Bibliotheca Sacra 150 (April-June 1993): 140-50

  Copyright 1993 Dallas Theological Seminary; cited with permission.

 

 

 

THEORIES OF THE

TRANSLATION PROCESS*

 

 

Bruce M. Metzger

 

 

If, according to the traditional rendering of Proverbs

13:15, "The way of the transgressor is hard," the way of the trans-

lator is scarcely less hard. Not only does the work of translation

demand the utmost in concentrated effort, but the result will sel-

dom please everyone, least of all the conscientious translator.

Since not all the nuances in a text can be conveyed into another

language, the translator must choose which ones are to be ren-

dered and which are not. For this reason the cynic speaks of

translation as "the art of making the right sacrifice," and the

Italians have put the matter succinctly in a proverb, "The trans-

lator is a traitor" (traduttore, traditore). In short, except on a

purely practical level, translation is never entirely successful.

There is always what Ortega y Gasset called the misery and the

splendor of the translation process.1

The work of translating the Bible presents special difficul-

ties. Since the Scriptures are a source of both information and in-

spiration, Bible translations must be accurate as well as felici-

tous. They must be suitable for rapid scanning as well as for de-

tailed study, and suitable for ceremonial reading aloud to large

and small audiences. 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. Such an ideal is, of

course, virtually impossible to attain.

 

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

tus, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey.

* This is article two 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.

1 Jose Ortega y Gasset, "Miseria y esplendor de la traducci6n," Obras completas,

4th ed. (Madrid: Revista de Occidante, 1958), 5:433-52.



Theories of the Translation Process 141

 

The problem is compounded by the diversity of theories of the

translation process. Should the translation be literalistic or free

and paraphrastic? At what level of English style should it be

pitched? Is it right to introduce into the rendering cultural expla-

nations, and if so, how frequently? In the printed format of the

Bible, should pronouns that refer to Deity be capitalized? Is it ad-

visable to print the words of Christ in red ink? All these are legit-

imate questions that need to be considered by Bible translators.

Perhaps it is well to note the graceful phrasing of metaphors

for the translation process that the King James translators ad-

dressed to the reader near the beginning of the preface to their ver-

sion (a preface that unfortunately is seldom included in modern

printings of that version):

Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light;

that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth

aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place; that

removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water,

even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well,

by which means the flocks of Laban were watered.2

 

Basically there are two competing theories of translation. In

one the predominant purpose is to express as exactly as possible

the full force and meaning of every word and turn of phrase in the

original, and in the other the predominant purpose is to produce a

result that does not read like a translation at all, but that moves in

its new dress with the same ease as in its native rendering. Of

course in the hands of good translators neither of these two ap-

proaches can ever be entirely ignored. The question is merely

which should come first, and which second, in the translator's

mind; and when the two are in conflict and it is therefore neces-

sary to choose between them, the question is which side is to be

sacrificed. This article discusses examples of various kinds of

translations of the Scriptures down through the ages.

 

TRANSLATIONS IN THE ANCIENT WORLD

 

AQUILA

Early in the Christian era, a Jewish scholar named Aquila

was dissatisfied with the Septuagint translation and undertook to

produce a Greek rendering of the Hebrew Scriptures that would

represent each Hebrew word with a corresponding Greek word.

The result of following this procedure was the production of a ren-

 

2 The Translators to the Reader; Preface to the King James Version 1611, ed.

Edgar J. Goodspeed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1935), 21.



142 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April.-June 1993

 

dering that was so slavishly literal that it was often unintelligi-

ble to a reader who did not know Hebrew as well as Greek. For

example in Genesis 1:1 the Hebrew text prefixes the word tx, to

"heaven" and to "earth" in order to indicate that these words are

the object of the verb "create." Aquila, however, understood tx, to

be the Hebrew preposition, spelled the same way, and therefore

rendered the text e]poi<hsen o[ qeo>j su>n to>n ou]rano>n kai> su>n th?n

gh?n, a rendering that is totally un-Greek.

