Find articles by keyword, title, or author name

The Languages of Biblical Translation

Online Edition – June 2007

Vol. XIII, No. 4

The Languages of Biblical Translation

by Father Paul Mankowski, SJ

Father Mankowski is a biblical scholar who teaches Hebrew at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. He presented this address to the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Convention, September 2006. (Others whose addresses to the FCS convention have appeared in AB include Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship [Oct. 06], Father Chrysogonus Waddell, OCSO, of Gethsemani Abbey [Nov. 06], and James Hitchcock, of St. Louis University [Dec.-Jan. 07]).


The beginning of the Holy Gospel according to John:

Before the origin of this world existed the LOGOS — who was then with the Supreme God — and was himself a divine person. He existed with the supreme Being, before the foundation of the earth was laid: For this most eminent personage did the Deity solely employ in the foundation of this world, and of every thing. This exalted spirit assumed human life — and from this incarnation the most pure and sacred emanations of light were derived to illuminate mankind: This light shot its beams into a benighted world — and conquered and dispelled that gloomy darkness, in which it was inveloped. To usher this divine personage into the world, and to prepare men for his reception, God previously commissioned and sent John the Baptist. This prophet came to give public notice that a glorious light would shortly appear — to excite all the Jews to credit and receive this great messenger of God. John himself openly disavowed all pretensions to this exalted character — declaring, that he was only appointed of God to give public information of this illustrious personage.

The Gospel, very approximately, of the Lord. You’ve just heard a reading from Edward Harwood’s New Testament of 1768, or, to give its full Harwoodian title, A Liberal Translation of the New Testament; being An Attempt to translate the Sacred Writings with the same Freedom, Spirit, and Elegance, With which other English Translations from the Greek Classics have lately been executed, with select Notes, Critical and Explanatory. The unadorned prose of the Bible, plainly, was not to Harwood’s taste. Being a child of his age, he preferred marble to granite for every purpose. Listen to his rendering of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-11):

O thou great governor and parent of universal nature, who manifestest thy glory to the blessed inhabitants of heaven — may all thy rational creatures in all the parts of thy boundless dominion be happy in the knowledge of thy existence and providence, and celebrate thy perfections in a manner most worthy of thy nature and perfective of their own!

You get the point. Harwood wanted prose that could take a polish, and the New Testament just wasn’t marmoreal enough, whence he was obliged to provide improvements and corrections in those places where the unsteady hand of the sacred author — the uncouth sacred author — had blundered. As a critic, Harwood makes common cause with one of our contemporaries, an American bishop, who recently objected to the literal translation of the words praeclarum calicem in the First Eucharistic Prayer:

“Precious chalice” — when I hear those words, I think of a gold vessel with diamonds on it. Did Jesus, at the Last Supper, use a precious chalice or a cup? The gospels clearly say “cup”, but even in the lectionary from Rome we have the word “chalice” imposed on the inspired text to carry out this “sacred language”.

It’s important to understand that, concretely, this taste is diametrically contrary to Harwood’s at every point: where Harwood was shocked at the rusticity of the Bible, the bishop is shocked that the Roman Canon is insufficiently biblical. Yet both men were so confident of the superiority of their taste as to see it, and not the text, as the translator’s touchstone. Each would translate what he wished the original author had written.

“Translations are so much more enjoyable than originals”, Ephraim Speiser laconically observes in his introduction to the Anchor Bible Genesis, “because they contain many things that the originals leave out”.1 The history of biblical translation knows its share of Harwoods, eager to remedy perceived defects by creative interpolation, but more interesting is the case of those striving to do it right — to include everything that God put in the sacred text and to add nothing that He didn’t — for the study of biblical renderings shows that each choice for fidelity in one dimension of transmission involves a sacrifice of fidelity in another. Apart from ideologized targums or the work of gross incompetents, every attempt at translating the Bible involves a series of compromises or trade-offs in which that which is transmitted intact from the original to the translation is achieved at a cost: namely, the cost of diminished accuracy in some other aspect. Adapting Herbert Butterfield’s quip about the term Realism, we might say, “fidelity is not a coherent strategy of translation, but a boast”.

