Bibliotheca Sacra 150 (July-September 1993): 273-84

Copyright 1993 Dallas Theological Seminary; cited with permission.










Bruce M. Metzger


The work involved in making a translation of the

Bible is both exhilarating and exhausting. It is exhilarating

when translators consider the benefits, both spiritual and liter-

ary, that the rendering will provide to their readers; it is exhaust-

ing when they confront various problems, some of them beyond

the possibility of solution. Problems involved in translating the

Scriptures are many. Some result from the presence of variant

readings among the manuscripts of the Old and New Testa-

ments. Others have to do with the meaning of rare words as well

as the uncertainty of punctuation of the Hebrew and the Greek

texts. Still others relate to the appropriate renderings in English

or any other receptor language and bear on the choice of the liter-

ary level and style of phraseology. This article considers exam-

ples of these kinds of problems.




The first problem facing Bible translators is the differences

in wording among manuscripts of the Scriptures. These differ-

ences have arisen because, even with the strongest determination

to copy a text without error, a scribe copying a text of considerable

length will almost inevitably introduce changes in the wording.

It is understandable that mistakes can arise from inattentive-

ness brought on by weariness. For example instead of the correct

reading, "Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushel, or under a


Bruce M. Metzger is Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, Emeri-

tus, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey.


* This is article three in the four-part series, "Translating the Bible: An Ongoing

Task," delivered by the author as the W. H. Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas The-

ological Seminary, February 4-7, 1992.

274 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1993


bed, and not on a stand?" (Mark 4:21, RSV), several important

manuscripts read "under the stand." This is obviously a scribal

error in repeating the preposition "under" in the third phrase.

Sometimes a scribe's error of judgment works havoc with the

text. One of the most atrocious blunders of this kind is in the mi-

nuscule Greek manuscript no. 109, dated to the 14th century. This

manuscript of the four Gospels was transcribed from a copy that

must have had Luke's genealogy of Jesus (3:23-38) in two

columns of 28 lines in each. Instead of transcribing the text by

following the columns in succession, the scribe of MS 109 copied

the genealogy by following the lines across the two columns.

In addition to such transcriptional blunders, which can usu-

ally be detected and corrected, occasionally a scribe deliberately

introduced into the copy a change that seems to clarify the sense or

eliminate a difficulty. For example the older manuscripts of

Mark 1:2-3 attribute to the Prophet Isaiah the evangelist's com-

posite quotation from both Malachi and Isaiah, whereas later

manuscripts (followed by the King James translators of 1611)

read, "As it is written in the prophets," an obvious amelioration of

the earlier text.

By comparing the surviving manuscript copies, scholars

seek to determine what should be regarded as the original word-

ing, and which reading or readings are secondary. Two kinds of

considerations are taken into account. One concerns external ev-

idence; this has to do with the age of the manuscripts that present

the several different readings, as well as the geographical spread

of the witnesses (and these include early versions in other lan-

guages) that support each reading. In general, the older

manuscripts are, in the nature of the case, separated from the

original text by fewer stages of copying and recopying than more

recently copied manuscripts. Likewise, the more widespread the

witnesses for a given reading, the more impressive is their testi-


From considerations such as these one can appreciate why the

discoveries in the 20th century of much earlier copies than those

previously available are so important. Scrolls and fragments of

each book of the Hebrew Bible, except Esther, hidden for centuries

in caves by the Dead Sea, have brought to light manuscripts that

are at least 900 years older than previously known copies. Simi-

larly the acquisition of Greek papyrus manuscripts of various

books of the New Testament now provides evidence for the word-

ing of these texts that antedates what was previously available.