 

SYMMACHUS

Toward the end of the second Christian century another

Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures was prepared. This

was by Symmachus, an Ebionite Christian of Jewish back-

ground. His theory and method were the opposite of that of Aquila,

for his aim was to make an elegant Greek rendering. To judge

from the scattered fragments that remain of his translation,

Symmachus tended to be paraphrastic in representing the Hebrew

original. He preferred idiomatic Greek constructions in contrast

to other versions in which the Hebrew constructions are pre-

served. Thus he usually converted into a Greek participle the

first of two finite verbs connected with a copula. He made copious

use of a wide range of Greek particles to bring out subtle distinc-

tions of relationship that the Hebrew cannot adequately express.

In more than one passage Symmachus had a tendency to soften

anthropomorphic expressions of the Hebrew text.

 

JEROME

Jerome's approach is puzzling. On the one hand in his letter

to Sunnia and Fretela, Jerome declared that the work of a good

translator consists in rendering idiomatic expressions of one

language into the modes of expression native to the other.3 In an-

other letter, addressed to Pammachius, he discussed the best

method of translating literary works in general, and stated,

"From my youth up I have always aimed at rendering sense not

words.... A literal translation from one language to another ob-

scures the sense."4 At the same time, however, Jerome made an

exception when it came to the Bible. He added a qualification, "In

translating from the Greek I render sense for sense and not word

for word-except in the case of the Holy Scriptures, where even the

order of the words is a mystery."5

 

3 Jerome, Epistle 106. 3. 3.

4 Ibid., 57.6.

5 Ibid., 57.5.



Theories of the Translation Process 143

 

Here Jerome clearly advocated two different methods of

translation, depending on whether the original is a secular or a

sacred text. In the Bible every word is sacred. In his letter to

Paulinus, Jerome wrote, "The Apocalypse of John has as many

mysteries as words,"6 and these mysteries must be preserved in

the translation. Since the order of words transcends human un-

derstanding, a change in the order of words not only destroys this

mystery, but it also endangers the profundity of the sacred text.

All this seems to be clear enough until one looks at Jerome's

work in preparing the Latin text of the Vulgate. His declaration

of policy in translating Scripture seems to be inconsistent with

his general practice. It is perplexing that although Jerome advo-

cated the word-for-word method of Bible translation, he was not

always consistent in following it. Perhaps the best solution to this

anomaly is to suggest that in making the Vulgate translation

Jerome had in fact renounced a great part of the ornamentation of

style and paraphrase he was accustomed to employ when dealing

with secular works, but nevertheless allowed himself a certain

amount of freedom and variety of renderings in the Vulgate.

 

ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS

English translations of the Bible present a great variety of

types of rendering.

 

THE KING JAMES VERSION

In the preface to the 1611 English version, the translators set

forth their theory of translation. At some length they declared:

We have not tied ourselves to an [sic] uniformity of phrasing, or

to an identity of words, as some peradventure would wish that we

had done, because they observe, that some learned men some-

where, have been as exact as they could that way. Truly, that we

might not vary from the sense of that which we had translated be-

fore, if the word signified the same in both places (for there be

some words that be not of the same sense everywhere) we were

especially careful, and made a conscience, according to our duty.

But, that we should express the same notion in the same particu-

lar word; as for example, if we translate the Hebrew or Greek

word once by Purpose, never to call it Intent; if one where Jour-

neying, never Traveling; if one where Think, never Suppose; if

one where Pain, never Ache; if one where Joy, never Gladness,

etc. Thus to mince the matter, we thought to savour more of cu-

riosity than wisdom, and that rather it would breed scorn in the

Atheist, than bring profit to the godly Reader.7

 

6 Ibid., 53.9.

7 The Translators to the Reader; Preface to the King James Version 1611, 36.



144 BIBUOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1993

 

As examples of the wide variety of translation in the King

James Version one can point to the 11 ways in which the Greek

verb me<nw is rendered in the New Testament, including "abide,"

"remain," "continue," "dwell," "tarry," "endure," "stand,"

and "be present." Even within the space of a few verses in 1

Corinthians 13 four renderings of the same Greek verb are used:

"prophecies, they shall fail . . . knowledge, it shall vanish away

that which is in part shall be done away ... I put away ...

childish things." Clearly the apostle had some purpose in reiter-

ating the key word of this passage, but this purpose is lost to the

reader of the King James Version.