In the latter half of the 20th century, for example, it was considered appropriate to translate the Bible thought-for-thought instead of word-for-word: to forego formal for “dynamic equivalence”, as the jargon has it. No one has made a stronger case for this approach than Ronald Knox, in his work On Englishing the Bible. Said Knox:

Words are not coins, dead things whose value can be mathematically computed…. Words are living things, full of shades of meaning, full of associations, and, what is more, they are apt to change their significance from one generation to the next. The [biblical] translator who understands his job feels, constantly, like Alice in Wonderland trying to play croquet with flamingoes for mallets and hedgehogs for balls; words are forever eluding his grasp.2

Knox was dead-set against what he called “token words” — i.e., a single English word consistently used to convey a given word of your original. Suppose, he suggested, a translation committee faced with the text of Virgil decides to render the word pius by “dutiful”. The translator “very soon realizes”, he says, “that pius takes on a different shade of meaning with each fresh context. Now it is ‘Aeneas, that dutiful son’, now it is ‘Aeneas, that admirable host’, now it is ‘Aeneas, that trained liturgiologist’”. The same context-conditioned meanings will be found with biblical words. “If”, Knox continues, “you set out to give [Latin] salus the meaning of ‘salvation’ all through the New Testament, you find yourself up against Saint Paul inviting the ship’s company during the storm to take a little food for the sake of their salvation”.3

“To use such a token-word”, Knox argues, “is to abrogate your duty as a translator. Your duty as a translator is to think up the right expression, though it may have to be a paraphrase, which will give the reader the exact shade of meaning here and here and here”.

Now this is a very strong argument, and if the Bible were a work on the order of Virgil’s — from the fist of one man, completed on a single afternoon, self-standing and self-ratifying — I think it would be unanswerable. But in fact the Bible is a collection of books, written in three languages by numerous human authors over the course of a millennium and a half, not connected one with another by any intrinsic design but assembled on dogmatic grounds by the Church. That means the Bible translator may well have a different set of responsibilities than the man envisaged by Ronald Knox.

Consider two grad students: one studying classics, given 50 lines of the Aeneid to translate; the second, studying Hebrew grammar, given 50 lines from Isaiah. Both would accomplish their job by following Knox’s strictures. But if the same 50 lines given the Hebrew student are to be rendered for use in a biblical translation, the task and its attendant responsibilities are markedly different. Many words and expressions in Isaiah have a pre-history (in earlier parts of the Old Testament), and others have a life of their own in later parts of the Old Testament and New Testament as well. Translating in the Knox manner according to passage context will obliterate these inter-textual connections, while token translation will illuminate them.

Further, a Biblical text is not so much read as it is heard; not so much heard as re-heard, often hundreds of times in a single lifetime. It does not have to make us catch our breath, and the translator doesn’t necessarily fail us by failing to rivet our attention on first hearing. Again, the Bible is a liturgical book, and its use in the liturgy means the translator has aids to understanding that the translator of Virgil does not, while he also has responsibilities toward the meanings or imagery bestowed by the liturgy in its own history of scriptural interpretation.4

Finally, there is a tradition of doctrinal interpretation, embracing not only the original text but its earlier translations, to which the biblical translator must be accountable. While the Hebrew grad student is perfectly justified in rendering Hebrew ha’almah by “young woman”, in Isaiah 7:14, the man translating the Bible must be aware of the Septuagintal translation parthenos en gastri hexei and the Vulgate’s virgo concipiet, and of the unanimous doctrinal tradition that sees in this passage a prophecy of the virgin birth. So, it is important to appreciate that there are significant gains in intelligibility made by the thought-for-thought or dynamic equivalence approach, and there are significant costs as well.

