Pitfalls of Bible Translation

Today, we’re going to expound on last week’s post about the larger-than-you-expect cast of characters that help the bible get into your hands. This might become a series, which I think is gonna be fun.

Last week, my husband comes home with a bizarre but totally true story involving his co-worker. His co-worker tweeted out some not-secret information about upcoming space stuff that somehow got a ton of retweets and blew up and eventually landed on the websites of CNN, FoxNews, USA Today, HuffPo, NBC, and others. While the news wasn’t secret, their employer had not made a big deal out of it, but now it was suddenly a big deal. His co-worker is fine, but it was definitely something that took a few meetings to sort out with the bosses what exactly had happened, and they were none-too-happy that she broke a story that they didn’t get to control the narrative of, which is totally understandable.

So of course I went to read all of these articles written about this co-worker’s tweet. And I quickly found out that while CNN, the original reporter, got most of the information right, they got her title wrong and accidently elevated her position. I get it -- space lingo is hard enough for even those of us in the trenches -- but it doesn’t look great for her because it made her sound like the boss. And while the article mentions her, maybe several times, she’s not any more special than any other person in the room -- she’s just the person who broke the information.

Reporters are busy people, so often they just re-write information from other websites. That original CNN report -- and the misinformation -- got copied over and over again, and most of the major news outlets were reporting the story incorrectly with the inflated job title.

I’d say I’m a pretty fair judge of the news -- I take CNN with a grain of salt and Fox News with the same grain of salt. I’m not one to decry the Soros-ization of the lame-stream media. However, I have to hand it to Fox News, as they reported her position correctly and everything in their article checked out as factual.  But then NBCNews, I have to hand it to them too, as they correctly identified the company she works for...but then called her the elevated position (which if they knew anything about how space works, what they said is ridiculous.)

How This Relates to the Bible

I think it’s a really good example to illustrate some decisions bible translators have had throughout their work in translating the most important book ever written.

Oftentimes I’ll get the question from people who are reading the bible for the first time “what is the BEST translation to get?” And what they generally mean is: what is the most accurate translation?

First, I think it’s important to understand that no honest translator goes into his/her job to do less than a completely accurate translation of the bible.

Second, bible translation, at least most current translations, are made by committee. A bible translation committee includes scholars who specialize in various parts of the bible or specific theological fields. One might be a Paul scholar, one studies the Exodus in depth, one’s a expert in the minor prophets, one’s a scholar of eschatology, etc. The entire committee has say in the entire bible.

I’m going to skip the basic translator problem of “what word is the best word to go here” and get into some issues you may not have thought of before.

So my answer to the question of which is the “best” bible translation is usually, “The one you can and will actually read.”


(If you want to stop reading right now & just watch a video on this topic, I recommend this one.)

The Accuracy of Different Copies

We have about 14,000 1st and 2nd century copies of the New Testament. Far more than any other ancient book, whether fiction or nonfiction. These copies were all written by hand and there was no mass distribution plan; friends sent copies to friends and churches sent copies to churches.

There are slight variations to the earliest copies we have, and each translator has to make up their mind which copy has more authority:

If you have 5,000 copies saying one thing, 200 copies saying something that’s probably more accurate, the most important copy saying something else, which one do you go with?? And, how do you figure out which one is more accurate when you’re understanding a culture and language that’s thousands of years removed?

If you’ve got a bible handy, go ahead and open to Mark 16:8. Does the book of Mark end after verse 8?

The NIV has this note after verse 8:

[The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9–20.]

And then goes on to give you verses 9-20 in italicized font.

The NLT committee decided to do it this way:

The most ancient manuscripts of Mark conclude with verse 16:8. Later manuscripts add one or both of the following endings.]

[Shorter Ending of Mark]

Then they briefly reported all this to Peter and his companions. Afterward Jesus himself sent them out from east to west with the sacred and unfailing message of salvation that gives eternal life. Amen.

[Longer Ending of Mark]

Etc. to the end of verse 20.

The Message version just puts a simple set of brackets around the verses & then adds this note at the bottom of the page:

Note: Mark 16:9-20 [the portion in brackets] is contained only in later manuscripts.

The ESV interrupts the text briefly with this note:

[Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9–20.][a]

But then adds this rather detailed footnote:

a. Mark 16:9 Some manuscripts end the book with 16:8; others include verses 9–20 immediately after verse 8. At least one manuscript inserts additional material after verse 14; some manuscripts include after verse 8 the following: But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. These manuscripts then continue with verses 9–20

The King James Version makes no delineation of verses 9-20 and just carries on as if they were any other verse.

The New King James, however, has no delineation within the text but a simple footnote:

Mark 16:9 Vv. 9–20 are bracketed in NU as not in the original text. They are lacking in Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, although nearly all other mss. of Mark contain them.

The Passion Translation (because I wanted to get a very recent translation; this one came out in 2017) doesn’t make any delineation in the text but has the footnote:

Mark 16:8 Some early manuscripts of Mark do not include vv. 9–20. They are found in the Aramaic. A shorter ending to Mark found in a few manuscripts reads, “They reported briefly to those around Peter all that they had been commanded. After these things, Jesus himself commissioned them to take the message from the east to the west—the holy and imperishable preaching of eternal salvation. Amen.”

But why?

Well, when it comes to whether to put Version A or Version B, that’s up to the translators which one goes in their bible. There’s not always a right or wrong answer; it’s just their best guess on the information they have. New discoveries of ancient manuscripts are always coming to light and some are always being lost forever, so the information we have available is fluctuating. But on the whole, we are getting smarter and more accurate about ancient language and culture. (Thanks global information revolution!)

Then, once we decide which words belong in our translation, how do we decide to format them? Should we put italics, brackets, notes?

That’s an answer for the Bible Director, the position I still don’t know the actual title to...but I mentioned them in last week’s post. They’re the ones who decide we need a new bible translation, and why. And, they’ll look at the overarching goal of the translation to find what formatting is appropriate. The King James, for example, its goal is to be “read aloud in the churches,” without the notes that James considered overly political, so there’s not a note, not a bracket, not anything, because if it’s being read aloud, you aren’t going to convey any of that to your audience.  

Study bibles, on the other hand, are going to have tons of notes.

Cultural Idioms

Translation from one language into another is harder than it looks. For one, there’s all these sayings one might say in a language that make no sense directly translated into another language. For instance, if you were just learning English and our culture, you might look at me horrified when I talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You don’t know that’s an expression discouraging getting rid of something good when you’re trying to remove the bad things that are around it. It doesn’t convey its full meaning in direct word-for-word translation.

For instance, the American Standard Version writes Acts 13:36 as:

For David, after he had in his own generation served the counsel of God, fell asleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption:

However, David didn’t literally fall asleep: this was a cultural idiom for death. He died and was laid near his fathers. And…”saw corruption”...did he move to DC?

The NIV keeps the fell asleep idiom but makes it a little more obvious what actually happened:

“Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed.”

Now, place yourself 2,000 years later, in a culture that doesn’t think like yours and doesn’t know nearly anything about your history or your worldview as a whole. It can become extremely difficult to understand the full context of what the writers were trying to say.

Hopefully this lets you get a little more in depth with the common problems your bible translator faces in bringing you the most important book ever.

Even more cool stuff:

If you’re like, super interested in this right now, here’s a 2 part video interview with a member of the NIV translation committee.