 

EDWARD HARWOOD'S TRANSLATION

After the publication of the King James Version and its gen-

eral acceptance in succeeding generations, its position was chal-

lenged by a classical scholar and biblical critic named Edward

Harwood (1729-1794). Dissatisfied with what he termed "the bald

and barbarous languages of the old vulgar version," that is, the

Authorized Version, in 1768 Harwood issued a rendering of the

New Testament in the elevated style of English that was current

among many British authors in the second half of the 18th cen-

tury.8 The opening sentences of the Parable of the Prodigal Son

are an example of the contrived and artificial style imposed on

the simple and direct language of the Gospel of Luke. "A Gen-

tleman of a splendid family and opulent fortune had two sons.

One day the younger approached his father, and begged him in the

most importunate and soothing terms to make a partition of his

effects betwixt himself and his elder brother--The indulgent fa-

ther, overcome by his blandishments, immediately divided all

his fortunes betwixt them."

Likewise the simple and chaste language of Mary's Magni-

ficat in the King James Version (Luke 1:47-48) was transposed by

Harwood so as to read, "My soul with reverence adores my Cre-

ator, and all my faculties with transport join in celebrating the

goodness of God, my Saviour, who hath in so signal a manner

condescended to regard my poor and humble station. Transcen-

dent goodness! Every future age will now conjoin in celebrating

my happiness!"

 

8 The title page reads, "A liberal translation of the New Testament; being an at-

tempt to translate the Sacred Writings with the same Freedom, Spirit, and Ele-

gance with which other English translations of the Greek Classics have lately

been executed ... with Select Notes, Critical and Explanatory. By E. Harwood (For

T. Becket and Others, London, 1768)."



Theories of the Translation Process 145

 

NOAH WEBSTER'S BIBLE

 

Altogether unlike the garish style used in Harwood's render-

ing was the sober and restrained revision of the King James Ver-

sion that Noah Webster, the lexicographer, issued at New Haven,

Connecticut, in 1833.9 His purpose, he wrote in the preface, was to

remove obsolete words and phrases and to correct errors of

grammar and mistranslations. Examples of the former are the

use of "who" for "which" when it refers to persons; "it" for "his"

when it refers to plants and to things without life; "falsehood" for

"leasing"; "hinder" for "let"; "button" for "tache"; "boiled" for

"sodden"; "Holy Spirit" for "Holy Ghost." Errors of grammar

are "Whom do you say I am?" and the occasional use of the sin-

gular number of the verb with a plural subject (e.g., Luke 5:10;

9:17). About 150 words and phrases which Webster found to be er-

roneous or misleading were corrected in the various passages

where they appeared. Practically all these changes have been

adopted by later revisers, who found his judgment sound as to the

need of change.

In addition to the kinds of changes mentioned above, Webster

introduced another kind of amendment in the language, which

he considered of very grave importance. In his own words,

To these may be added many words and phrases, very offensive to

delicacy and even to decency.... Language which cannot be ut-

tered in company without a violation of decorum, or the rules of

good breeding, exposes the scriptures to the scoffs of unbelievers,

impairs their authority, and multiplies or confirms the enemies of

our holy religion.10

 

JULIA E. SMITH'S TRANSLATION

Another idiosyncratic rendering, published a century after

Harwood's version, was produced in 1876 by an American trans-

lator, Julia E. Smith. This rendering has the distinction of being

the first translation of the entire Bible made by a woman. It was

issued at her own expense by the American Publishing Company

of Hartford, Connecticut. The title page declares that it was

"translated literally from the original tongues," and in the pref-

ace Smith indicates that she "endeavored to put the same English

 

9 The Webster Bible was reissued in 1987 by the Baker Book House of Grand

Rapids.

