More about Meanings

Differences in Translation

by Dr. David Instone-Brewer

It is impossible to avoid translation problems. The Old Testament is written largely in ancient Hebrew (with some Aramaic) and the New Testament in Koine Greek. Although both languages are well known, neither have a large body of literature using their exact language. This means they both use words and idioms unknown outside the Bible, and they refer to customs and sayings that were well known to the first readers but are now lost. This means that translation is sometimes conjectural, and different possibilities exist.
     New translations have usually provoked confusion and suspicion. The Greek Septuagint was the first official translation of the Hebrew and the church Fathers came to regard it as almost inspired. So, when Jerome decided to translate into Latin from the Hebrew Old Testament instead of the Greek one, he was criticized by Augustine for deviating from the true word of God.[1] In time, Jerome’s translation became the official Bible of the church, so when translators such as Tyndale chose to translate into English, they were criticized for deviating from the Vulgate. Henry VIII who had Tyndale executed paradoxically authorized the publication of Tyndale’s translation under the pseudonym of the Matthew’s Bible. This new translation became an almost verbatim basis of the King James version.[2] The King James version became, in turn, the traditional version against which all new translations are compared, and they are often criticized when they deviate from it. History repeats itself.

Types of different Meaning

Translators have different styles and philosophies. Some attempt a word-by-word equivalence by trying to find a modern word that has the same range of meaning as each original word. Some attempt a phrase-by-phrase equivalence by looking for the modern expression that conveys the same message as the original. All translations use a mixture of the two in varying degrees.[3]
     This module attempts to express all the plausible meanings of the original. It does not attempt to list every possible translation, which would involve a long list of synonyms for almost every word, but concentrates on options which convey a different meaning. For example, the Greek word “biblos” can be translated as “scroll”, but there are also other possibilities, which could be recorded as follows:

   – Or: recordwill be shown as:   Or: record (an alternate meaning)
   – Lit.: barkwill be shown as:Or: bark (a more verbatim translation)
   – Means: scroll  will be shown as:Or: scroll (in modern English)
   – KJV: rollwill be shown as:Or: roll (an archaic translation)
   – Like: Biblewill be shown as:Or: Bible (sounds similar in the original language)

The verbatim meaning (or more correctly in this case, the etymological meaning) relates to a tree “bark”, presumably because this was the first material Greeks wrote on. However, by the time of the NT, writing was done on “scrolls” of papyrus so this would be the more idiomatic translation. Actually “book” itself is even more idiomatic and indeed anachronistic because papyrus sheets weren’t bound together as pages at this time, but it conveys the meaning to a modern reader. A “record” is suitable alternative rendering because it indicates that the writing is referred to rather than the material it is written on. The King James translation is often worth noting because this may help to explain some more traditional translations. Our word "Bible" comes from this Greek word. Most of this is obvious or irrelevant, and it would be distracting to present all these options for every word. Therefore only details which are likely to be useful for understanding the text are actually recorded.   These options summarize the conclusions of the scholarly disciplines of philology, semantics and semiotics. In other words, they present the different ways in which the underlying Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek can be translated and understood.

Problems for Translators

  • Vocabulary. It is usually impossible to find an equivalent word which has the same range of meaning as the original, so the original word has to be translated in different ways when it occurs in different contexts. For example the Greek verb ekballow can mean to throw out rubbish, exorcise a demon, drive away a person, extract something from a bag, excommunicate a heretic, and to divorce a husband.
  • Grammar. Different languages can follow very different rules. For example, tenses in Hebrew, and to some extent in Greek, convey a sense of how long a process takes, rather than whether it takes place in the past, present or future. Therefore different translations will often have different tenses.
  • Idioms. It is often inaccurate to translate literally because different languages convey meaning in different ways. For example, Hebrew expresses superlatives such as “better” and “best” by doubling the word, e.g. “slave of slaves” means “the most enslaved of all slaves”, i.e. “the lowest slave”. Therefore the phrase “Lord of Lords” means “the highest Lord”, and some translations will reflect this kind of modern idiom.
  • Semiotics or symbolic meaning.  Different cultures use metaphors and symbolic language in very different ways. In Hebrew a “hand” can refer to power (as in “the hand of the Lord”), making an oath ("raising a hand"), intercession ("raising hands") or nakedness ("exposing your hand" – because 'hand' is a euphemism for genitals). Also, in both the Hebrew and Greek world the heart was regarded as the repository of thoughts while emotions resided in the kidneys, so in the modern world the phrase “hearts and kidneys” means “minds and hearts” (e.g. Ps.7:9).
These factors can produce a confusing array of different translations. The options indicate different possible meanings and, when necessary, the reasons for these differences. Often we need to consider a range of different meanings in order to understand the full nuance of the underlying text.

Modern translations consulted

All the meanings found in the following commercial translations were consulted and incorporated, though not necessarily using the identical vocabulary.
  • ESV: English Standard Version
    – this is the 'base' text against which others are compared.
  • NRSV: New Revised Standard Version
    – a standard translation for many scholars
  • JPST: Jewish Publication Society Tanakh
    – an update of the JPS, translating from a Jewish standpoint
  • KJV: King James or ‘Authorized’ version
    – the traditional version which many later ones depend on
  • NET: New English Translation
    – very useful for the notes which explain translation decisions
  • NIV: New International Version
    – few novel ideas, but important because it is so popular
  • NJB: New Jerusalem Bible
    – update of the Jerusalem Bible – a modern Catholic voice
  • NLT – replacement of Living Bible; scholarly, with fresh thinking
  • NASB: New American Standard Bible
    – updated NAS; as word-for-word as possible in normal English.
  • CEB: Common English Bible
    – a recent translation which often explores adventurous alternatives

[1]Augustine. De Doctrina Christiana Bk.2.56-57: “[the Septuagint was] translated in a way that the Holy Spirit, who was leading them and creating unanimity, judged appropriate…So… Latin manuscripts of the Old Testament should be corrected if necessary by authoritative Greek ones.”. Translation by R.P.H. Green, Oxford Early Christian Texts (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), p. 83.

[2]Tyndale’s translation of NT & Pentateuch was completed by Coverdale and published under the pseudonym of Thomas Matthews with permission from Henry VIII. King James later authorized the translation and publication of a Bible which was a slight revision of this version – the King James Bible includes 80% of Tyndale’s actual wording including most of his memorable phrases.

[3]The most successful attempt at strict word-for-word translation is Young’s Literal Translation, but even this translates with equivalent phrases to avoid meaningless Engligh. For example, the Hebrew of Gen.15.4 says, word-by-word: “he who comes out of your bowels” (Gen.15.4) but Young translates this as “your very own son”, and he translates the repeated phrase “the nose of the Lord was hot” (e.g. Exod. 4:14) as “the anger of the Lord was kindled”.