And it seems to be the case that those costs have begun to impress biblicists in recent years, and that the pendulum is swinging the other way. The success of Robert Alter’s recent translation of the Pentateuch, called The First Five Books of Moses, has done much to vindicate the much-maligned token words, for Alter makes it a point to preserve the token wherever possible. In his introduction Alter deplores an expedient to which dynamic equivalence is prone, which he calls the Heresy of Explanation. As Digby Anderson expounds it:

When accurate translation produces a word or phrase that the translators feel is strange or “inaccessible” to modern readers they adjust it so that it explains itself. The result is “a betrayal” and, since strangeness is a quality of the Hebrew original, the translation places “readers at a grotesque distance from the distinctive literary experience of the Bible in its original language”. The sort of thing Alter has in mind in speaking of the heresy of explanation is the rendering of metaphors of body parts such as “hand” by the function for which they stand e.g., power, control, responsibility. The substitution is needless — the meaning was clear anyway — and it subverts the literary integrity of the story in which it occurs where “hand” is repeatedly used in a connected way. 5

This Heresy of Explanation is nowhere more rampant than in the New American Bible (NAB) and the Revised NAB (RNAB), where, e.g., Mary’s “for I know not man” becomes “for I have not had relations with a man”. Matthew 19:12 gets the same makeover. The traditional token-treatment (Revised Standard Version [RSV]) is this:

For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.

And here is the RNAB version, in which we are spoon-fed the exegesis:

Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven.

I don’t deny that the passage is hard to understand or that the RNAB’s paraphrase is edifying, but it is impossible to recover the word “eunuch” from the RNAB’s explanation — or explanations, more accurately, since being incapable of marriage is not the same as having renounced it — quite apart from the fact that marriage is not the activity of which eunuchs are incapable.

There’s another problem with the Heresy of Explanation beyond the distancing of the reader from the text and the loss of the verbal connections when the metaphor is decrypted: namely, the translator who locks himself into an explanation locks himself into an interpretation, even where that’s a risky business. Take the common word for “seed” — Hebrew zera, Greek sperma — that falls victim frequently to the explanatory impulse. Its metaphorical meaning of offspring, descendants, etc., is almost always recoverable from the token “seed” itself, which makes decoding unnecessary. But sometimes it’s not even prudent.

Consider I John 3:9. The King James Version gives: “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for His seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” Now there are several problems of interpretation in this verse, the thorniest of which is what is meant by sperma autou, “His” — that is, God’s — “seed”. One can understand the desire to ride out ahead of the text here, since there is no direct apprehension of the phrase “God’s seed” that is not either heretical or grotesque. The RSV, while ordinarily conservative and cautious, renders it “God’s nature abides in him”, which would seem to affront the hypostatic union; the New Living Translation gives us “God’s life”, and the Contemporary English Version goes for broke with “God’s life-giving power lives in them and makes them His children.” Five remarks about these explanatory translations: 1) they are not the same; 2) while each may be said to be lucid, the lucidity leads to theologically problematic misunderstandings, each of which requires a further explanation to avoid heresy; 3) biblical Greek had words for nature, life, and power, none of which the sacred author here chose to employ; 4) the notion of God’s seed would have been as difficult for the original audience of John’s letter as it is to us; and 5) if the original phrasing “His seed” were preserved in translation, the reader or homilist would be at liberty to follow his own lights in recapturing its meaning, whereas the explanatory translation cuts him off from other possibilities. What’s the point, then, of a gain in lucidity, if the translation becomes more lucid than the original text permits?

There’s a certain amount of chicanery on the part of the translator in suggesting that the intelligibility he puts in the translation reflects an intelligibility found in the original text. C. S. Lewis found the underlying theological problem already vexing 16th-century Catholic and Protestant controversialists.