10 In the following passages Webster introduced various euphemisms in place of

the expressions used in the King James Version: Genesis 20:18; 29:31; 30:22; 34:30;

38:9, 24; Exodus 7:18; 16:24; Leviticus 19:29; 21:7; Deuteronomy 22:21; 23:1; 28:57;

Judges 2:17; 1 Samuel 1:5; 1 Kings 14:10; 16:11; 21:21; 2 Kings 9:8; 18:27; Job 3:10-12;

40:17; Psalms 22:9, 10; 38:5; 106:39; Ecclesiastes 11:5; Isaiah 36:12; Ezekiel 16 and 23;

John 11:39; Ephesians 5:5.



146 BIBUOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1993

 

word for the same Hebrew or Greek word everywhere," for she

considered that this gave a "much clearer understanding of the

text." The result, however, was a rendering teeming with obscu-

rities and nonsense on almost every page.

Paying no attention to the function of the Hebrew waw con-

secutive, she frequently used the future tense in translating He-

brew] verbs in historical narrative, giving the reader the impres-

sion that everything in those narratives, including the acts of

creation in the first chapter of Genesis, was yet to happen! The

extent of the obscurity is suggested by Jeremiah 22:23, presented

as a complete sentence and reading, "Thou dwelling in Lebanon,

building a nest in the cedars, how being compassionated in pangs

coming to thee the pain as of her bringing forth."

 

THE REVISED VERSION (1881-1885)

In 1870 the Province of Canterbury of the Church of England

issued a proposal that a committee should be formed to undertake

a revision of the Authorized or King James Version of the Bible.11

At first it was hoped to keep the work entirely in Anglican hands,

but eventually Free Church scholars, plus one Unitarian, joined

the revision committee. As was to be expected, the great majority

of the members of the revision committee had been trained at Ox-

ford or Cambridge. At that time, according to the judgment of C.

J. Cadoux,12 these two universities inculcated quite different ide-

als for the translation process. The Oxford method aimed at con-

veying the sense of the original in free idiomatic English without

too much regard for the precise wording of the former; the Cam-

bridge method paid meticulous attention to verbal accuracy, so as

to translate as literally as possible without positive violence to

English usage, or positive misrepresentation of the author's

meaning, and to leave it to the reader to discern the sense from the

context. For good or for ill, the Cambridge genius presided over

the English Revised Version.

The rules set before the revisers were rigid and conservative.

For example it was determined that, so far as possible, only such

expressions were to be used as were already present in the King

James Version. It is no surprise that by following this rule there

was actually an increase of archaic English expressions in the

revision.

 

11 It is significant that the Province of York refused to cooperate in the task of re-

vision on the ground that it would deplore any recasting of the text of Scripture.

12 C. J. Cadoux, The Bible and Its Ancient and English Versions, ed. H. Wheeler

Robinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940), 251.



Theories of the Translation Process 147

 

As a sample of the sometimes unidiomatic English, the ren-

dering of Luke 9:17 can scarcely be regarded as good English

style: "And they did eat, and were all filled: and there was taken

up that which remained over to them of broken pieces, twelve bas-

kets." The evaluation of the New Testament in the Revised Ver-

sion by the famous London preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon

was brief and to the point: "The revision is strong in Greek but

weak in English." Nevertheless for those who desire an English

version that presents a formal equivalent of the original texts, the

Revised Version has no equal.

Like the Revised Version, the American Standard Version is

extremely literalistic.

 

DYNAMIC EQUIVALENT TRANSLATIONS

 

At the other extreme to translations that present a formal

equivalent are those that seek to offer what can be called a dy-

namic equivalent. The prime mover in developing such transla-

tions, whether in English or in other languages, has been Eugene

A. Nida, long associated with the American Bible Society.

Trained in linguistics and competent in many related fields,

Nida has published extensively13 and has prompted other schol-

ars to carry on similar projects.