Besides external evidence, scholars also take into account

what is called internal evidence of the variant readings. This is

Persistent Problems Contronting Bible Translators 275


of two kinds, involving transcriptional probability and intrinsic

probability. Transcriptional considerations have to do with the

habits of scribes. When a scribe was confronted with divergent

wordings in two or more manuscripts, it was likely that, rather

than choosing one and discarding the other, he would sometimes

produce a composite reading that embodied both. In such cases the

longer reading may be suspected as secondary. For example in

the account concerning Stephen in Acts 6:8 some manuscripts de-

scribe him as "full of grace" and others as "full of faith." The

sixth-century Greek and Latin manuscript of Acts known as

Codex Laudianus (E) conflates the two and says that Stephen was

"full of grace and faith."

In other cases scribes amplified and rounded off phrases by

the addition of natural complements and similar adjuncts. A

good example of a "growing" text is Galatians 6:17, where the ear-

liest form of the text reads, "I carry the marks of Jesus branded on

my body." In later centuries scribes expanded the simple and un-

adorned mention of "Jesus" with various additions, producing

"the Lord Jesus," or "the Lord Jesus Christ," or "our Lord Jesus


Intrinsic probability has to do with considerations of what the

author is likely to have written. Naturally attention should be

given to such considerations only after all other kinds of evi-

dence have been canvassed and evaluated. At that stage, one is in

a position to test the validity of tentative conclusions as to the orig-

inal reading. If a reading is contrary to the immediate context

and/or is out of harmony with the usage of the author elsewhere,

serious doubt is cast on the originality of that reading, despite the

weight of the external evidence. In some cases, therefore, opin-

ions will differ on the original wording.

Obviously all such decisions as to textual variants have been

made by editors of the original texts, and translators generally

depend on the expertise of those who have produced the printed edi-

tions of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek New Testament.

The most widely used printed editions at the end of the 20th cen-

tury are the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (1977; ed. sec. emen-

data, 1983) and the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament,

prepared by an interconfessional and international committee

(1966; third edition corrected 1983; a fourth edition is shortly to ap-

pear). Translators, however, may give further consideration to

the evaluation of textual evidence and occasionally will adopt a

reading different from that in the printed text. In 1 Thessaloni-

ans 2:7 Greek manuscripts are divided; some read "gentle,"

some "infants." The difference in Greek is only one letter, h@pioi

276 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1993


and nh<pioi. The last letter of the previous word in the Greek is n,

and so no one can say whether scribes wrote n twice instead of

once, or once instead of twice. "Infants" is found in many good

manuscripts (and is printed in the United Bible Societies' Greek

New Testament), but "gentle" makes better sense,1 and is adopted

by most translators (RSV, NIV, REB, NRSV) who otherwise follow the

UBS text.



After translators have decided which wording of the Hebrew

or Greek text should be taken as the basis of the English render-

ing, the next problem has to do with ascertaining the precise

meaning of the words. Lexicographers are constantly attempting

to learn more exactly the meaning of ancient Hebrew and Greek

terms and expressions. The Hebrew Bible contains about 300,000

words, comprising 8,674 different words, of which, according to

one method of calculation, about 1,500 occur only once.2 In many

cases a similar word occurs in the literature of other Semitic peo-

ples, notably in Arabic, Assyrian, Eblaic, and Ugaritic. By com-

parative linguistics and archaeological finds scholars are able

in some cases to define more precisely the meaning of rare He-

brew words. One such Hebrew word, which has never been found

in other Semitic literature, is MyPi (1 Sam. 13:21). Because of the

context the King James translators took this word to mean "a

file," used by blacksmiths to sharpen hoes and other agricultural

tools. In the first part of the 20th century, however, archaeologists

discovered at various places in Palestine ancient sets of weights

used for business transactions, each bearing a Hebrew word. One

of these, weighing almost two and two-thirds ounces, is marked

MyP and so translators now know this was the amount that the

blacksmiths charged for sharpening various tools.

Even when the meaning of individual Hebrew words can be

determined with a degree of certainty, there is sometimes also the

problem as to how they are to be understood in relation to each

other in the sentence. What has been called the most obscure verse

in the Book of Proverbs (26:10) involves a whole nest of problems.