All parties were agreed that the Bible was the oracles of God. But if so, are we entitled to worry out the sense of apparently meaningless passages as we would do in translating Thucydides? The real sense may be beyond our mortal capacity. Any concession to what we think the human author “must have meant” may be “restraining the Holy Ghost to our phantasie”.6

The problem may be broadened yet further, since the fact is that in several places the Bible is awkward, or ugly, or ungrammatical, or — as was suggested — flatly incomprehensible. Should its awkwardness, ugliness, grammatical solecism and incomprehensibility be reflected in the translation? I am aware of no rendering, ancient or modern, that does not iron out at least some of the rough spots, either by way of way of conscious tinkering or as a consequence of the translator’s superior control of his own grammar and diction. More fundamentally, I propose, the translator’s approach will be guided by his own understanding — or lack of understanding — of the Bible as the Church’s book, addressed in response to the Church’s purposes.

Take a homely example, that of the Hebrew vulgarism mastîn bqîr. It occurs seven times in the Old Testament, always in the connection of mass slaughter of male citizenry. Douay and the King James Version (KJV) give the intrepidly literal rendering “any that pisseth against a wall”. All modern translations, by contrast, launder the expression as “males”, making use of an explanatory paraphrasis. But the Hebrew phrase was deliberately unseemly, intended to depict an ugly act by an ugly expression. Does the duty of fidelity require conservation of ugliness? Well, the Bible is the Church’s book; it can be argued both ways.

A more politically charged problem is the translation of I Corinthians 6:9f: “Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor malakoi, nor arsenokoitai … will inherit the kingdom of God.” The late Yale scholar John Boswell denied it,7 but it’s beyond dispute that both terms refer to homosexual mischief, and as a consequence they have come under intense scrutiny. The difficulty is perhaps more pastoral than linguistic, as delicacy is here the enemy of accuracy. The first word literally means “soft”, but the RNAB is almost certainly right to understand it to mean “boy prostitutes”. The second, arsenokoitai, is a coinage of Hellenistic Judaism consciously reflecting the Septuagintal Greek rendering of Leviticus 20:13: those who lie with males.8 The translation “homosexual”, confusing as it does appetite and activity, obviously misses the mark. For my money, the most accurate rendering is that of the 1560 Geneva Bible, “neither wantons nor bouggerers”, but even that requires a gloss on “wantons”.

Or again, almost all of the New Testament, and some of the Old, was written in a language that was not the author’s mother tongue, with the consequence that literary beauties are rare and, not infrequently, the syntax is hopelessly snarled. The second sentence in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians contains 160 words in Greek. Almost no translator has the stomach to give us the English equivalent — as Ronald Knox says, “nothing … is so subtly disconcerting to the modern reader as having his intellectual food cut up into unsuitable lengths’’9 — yet it can be argued that turning clumsy Greek into snappy English for aesthetic purposes is a kind of infidelity — traduttore, traditore.

And what of the beauties of the Bible? It is a sad irony that translators are easily able to reproduce the ugliness of their originals, and only very rarely able to reproduce the beauties. An Ecclesiastical Committee may decide that a beautiful translation is desirable, but you can’t order up verbal felicities the way you order olives on a pizza — the Muses don’t come running at the snap of one’s fingers. (I would maintain, by the way, that the ability to make beautiful prose translations from ancient languages is one of the most stingily endowed of all artistic talents.) Then too, the 16th-century translators Coverdale and Cranmer (who were endowed with that gift) had almost too much natural music in their prose. In his famous Cambridge lecture on the Name and Nature of Poetry, A. E. Housman spoke of the way the supervenient beauties of poetry had physiological effects on his person:

One of these symptoms [of poetry, says Housman] was described in connexion with another object by Eliphaz the Temanite, “A spirit passed before my face, the hair of my flesh stood up.” Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor refuses to act.10

Moreover, Housman found himself thus put upon by Coverdale’s Psalter:

As for the seventh verse of the forty-ninth Psalm in the Book of Common Prayer, “But no man may deliver his brother, nor make agreement unto God for him”, that is to me poetry so moving that I can hardly keep my voice steady in reading it. And that this is the effect of language I can ascertain by experiment: the same thought in the bible version, “None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him”, I can read without emotion.11

So the question presents itself: was the poetry Housman found in Psalm 49:7 poetry the psalmist put there and that Coverdale conveyed, or was it absent in the Hebrew and simply the gratuitous effect of Coverdale’s melodious prose? I confess this verse in its Hebrew original does not transport me, but this may result from my own obtuseness in the matter. Yet the point is rather: where the original is drab, is beauty in the translation a betrayal? Does it make the hearer of God’s word a dilettante where He would have a disciple, or does it compensate for the deficiencies of our own culture by making the text more memorable, and thus an object of contemplation? The question in our own time is moot, since various considerations have made it certain that, of all the hazards presented by biblical translation, a dangerous excess of beauty is not one of them.

I began my remarks with a quotation from Edward Harwood’s rewriting of the New Testament as an example of translation as conscious correction of its original. Harwood’s foppishness had no lasting effect — indeed, as far as I can tell, no effect whatsoever. A far more serious threat to fidelity has arisen in our time in the form of so-called “inclusive language”— a threat, in fact, to the very possibility of biblical translation. The feminist ideology behind inclusive language explicitly regards the authors of the biblical text as suspect, and it explicitly views language itself with suspicion. It thus brings a moral fervor to a wide-ranging project of ideologically informed correction in which both the message of the original text and the vocabulary by which it is to be transmitted are subject to planned manipulation. Though it serves as a pretext for political emendation, the activity of translation itself is of no intrinsic value to proponents of inclusive language.

In this company, it is not necessary to expatiate on the harms visited upon the Bible by inclusive language. But we can illustrate the problem by looking at analogous attempts to right injustices by dislocating one part of the language, i.e., the Receptor Language, of translation.

Some years ago an Indian Jesuit12 told me that he was part of a team that translated the Bible into Tamil. He explained that Tamil has honorific and non-honorific forms of address, and that in the common spoken language males are addressed by means of the honorific and females by the non-honorific. He said that, in order that the Bible might be a political tool for cultural change, viz., acknowledgment of the equality of women, the translation team decided that the honorific form of address would be used for all persons in the Bible, regardless of sex. The only exceptions, he went on to mention, were Satan and Judas, who were assigned the non-honorific.

I trust you can spot the problem. By withholding the honorific forms of address from some characters and not others, one is implicitly conceding the derogatory semantic value — and extra-linguistic appropriateness — of the non-honorific form. But you have thereby created a private world in which the reader must decode your own value judgments — which are not those of the biblical authors — from your own encryption. Yet why stop at Judas and Satan? Why do Manasses and Simon Magus and Jezebel escape the treatment? The fact is that, once you have declared the common language untrustworthy and taken it upon yourselves to improve it, you can never, for any reason, put down your responsibility. Thus, once you have decided that it is immoral to use certain constructions of your mother tongue earlier understood to be innocent, and depart from that tongue in translation, the whole work comes under moral scrutiny whether you wish it to or not.

The impact of morally motivated translation was made, indirectly but wittily, by William Laughton Lorimer in his brilliant 1985 rendering of the New Testament into Scots dialect: a good-natured exercise in Scottish nationalism as well as minor masterpiece of philological scholarship.13 In his alternative version of Matthew Chapter 4, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, Lorimer exploits the potencies of moral evaluation latent in his patriotic project:

Syne Jesus wis led awà bu the Spírit tae the muirs for tae be tempit bi the Deil.

Whan he hed taen nae mait for fortie days an fortie nichts an wis fell hungrisome, the Temper cam til him an said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves.”

Jesus answert, “It says i the Buik:

Man sanna líve on breid alane,
but on ilka wurd at comes
furth o God’s mouth.”