"Dynamic equivalence" is defined as "the quality of a trans-

lation in which the message of the original text has been so trans-

ported into the receptor language that the response of the receptor is

essentially like that of the original receptors. . . . The opposite

principle is formal correspondence."14 More recently the term

"functional equivalence"15 has been used to describe such a

quality in the translation.

Whichever term is preferred, the process involves the re-

wording of expressions and customs not well known today. For

example in Psalm 23:5 the literal translation, "anointed my head

with oil," is replaced with what is deemed to be its modern equiva-

lent, "welcomed me as an honored guest." Applying the process of

dynamic equivalence in translation, in 1966 the American Bible

 

13 For a bibliography of Nida's publications from 1945 to 1975 see Language Struc-

ture and Translation: Essays by Eugene A. Nida, selected and introduced by An-

war S. Dil (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975), 274-83.

14 Eugene A. Nida and Charles R. Tabor, The Theory and Practice of Translation

(Leiden: Brill, 1969), 202.

15 So described in the subtitle of the book by Jan de Waard and Eugene A. Nida,

From One Language to Another: Functional Equivalence in Bible Translating

(Nashville: Nelson, 1986). See also the appendix entitled "Diverse Theories of

Translation," 182-87.



148 BIBUOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1993

 

Society issued Robert G. Bratcher's rendering of the New Testa-

ment in Today's English Version, under the title Good News for

Modern Man. Subsequently with the assistance of several other

scholars, the translation of the Old Testament was finished in

1976 and issued with the New Testament, as the Good News Bible.

The apocryphal or deuterocanonical books followed in 1979. The

version uses contemporary American English, and has won wide

acceptance because of its ready intelligibility.

The most recently produced translation (1991) that embodies

"functional equivalence" is the American Bible Society's Con-

temporary English Version, under the title Bible for Today's

Family. Originally intended as an easily understood Bible for

young people, the version was recognized as having appeal for a

much wider audience. The New Testament, produced by Barclay

Newman and others for the American Bible Society, is somewhat

similar to the Good News Bible; it is an idea-by-idea translation

that arranges the text in a sequence understandable to today's

readers of English. The translators were also concerned about

using gender-inclusive language for men and women.

 

PARAPHRASES

The difference between a translation and a paraphrase may

be expressed as follows: A paraphrase tells the reader what the

passage means, whereas a literal translation tells what the pas-

sage says. Of course a paraphrase can be useful, just as a com-

mentary is a useful tool for Bible students. The first paraphrase

of the New Testament in English was prepared by an Anglican,

Henry Hammond (1605--1660), and entitled A Paraphrase and

Annotations upon all the Books of the New Testament (London,

1653). In the following century Samuel Johnson commended this

pioneer work of English biblical criticism. In the 20th century,

paraphrases have once again attracted readers, first through the

publication of J. B. Phillips's Letters to Young Churches (1947),

followed by Kenneth S. Wuest's Expanded Translation of the

Greek New Testament, 3 volumes (1956-59). A few years later a

paraphrase of the entire Bible was published through the Lockman

Foundation under the title The Amplified Bible (1962). This

contains comments, enclosed within brackets, that clarify the

sense of the original text. F. F. Bruce's characteristically care-

ful work appeared in a volume entitled The Letters of Paul: An

Expanded Paraphrase (1965).

By far the most popular biblical paraphrase has been Kenneth

N. Taylor's The Living Bible, Paraphrased (1971). This is a



Theories of the Translation Process 149

 

simplified, easy-to-follow rendering in idiomatic present-day

English. At times, however, the text is greatly expanded by imag-

inative details for which there is no warrant in the original. A

clear example is Amos 1:1, where the first 16 words of a literal

word-to-word English rendering (such as that of the American

Standard Version) are expanded to 46 words. Sometimes in the

interest of smoothing away a difficulty, Taylor takes unwar-

ranted liberties with the text. For example, contrary to what the

Synoptic Gospels report, John 12:14 states that Jesus Himself

found the donkey on which He rode into Jerusalem; The Living

Bible takes care of this problem by eliminating the passage.