Many combinations of the words have been made, along with at-


1 Two of the five members of the United Bible Societies committee (Allen Wik-

gren and the present writer) have expressed their preference for the reading

"gentle" (Bruce M. Metzger, ed., A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testa-

ment [London: United Bible Societies, 1971], 630).


2 For a discussion of such words, see Frederick E. Greenspahn, Hapax Legom-

ena in Biblical Hebrew (Chico, CA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1984).

Persistent Problems Confronting Bible Translators 277


tempts at emendation. Because the meaning of more than one

word in the verse is subject to various interpretations, at least 10

different translations of it have been proposed.3

In comparison with the difficulties of ascertaining the mean-

ing of words in the Hebrew Bible, the Greek New Testament is

much easier, at least with regard to the number of lexical prob-

lems. According to statistics collected by an assiduous re-

searcher, the Greek New Testament contains 137,328 words, com-

prising a total of 5,436 different words, of which 1,934 occur only

once.4 The great majority of these hapax legomena occur also in

other Greek sources,5 and so the meaning of most of them is not

often in dispute. The meaning, however, of a word in the Lord's

Prayer as recorded in Matthew 6:11 and Luke 11:3 has often been

debated. Does "Give us this day our e]piou<sion bread" mean "daily

bread" or "bread for tomorrow"? Except in subsequent quotations

of the prayer, no other piece of Greek literature is known to con-

tain this word. The only time it seems to have turned up was in

1889 when A. H. Sayce edited a fragmentary Greek papyrus con-

taining a householder's account-book listing the purchase of pro-

visions. Here, according to Sayce, in one of the broken lines of the

list was e]piou<si--, with the end of the word defaced. It is most un-

fortunate, however, that scholars who wish to double-check this

information are unable to do so, for the papyrus fragment has

disappeared and cannot be found. Furthermore its loss is particu-

larly distressing because Sayce (whose shortcomings as a deci-

pherer of Greek papyri were generally recognized) may have

misread the householder's list.6 And in any case, even if Sayce

did correctly read the word, lexicographers do not know much

more about its meaning than was known before, namely, that the

expression signifies either "daily bread" or "bread for tomor-

row." In such cases when a word is susceptible of two equally le-


3 See the list in C. H. Toy, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of

Proverbs (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1899), 476, note. For a more recent assessment

of the verse, see D. C. Snell, "The Most Obscure Verse in Proverbs," Vetus Testa-

mentum 41 (1991): 350-56.

4 See Robert Morgenthaler, Statistik des Neutestamentlichen Wortschatzes

(Zurich: Gotthelf-Verlag, 1958), 25.

5 According to information kindly supplied by Frederick W. Danker (letter, De-

cember 10, 1989), only two dozen words (not including proper names) have not been

found elsewhere.

6 For further information see the chapter entitled, "How Many Times Does e]pi-

ou<sioj occur outside the Lord's Prayer?" in Historical and Literary Studies, ed.

Bruce M. Metzger (Leiden: Brill, 1968), 64-66. After this chapter was published a

search has been made in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae but without discovering

any other occurrence of the word.

278 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1993


gitimate renderings, translators have no choice except to place

one in the text and the other in a footnote.




Once translators have decided which form of text to translate

and what the Hebrew and Greek words mean, the problem of

punctuation arises. In antiquity it was customary to write Hebrew

and Greek manuscripts with few, if any, marks of punctuation.

The beginning of a sentence was not identified by a capital letter.

Not until the eighth or ninth century A.D. did Greek scribes begin

to be more or less systematic in the use of punctuation marks.7

Though exegetes can learn something concerning the history of

the interpretation of a passage by considering the punctuation in

the manuscripts, translators need not feel bound to adopt the

punctuation preferred by either the scribe or the editor of the

printed text. Furthermore, since there are no quotation marks in

any of the manuscripts, the decision of where to insert these in the

translation is totally in the hands of the translators.

