidance. (Luke 6:20) Thus, such renderings as “those conscious of their spiritual need” or “those who know their need for God” convey more accurately the meaning of the original expression.—Matthew 5:3; The New Testament in Modern English.
In many contexts, the Hebrew word translated “jealousy” corresponds to the common meaning of the English word, namely, to feel anger over the apparent unfaithfulness of a close associate or to envy others for their possessions. (Proverbs 6:34; Isaiah 11:13) However, the same Hebrew word also has a positive connotation. For example, it may be used of the “zeal,” or protective ardor, that Jehovah shows for his servants or of his “requiring exclusive devotion.” (Exodus 34:14; 2 Kings 19:31; Ezekiel 5:13; Zechariah 8:2) It may also be used of the “zeal” that his faithful servants have for God and his worship or of their ‘tolerating no rivalry’ toward him.—Psalm 69:9; 119:139; Numbers 25:11.
The Hebrew expression that usually refers to the human hand has a wide variety of meanings. Depending on the context, this word may be rendered “authority,” “generosity,” or “power.” (2 Samuel 8:3; 1 Kings 10:13; Proverbs 18:21) In fact, this particular word is translated over 40 different ways in the English edition of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures.
In view of these factors, Bible translation involves more than simply rendering an original-language word with the same term each time it occurs. A translator must use good judgment in order to select words in the target language that best represent the ideas of the original-language text. In addition, there is a need to structure the sentences in a way that conforms to the rules of grammar of the target language, making the text easy to read.
At the same time, extremes in rewording the text must be avoided. A translator who liberally paraphrases the Bible according to how he interprets the overall idea could distort the meaning of the text. How so? The translator may erroneously insert his opinion of what the original text means or may omit important details contained in the original text. So while paraphrases of the Bible may be easy to read, their very freeness at times may prevent the reader from getting the true message of the text.
Doctrinal bias can easily color a translator’s work. For example, Matthew 7:13 says: “Spacious is the road leading off into destruction.” Some translators, perhaps affected by doctrinal bias, have used the term “hell” rather than what the Greek term really means, namely, “destruction.”
A Bible translator must also consider that the Bible was written using the common, everyday language of average people, such as farmers, shepherds, and fishermen. (Nehemiah 8:8, 12; Acts 4:13) Therefore, a good translation of the Bible makes the message it contains understandable to sincere people, regardless of their background. Clear, common, readily understood expressions are preferred over terms that are rarely used by the average person.
Quite a number of Bible translators have taken the unjustifiable liberty of omitting God’s name, Jehovah, from modern translations even though that name is found in ancient Bible manuscripts. (See Appendix A4.) Many translations replace the name with a title, such as “Lord,” and some even obscure the fact that God has a name. For example, in some translations, Jesus’ prayer recorded at John 17:26 reads: “I made you known to them,” and at John 17:6, “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me.” However, a faithful rendering of Jesus’ prayer reads: “I have made your name known to them,” and “I have made your name manifest to the men whom you gave me.”
As stated in the foreword to the original English edition of the New World Translation: “We offer no paraphrase of the Scriptures. Our endeavor all through has been to give as literal a translation as possible, where the modern English idiom allows and where a literal rendition does not for any clumsiness hide the thought.” Thus, the New World Bible Translation Committee has endeavored to strike a balance between using words and phrasing that mirror the original and, at the same time, avoiding wording that reads awkwardly or hides the intended thought. As a result, the Bible can be read with ease and the reader can have full confidence that its inspired message has been transmitted faithfully.—1 Thessalonians 2:13.