So endeth the reading. If Lorimer was tongue-in-cheek, the inclusive language proponents are in dead earnest. And yet this very earnestness demolishes their only tool of communication. This is evident even in the “compromise” biblical translations that boast of limiting themselves to “horizontal” inclusive language. Once the translator eliminates the unmarked generic to a perceptible extent, he paradoxically puts exaggerated and misapplied emphasis on the maleness of the masculine forms that remain: In effect all masculines become marked for gender.

For example, Father John Rock pointed out to me that the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is generally ruthless in excising English “man” for Greek anthropos, but retains it in Romans 5 — not unreasonably, when one considers the problems with the alternatives. But when we read in the NRSV, “sin came into the world through one man”, our confusion is genuine; precisely to the extent that our expectations are based on the NRSV grammar (without generic “man”), we will understand Saint Paul to be speaking about one male. In introducing exactly the kind of misunderstanding for which they are invoked as the cure, the inclusive devices cut their own throat. And this is only to be expected. For the Bible is the Church’s book. And once you find the Church untrustworthy, you may at points agree with her, but you can never let yourself be taught by her. Whence every time you suspect the Church has God wrong, your own position wins by walk-over. A Pyrrhic victory.

In conclusion, let me ask: has it ever occurred to you how coy God is with respect to His ipsissima verba? At all events it seems we were not meant to mistake the shell for the kernel by worshipping God’s utterance instead of Himself. Jesus spoke in Aramaic, yet apart from half-a-dozen transliterated vocables, we have nothing. The Old Testament goes out of its way to teach us we’re not getting God’s mind main-lined. In Genesis 11, we’re told that all the earth had the same words and pronounced them the same way. Then God, coming down to destroy the pretensions of the builders of the Tower of Babel, confused their language — all language, no exception being made for Hebrew. This means that, on the Bible’s own terms, Hebrew is itself a corrupt language — and not, e.g., the language God spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden. We were not given a Qur’an or a Book of Mormon containing unmediated divine utterances. As George Macdonald wrote, God saw to it that the letter, as it could not give life, should not be invested with the power to kill.

In taking as my title, “The Languages (plural) of Biblical Translation”, I hoped to show that both source languages and receptor languages are multiple, that there will never be a final definitive translation, that every choice for fidelity by one manner of speaking comes at the cost of fidelity elsewhere, and that, by viewing the Bible as the Church’s book, created for her purposes and subject to her judgments, we might arrive at the humility to receive God’s word, not as a political platform, but as did she who received it as a person.


1 Ephraim Speiser, Genesis (Anchor Bible), Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964, p. lxiv.

2 Ronald A. Knox. On Englishing the Bible, London: Burns & Oates, 1949, p. 13.

3 Knox, pp. 11f.

4 The nature of those responsibilities (viz., of the bible-translator toward the liturgy) is a vast question, and one that remains to be addressed. My claim is that to translate the Bible is to pay deference to the Church that produced it, whence to ignore the Church’s liturgical understanding of the Bible is a performative self-contradiction.

5 Digby Anderson, “The Heresy of Explanation”, (review of Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses), The Spectator, December 18, 2004.

6 C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, Oxford: Clarendon, 1954, p. 212.

7 John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago : U. of Chicago, 1980), p 107.

8 See David F, Wright, “Homosexuals or Prostitutes?: The Meaning of arsenokoitai (I Cor 6:9, I Tim 1:10)”, Vigiliae Christianae 39 (1984), p.129.

9 Knox, p. 96.

10 A.E. Housman, “The Name and Nature of Poetry” (the Leslie Stephen Lecture for 1933, at Cambridge, May 1933).

11 Housman, ibid.

12 S. Michael Idurayam, S.J.

13 William Laughton Lorimer, The New Testament in Scots, London: Penguin, 1985, Appendix 11, p. 455. I am grateful to Monsignor Gerard McKay for bringing this delightful example to my attention.