Naturally the opinions of translators as to appropriate punc-

tuation will sometimes differ. There is no infallible rule to fol-

low; judgments must be based on what seems to provide the fullest

and most appropriate sense in the context. The beginning of a di-

rect quotation can usually be determined without any trouble

when it is indicated by a verb such as "said," "asked," "replied,"

or the like. But problems can arise concerning the close of a quo-

tation, especially when it is the final sentence of a series of com-

ments of a conversation. It is uncertain, for example, whether the

last statement. made by Jesus to Nicodemus is intended to end at

John 3:15 (so the RSV) or at 3:21 (so the NIV and NRSV).

The position of a comma within a sentence can totally alter

the sense. In Revelation 5:1 the traditional punctuation describes

the scroll held in the right hand of God as "written on the inside

and on the back, sealed with seven seals." The Greek text, how-

ever, may also be understood in a different way, resulting in the

translation given in the NRSV footnote on this verse, "written on

the inside, and sealed on the back with seven seals."

Changing the position of a comma can sometimes expand the

sense. The third petition in the Lord's Prayer in the King James

Version reads, "Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven"

(Matt. 6:10), whereas most modern versions punctuate it differ-

ently, "Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven." The principle


7 See Bruce M. Metzger, Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to

Greek Palaeography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 31-32.

Persistent Problems Confronting Bible Translators 279


translators follow is to use the punctuation that provides the best

and fullest sense. In this case the second way of punctuating is

better, for it permits the phrase "on earth as in heaven" to be taken

with all three preceding petitions, thus enlarging the scope and

meaning of the prayer.

A theological point is involved in the placing of a comma in

Luke 23:43. According to the traditional way of understanding

the passage, the repentant robber asked Jesus on the cross to re-

member him when Jesus entered His kingdom. To this request

Jesus responded, "Truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in

paradise." In the interest of supporting the doctrine of "soul sleep"

held by Jehovah's Witnesses, the translators of the New World

Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures have moved the

comma so that the verse reads, "Truly I tell you today, You will be

with me in Paradise." But surely here the robber knew that Jesus

was speaking to him that day, and so the correct punctuation is

that of traditional translations.

Sometimes a sentence in the Greek New Testament can be

construed as either a statement or as a question. This ambiguity

accounts for the change at Romans 8:33 between the RSV, "Is it

Christ Jesus, who died. .." and the NRSV, "It is Christ Jesus, who

died ..." (the latter returns to the interpretation of the King James

translators). At Mark 15:2, in response to Pilate's question, "Are

you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered with a statement, "You

say so." It is possible, however, to understand the Greek here as a

question, "Do you say so?"8

Modern translators occasionally find that an exclamation

mark brings out most appropriately the force of the original. The

awe and wonder of the scene described in Revelation 4:1-2 is then

disclosed in the RSV: "After this I looked, and lo, in heaven an

open door! ... At once I was in the Spirit, and lo, a throne stood in

heaven, with one seated on the throne!" In the Old Testament,

particularly in the Psalms, the RSV translators were overzealous

in their use of exclamation marks, and in the NRSV many of them

have been replaced with a period (as in the King James Version).




Yet another problem confronting translators arises when a

Hebrew or a Greek word can be either translated or transliter-

ated. What should be done with proper names that can also be used

as common nouns? For example, MdAxA is both a common noun


8 This punctuation is given by Westcott and Hort in the margin of their edition


280 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1993


meaning "a man" and the proper name "Adam." In translating

Genesis the question soon arises at what point in the narrative

one should begin to use "Adam" rather than "man." On this mat-

ter there has been wide disagreement among translators. Some

versions make the change at Genesis 2:7 (Targum), others at 2:16

(Septuagint), and still others at 2:19 (KJV), 2:20 (NIV), 3:17 (RSV),

3:21 (NEB), or 4:25 (NAB, REB, NRSV).

