What makes translation so hard, especially Bible translation? Pt. 1: Understanding the Original Text

Machine translation has come a long way in the past decade, but computers are still pretty bad at anything other than the most basic straightforward translations from one modern language text to another. The Bible (and other ancient texts) come with a whole set of specific problems that we are still working on doing manually, let alone programming a computer to do it for us.


There are two main problems that translators of the Bible specifically run into: not knowing the original context/intent of the text, and not having a perfect equivalent in the modern language/culture you are translating into. We may have had almost 2,000 years to figure out what the Bible is saying, but in the meantime the culture around us has changed so much that certain things that might have been obvious to the original readers are completely inscrutable today. You’d think that with all the modern scholarship in the last century, we would have a good idea of the original context and meaning of the Bible, but scholars: historians, archaeologists, linguists, biologists, philosophers…keep discovering new things.


Our understanding of ancient culture comes from studying ancient texts and studying the physical remains of the culture. Ancient texts can only take us so far, though. The texts that survive to the present day are the most popular ones. Imagine if our most popular texts are how future historians will judge us. Harry Potter would be our Odysseus. That’s not great for deciding how humans lived in the year 2000. Yes, there are clues: we can look past the magic and see how muggles behaved, or what Harry finds surprising in the magical world can tell us what was generally believed in the real world. After archaeologists find the remnants of a television in a landfill, Dudley’s life will make more sense. But someone can come along with a different interpretation of the same text, or some other text fragment (maybe a clip from Sesame Street?) we find can shed light on the uses of a rubber duck that Mr. Weasley is so concerned about.


Let’s say we use the best, most current scholarship possible to understand an ancient text like the Bible. Great! We’re at least partway there. But that doesn’t mean that in 20, 50, or 150 years our understanding of the world and of the text will be the same. If there were a definitive core truth of a passage, we wouldn’t still be arguing about it 50, 100, 1000 years later. The Bible is not a collection of core truths. It’s a text written in a context by specific people, and interpreted through millennia by people. The disagreements over the text are as much a part of the interpretation of the text as the words themselves. Struggling with a text, and struggling alongside other humans, is how we progress as a culture. Our definitive interpretation of the core of a text might seem utterly barbaric in 150 years (ala slavery). So even if we think we know what the original text would have meant to the original audience, new discoveries might change our views.


Any Bible translation made today will of course use the best, most recent scholarship available. Just like the King James Version did 400 years ago. But we shouldn’t cling too tightly to the current interpretation of the Bible. A linguist might discover a new pattern in the writings of Paul that sheds light on his views on justification. An archeologist might find the remains of a house that tells us something about how ancient Palestinians treated guests. A biologist might look at genetics and find evidence for how the Israelites might have migrated over time. Historians might rediscover a manuscript in a library or cave. These kinds of things have happened before and could happen again.


Translating a modern text from German to French definitely has its challenges. But at least the modern cultures of France and Germany are much more similar than the cultures of 1st century Palestine and 21st century California. At least we have modern Germans to ask about their culture. We can directly observe the context and audience. With the Bible, it’s like trying to figure out the plot of Doctor Who when you only have the audio recording of half an episode. Maybe you can find a script somewhere. Maybe you can find an old costume in a closet. But you’re never going to be able to experience the episode as fully as those who saw the original broadcast.

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