 

SUBSIDIARY QUESTIONS

 

Over the years preferences of style in printing English have

changed. Neither in the King James Version nor in subsequent

English versions down to the 20th century have translators capi-

talized pronouns that refer to Deity. It is only rather recently that

several translations have adopted this practice, including the

Amplified Bible, the Berkeley Version, the New American Stan-

dard Version, and the New King James Bible. Though such a

practice is thought to show more reverence, it must be acknowl-

edged that there is absolutely no such differentiation made in the

Hebrew or Greek text.

Furthermore where does one stop in applying such a mis-

guided policy? If the translator capitalizes third person pronouns

(he, his, him), what should be done with the relative pronouns

(who, whom, whose)? Should one capitalize "you," even in

speeches of unbelievers that are reported in the narrative, such as

Pilate's question, "Are you the King of the Jews?" (Matt. 27:11)?

Such problems as these indicate how inadvisable it is to follow the

practice of capitalizing pronouns.

Another modernism introduced rather recently in printed

Bibles is the use of red ink for the words of Christ. The first such

New Testament was the King James Version edited by Louis

Klopsch and issued by the Christian Herald (New York) in 1899;

it was reprinted many times. During the 20th century other pub-

lishers have issued a variety of other versions in this manner.

Besides passages in the Gospels, such editions, of course, also

print in red the sayings attributed to Christ in the Book of Acts, 2

Corinthians, and Revelation. Difficulties arise in ascertaining

the end of a conversation; in John 3 do the words of Jesus end at

verse 15 or at verse 21?

The advisability of the practice can be debated. On the one



150 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1993

 

hand a different color of ink may assist the reader to find more

quickly certain familiar passages. On the other hand printing

the words of Christ in red not only violates the unity of the text, but

also seems to lay a greater emphasis on the report of what Jesus

said (as a teacher) than on what He did (as the Savior).

Another difficulty confronts translators today because of the

inability of modern English to differentiate between "you" sin-

gular number and "you" plural number. In earlier days "thou"

and "ye," with the objective forms "thee" and "you," could repre-

sent exactly the Hebrew or Greek text. Today it is necessary to

indicate in a footnote (as the NRSV does) that the Greek word for

"you" is plural in Luke 14:24; John 1:51; 3:11-12; 4:20-21; and 1

Timothy 6:21, even though in each case the words just before are

spoken to an individual. In other contexts that mention several

persons, a footnote indicates that the word "you" is singular in

number (e.g., Phile. 4-21).

 

CONCLUSION

One time at a meeting of his diocesan clergy, Richard

Whately (1787-1863), the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, aston-

ished his hearers when he held up a copy of the Authorized Ver-

sion of the Bible and said, "Never forget, gentlemen, that this is

not the Bible."' Then, after a moment's pause, he continued,

"This, gentlemen, is only a translation of the Bible."16

What should one say about Whately's pronouncement? From

one point of view he was no doubt correct. But from another point

of view one must also recognize the truth in what the translators of

the King James Version forthrightly declared in the preface to

their rendering:

We do not deny, nay we affirm and avow, that the very meanest

translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our pro-

fession, . . . containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God.

As the King's speech, which he uttereth in Parliament, being

translated into French, Dutch, Italian and Latin, is still the

King's speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator

with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so

expressly for sense, everywhere.... No cause therefore why the

word translated should be denied to be the word, or forbidden to

be current, notwithstanding that some imperfections and blem-

ishes may be noted in the setting forth of it.17

 

16 Reported by Henry Solly, "These Eighty Years," or, The Story of an Unfinished

Life (London: Simpkin & Martall, 1893), 2:81.

17 The Translators to the Reader; Preface to the King James Version 1611, 28-29.



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