The traditional rendering of Psalm 84:6 in the King James

Version is, "Who passing through the valley of Baca make it a

well." Since, however, xkABA means "a balsam tree," the New Jeru-

salem Bible translates it, "As they pass through the Valley of the

Balsam," and the New American Bible has, "When they pass

through the valley of mastic trees." Since, however, the similarly

pronounced word hkABA means "to weep," the American Standard

Version reads, "Passing through the valley of Weeping."

A similar problem in the New Testament concerns the Greek

word Xristo<j, which can be transliterated "Christ" or translated

"anointed one," or "Messiah." Several modern translations

(e.g., NEB, NAB, NRSV) have replaced most occurrences of "Christ"

in earlier renderings of the Gospels (e.g., KJV, ASV, NASV) with

"Messiah." The reason for making the change arises from the

recognition that it was only after the message of the early follow-

ers of Jesus was addressed to Gentiles that the word Xristo<j as a

title (Jesus the Messiah) would come to be understood as a proper

name (Jesus Christ). The transfer of understanding was total

when, still later, the expression Christ Jesus is sometimes used in

the Epistles and in the Book of Revelation.

The word "Hades" in Greek (%!dhj) was originally a proper

noun, the name of the god of the underworld. In time the word

came to denote a place or state, and in the King James Version it

is usually rendered "hell," and once "grave" (1 Cor. 15:55). In the

RSV the word is usually transliterated, but in Matthew 16:18 it is

rendered "[powers of] death," where the NRSV transliterates.

Besides proper names other words are sometimes translated

and sometimes transliterated. The Greek verb bapti<zw has tradi-

tionally been transliterated "baptize." About 1885 the American

Baptist Publication Society of Philadelphia issued the New Tes-

tament in two forms, one that used the traditional rendering,

"baptize" and the other that translated the verb with the word "im-

merse." "John the Baptist" became "John the immerser."

The Greek words presbu<teroj and presbute<rion, usually

translated "elder" and "council of elders," can also be translit-

erated "presbyter" and "presbytery." The Greek word e]pi<skopoj

means "overseer" but is often transliterated (through the Old En-

Persistent Problems Confronting Bible Translators 281


glish "bisceop") as "bishop." Also dia<konoj, which means "ser-

vant," is transliterated "deacon."




Since the Bible is a source of both information and inspira-

tion, translations must be both accurate and esthetically felici-

tous. They should be suitable for rapid reading and for detailed

study, as well as suitable for reading aloud to large and small

groups. Ideally they should be intelligible and even inviting to

readers of all ages, of all degrees of education, and of almost all

levels of intelligence--all without sacrificing accuracy, in either

matter or manner. Besides the several problems already consid-

ered as to text, meaning of words, punctuation, and the like, the

following are illustrations of some of the more delicate stylistic

problems that confront Bible translators.

1. Not only the choice of English words but also the order in

which they are arranged often makes a difference in meaning.

In the words of the institution of the Lord's Supper, the rendering

in the King James Version, "Drink ye all of it" (Matt. 26:27),

leaves it uncertain whether Jesus meant all who drink or all of

the contents of the cup. Since the Greek text here uses the plural

form of the word "all," the English translation should be some-

thing like, "Drink from it, all of you."

Although E. J. Goodspeed's translation of the New Testament

(1923) usually employs American idioms, here and there one

finds curious slips in sentence arrangement. Hebrews 10:1

reads, "The same sacrifices . . . cannot wholly free those who

come to worship from their sins." In Hebrews 9, where Goodspeed

uses "chest" and "agreement" in place of "ark" and "covenant,"

verse 4 reads, "the ark that contained the agreement, entirely

covered with gold." The ark, not the covenant, was gold-covered.

The New Revised Standard Version corrects several mis-

leading RSV renderings. Instead of Moses leaving "Pharaoh in

hot anger" (Exod. 11:8), it now reads "in hot anger he left

Pharaoh," and instead of "Joshua was standing before the angel,

clothed in filthy garments" (Zech. 3:3), the NRSV reads, "Joshua

was dressed with filthy clothes as he stood before the angel."

2. Translators must pay attention to what can be called the

color or tone of their rendering. For example, though the verbs "to

dwell" and "to live" are more or less synonymous, translators

need to be sensitive to the context in which one word is more ap-

propriate than the other. Translators generally agree that "dwell"

is to be preferred in contexts that speak of God in heaven, such as

the traditional rendering of Isaiah 57:15 (which is retained in the

282 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1993


NRSV), "I dwell in the high and holy place." On the other hand the

word "live" is certainly more appropriate in matter-of-fact state-

ments, such as "Jabal ... the ancestor of those who live in tents"

(Gen. 4:20, NRSV), where earlier versions continued with the King

James rendering "dwell."

3. Care must be taken in choosing words that are susceptible

of being understood in the wrong way. Modern English versions

avoid the King James rendering of Matthew 20:17, which says

that Jesus "took the twelve apostles apart in the way." Though

James Moffatt struck off many happy phrases in his translation,

occasionally one finds an ambiguous rendering. The wording in

his 1913 translation spoke of two men in one bed (Luke 17:34), but

his 1934 revision reads "two men in bed" (i.e., not a double bed).

The RSV in 1 Kings 19:21 says of Elisha, "Then he arose and went

after Elijah"; this is modified in the NRSV to read, "Then he set out

and followed Elijah." The earlier rendering of Psalm 50:9, "I

will accept no bull from your house," is altered to read in the NRSV,

"I will not accept a bull from your house."

Also under the category of words that can be misunderstood

are homophones, that is, words that have the same sound but differ

in spelling and meaning, such as "there" and "their." To prevent

possible ambiguity during oral reading, the statement "because

there God had revealed himself' (Gen. 35:7, RSV) was altered in

the NRSV to "Because it was there that God had revealed himself."

Another kind of oral ambiguity can arise when one hears Luke

22:35 read aloud: "`Did you lack anything?' They said,

"`Nothing."' The NRSV renders the second sentence, "They said,

`No, not a thing"' to prevent hearers from thinking the sentence

read, "They said nothing."

4. The maxim of the committee that produced the New Re-

vised Standard Version is that the version was to be "as literal as

possible, as free as necessary." Though, as expected, there would

be differences among the members as to when to reject a literal

rendering, they agreed that expressions that reflected ancient

ideas of psychology should be replaced by modern terms. Both the

Old and New Testaments contain references to one's kidneys as

the seat of affections and emotions. Because the King James

translators used the older English word "reins," which meant

kidneys, most readers of that translation today have no idea or, at

any rate, a wrong idea of the meaning of such passages as, "My

reins also instruct me in the night seasons" (Ps. 16:7), or "I am he

which searcheth the reins and the hearts" (Rev. 2:23). In present-

day English the equivalent is "heart" or "mind." The King

James literal rendering of Philippians 2:1, "any bowels and

Persistent Problems Confronting Bible Translators 283


mercies," does not convey the idea intended by the original text.

Modern translators employ a variety of equivalent terms, such as

"warmth or sympathy" (NJB), "kindness and compassion" (GNB),

"warmth of affection or compassion" (REB), "compassion and

sympathy" (NRSV), "tenderness and compassion" (NIV).

5. In recent years yet another problem has begun to confront

those who translate the Bible into English, namely, the question of

the suitability of using masculine-oriented language in passages

that obviously apply to men and women alike. The movement for

women's "liberation," with its occasional extravagances, has

made people conscious as never before of deficiencies in the way

humans speak of each other. Many publishers, as well as church

educational boards, now issue guidelines as to how best to express

oneself in "inclusive" language. No doubt such concerns will not

go away, and translators of the Scriptures obviously do not wish to

offend and put off readers by using what is increasingly coming

to be regarded as unacceptable English.

The problems that are easiest to correct are, of course, those

passages where earlier translators inserted the word "man" or

"men" but where the Hebrew or Greek text lacks such a term. The

traditional rendering of Jesus' words in John 12:32 is, "And I,

when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself."

Here the King James translators inserted the word "men," itali-

cizing it to indicate (as they were accustomed to do) that it is not in

the Greek. In order, however, to show in modern English usage

that the passage does not intend to limit the reference to male

adults only, translators have rendered the passage either "draw

everyone to myself' (NAB, 2d ed., and REB) or "draw all people to

myself' (NJB and NRSV).

According to the King James Version, at the wedding feast

held at Cana of Galilee, the comment was made, "Every man at

the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well

drunk, then that which is worse" (John 2:10). Here the words

"man" and "men" do not appear in the Greek text, nor are they

italicized in the translation. The REB and NRSV have indepen-

dently of each other avoided the masculine bias of the King James

Version by using "everyone" instead of "every man" and

"guests" instead of "men."

Somewhat more difficult to assess are the passages that do

contain the Hebrew or Greek word for "man" (wyxi or a@nqrwpoj) but

where it would be wrong to understand the passage as restricted to

adult males. For example, "Mari shall not live by bread alone"

(Deut. 8:3, quoted in Matt. 4:4 and Luke 4:4) is rendered in the

NRSV, "One does not live by bread alone."

284 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1993


When the apostle referred to the work of the Holy Spirit in

strengthening "the inner man" (Eph. 3:16), what should transla-

tors do? Should they assume that the expression "inner man" is a

stereotyped phrase that would be understood by women? Or is it

better to use the expression "your inner being" (NIV and NRSV) or

even to replace "strengthen" with the noun "strength" and render

the phrase "grant you inward strength"?

Of course in other passages the word "man" or "men" must

remain in English. One recognizes that the congregation in most

Jewish synagogues in antiquity consisted exclusively of men.

Furthermore the presence of the Greek word a@ndrej in Mark's ac-

count of the number of those who had eaten at the feeding of the

5,000 (Mark 6:44) must be rendered "men."

A recurring difficulty facing translators is the lack of a

common gender third person singular pronoun in English. It is

ungrammatical to say, "everyone must bear their own burden,"

and it is restrictive to say, "everyone must bear his own burden,"

but it would be cumbersome to say, "everyone must bear his or her

own burden." In such cases the NRSV translators considered that

the least unsatisfactory solution was to represent the meaning by

pluralizing, "All must carry their own burden."

6. Several problems are virtually impossible to resolve. How

should poetry be translated? To turn Hebrew poetry into prose has

been compared to playing on a violin a score written for the or-


Plays on words in Hebrew and Greek are especially difficult

to handle. Frequently the only solution is to supply explanatory

footnotes. At Jeremiah 1:11-12 the NIV adds the note, "The Hebrew

for watching sounds like the Hebrew for almond tree," and the

RSV provides in notes the transliteration of the two words in ques-

tion, "Heb shaqed" and "Heb shoqed." The Greek name Ones-

imus means "useful," to which Paul alluded in Philemon 9-10.

This is handled gracefully in Weymouth's rendering,

"Formerly he was useless to you, but now-true to his name-he is

of great use to you and to me."

The presence of an acrostic format in such passages as

Psalm 119 and Lamentations 1-4 is the despair of many transla-

tors. Ronald Knox, however, was no ordinary translator and he

managed to present in English the equivalent kind of structure.

To take Lamentations 4:1-10 as a specimen, the opening word or

words of Knox's rendering are as follows: "All dim.... Bright. .

Cub.... Dry throat.... Even they feared.... Faithless Juda. .

Gone.... Here.... It were better.... Juda brought low ..."

and so forth.

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

3909 Swiss Ave.

Dallas, TX 75204

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: