The Language of Faith
Bible translation throughout the centuries


Here’s a very different take on language than we’re used to in MultiLingual — different, but far from boring. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

Maybe more than any other system of thought, Christianity embodies translation. Don’t believe it? Then consider this:

  • Jesus, the main protagonist in the Christian Bible, spoke Aramaic. The language appears in the Bible as a number of individual words (mammon, Hosannah, Abba, and a handful others). Two short phrases also appear, including Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?) — which some bystanders misunderstood as a call for Elijah, a hilarious translation mishap if it weren’t for the seriousness of the situation. Otherwise, all we know about what he said is what we know through translations into Greek, a language he might well have understood but almost certainly used rarely, if ever.
  • The Bible used by Jesus and his disciples who wrote the New Testament (and virtually every Jewish and Christian adherent at that point in history) was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, which was translated in the third and second century BCE.
  • Language and language translation play major parts in the biblical story: In the very beginning, God’s words are translated into matter and life; Jesus, translated as “Word” in most English translations, is “translated” into flesh (see Gospel of John, ch. 1); the Church is founded when people of many different languages translate what they hear Jesus’ disciples saying (Acts of the Apostles, ch, 2); and at the end of times, people from “every nation and tribe … cry out with one loud [multilingual] voice” (Book of Revelation, ch. 7).
  • Translation is integral to a religion built on the very idea of spreading that faith worldwide (“Go and make disciples of all nations” — Gospel of Matthew, ch. 28).

It’s not surprising, then, that the Christian Bible has been translated into more (way more) languages than any other single piece of writing. There are approximately 3,500 languages into which at least a part of the Bible has been translated, and — maybe more shockingly — there are an estimated 900 different translations into English alone.

Still, there are many misunderstandings about how Christianity and translation are intertwined. One is that the Bible has been translated in a variation of the “Telephone” game (where one player whispers something in the ear of another player, which then is passed on to others, unavoidably changing the message in the process). There is a kernel of truth in this: The Catholic Church did indeed translate from a Latin translation of Hebrew and Greek all the way into the 1950s; Orthodox churches have always translated from the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament; and some agenda-driven Bible translations, which are typically not supported by a high level of biblical scholarship, are essentially edits of former translations. However, the vast majority of translations into languages with an existing theological tradition were translated from the original Hebrew (most of the Old Testament), Aramaic (a handful of chapters of the Old Testament), and Greek (the New Testament and the Deuterocanonicals, i.e., parts of the Old Testament that are used by some churches but not by others). In short, they adhere as closely as possible to the original texts, as precisely as those can be identified. In fact, one reason for the ever-increasing number of translations in languages with a long Christian tradition (remember the 900 English translations?) is the never-ending goal of attaining and reflecting a state that is as close to the original texts as possible.

The missiologist William Smalley divides the history of Bible translation into these distinct periods:

200 BCE

The era of spreading the faith

The era of spreading the faith started in 200 BCE. This is the date of the translation of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible which was used extensively in both Judaism and early as well as present-day Orthodox Christianity. Other Bible translations toward the end of this period include Syriac (Aramaic), Coptic, Ethiopic, and Gothic texts.

405 CE

The era of European vernaculars

The era of European vernaculars began in 405 CE when St. Jerome completed his Latin translation, which served as the Catholic church’s textual basis for translation until the middle of the 20th century. Other languages into which the Bible was translated during this period include a number of European languages, such as Armenian, Georgian, Slavonic, German, Dutch, and others.


The era of printing

The era of printing started in 1450, the date of the first printed Gutenberg Bible, which was spurred on by the ideals of humanism during the Renaissance period. This is also when St. Jerome’s fame rose meteorically, and the Bible suddenly became available for many more readers (or listeners), ultimately resulting in the Reformation in Germany and other European countries.


The era of the Bible Society

The era of the Bible Society started in 1804, the year the British and Foreign Bible Society was founded, followed shortly after by its American and Scottish counterparts. These organizations supported Bible translation and printing via missionaries in many parts of the world.


The era of professionalized translation

The era of professionalized translation began in 1943, the year Eugene Nida started to publish extensively on Bible translation and translation in general and eventually developed the concept of “dynamically equivalent translation.” Wycliffe Bible Translators was founded in 1942 and Ethnologue in 1951, and virtually all Bible translations in areas without a long Christian tradition were led by proactive foreign missionaries.


The interconfessional

The interconfessional era emerged in 1965 when the Vatican’s earlier encouragement of Greek and Hebrew studies in the 1940s was accelerated after the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Many interconfessional translation projects (combining efforts of more than one confession) were launched during this period.


The era of non-missionary translation

The era of non-missionary translation started in 1970, the first year of the decade that started a major shift away from missionary-led efforts toward native-language teams working on Bible translation.

I’m going to call the next period that emerged in the 2000s the era of non-printed translation. This includes digital text and audio Bibles on cell phones or other devices; Bibles in traditional storytelling or music-based formats; and Sign Language Bibles (see “Non-textual formats” below).

It’s interesting to observe the apparent gap between translation work from the original texts into European languages and the current lack of original language scholarship in other native-language translation communities. Here’s how this is typically solved: A translation consultant, well-versed in the original languages, meets with the native-language team and aids them with things like creating translations of key terms and setting up processes with a very sophisticated translation, research, and publishing tool called Paratext (see paratext.org). These consultants can be freelancers, but they’re more likely working under the auspices of Bible societies or organizations like Wycliffe Bible Translators. While the translation team might then continue to work from a set of existing translations in the dominant language (often a colonial language such as English, Spanish, French, or Portuguese, but also languages like Indonesian, Tagalog, Russian, or Chinese), it stays in touch with the consultant until the translation is complete. This translation is then back-translated into the dominant language and checked verse by verse against the original text by that same consultant.

How do I know that? Because those back-translations in Paratext form much of the material for a project that I have been working on for the last five or six years. It’s called Translation Insights and Perspectives (TIPs).

Here’s how this project came about: As a working translator, I knew that a “perfect” translation is neither a goal nor a possible reality. I knew that complete and linear transfer of form and meaning between two languages is not achievable, no matter how closely languages might be related. Like all translators, I knew that there is always something “lost in translation” (the favorite trope of journalists writing about anything related to translation). But I also knew that successful translation is still possible because so much can be gained in translation as well.

It’s in the balance between the two that a translation is successful. Since linear and complete transfer from one language to another is unattainable and therefore not a desirable goal, translators try to generate a text that becomes equivalent in its expressive force and meaning by transformation, by inevitably adding changed and new elements.

What if, I imagined, I could build a database to document those changed and new elements that have made their way into some, and maybe eventually all, of the 3,000+ languages into which the Bible has been translated? What if I could collect a listing of those fascinating terms, phrases, and constructs, and then go a step further to associate each with an explanation or a story or a back-translation into English so that they were actually accessible?

I mentioned earlier that especially the text of the Old Testament is still experiencing changes here and there as scholars make new discoveries, but overall the source text for the Christian Bible is relatively static. If you compare that with the teeming reality of translations into more than 3,000 languages, all based on those texts but dramatically enriching them in the process of translation, it’s easy to understand the excitement this project generates.

The enrichment comes not so much from different interpretations of core meaning, but from tapping into how other cultures see and understand a given context through their lenses of language and reality.

Aside from the enrichment to the text itself, a project like this implicitly achieves several other goals.

  • It elevates every language to the same level of relevance. Why is that important? Or better: Why does that even have to be pointed out? Hundreds of languages are fighting for their survival because their young speakers — or non-speakers, as it were — see their native language as less relevant than the dominant language in their political and economic sphere. This database provides them with a tool to mine the depth and uniqueness of their own language and may motivate them to more curiosity about the language of their ancestors.
  • It gives every user a powerful illustration of the amazing diversity of languages and makes an incredibly strong case for the preservation of indigenous languages. There are plenty of other reasons to protect endangered languages, such as access to biodiversity or justice, but if I can personally benefit today from a perspective that would not have been available without that language, I’m impacted on a more personal and immediate level.

It ended up taking me about a year to find a sponsor, but I found a dream partner with United Bible Societies (UBS), the umbrella organization for local and national Bible societies around the world. One reason this is such a great match is that UBS is inter-confessional, representing many Christian traditions. Another is that they have not only financed my efforts, but they’ve also provided a programmer to build the database with a user interface that allows everyone access to the thousands of records that have been assembled up to this point. Finally, they helped me put together a board from their ranks of highly experienced linguists who have supported me with advice throughout the process.

Today, the tool is far from “finished;” in fact, it’s designed to be an ongoing work in progress. Still, it already has a very large amount of data. In fact, there are more than 12,000 individual records, some of which have translations of dozens of the 830+ languages that we have been able to collect data from at this point in the process.

The tool tries to walk a fine line between providing information to experts who might be familiar with the original biblical languages or who have in-depth knowledge of language families and linguistics; to casual readers who want to find out more about the original text through the eyes of languages that they likely have never heard of; and lastly to people who just want to explore the vast linguistic diversity our planet has to offer.

Here is a list of the kind of data the tool offers:

  • Unique insights: These include stories that reveal very different concepts of describing reality, including how to count age or numbers, how to categorize between health and disease (xl8.link/health), or simply different ways of thinking

  • Hyper-multilingual approaches to major concepts: Major theological concepts often show a great variety of approaches between different languages and cultures, which then is also depicted as a simplified pictograph that can be displayed in two different formats.

  • Back-translations: You’ll find back-translations from at least five and sometimes more languages for every verse in the New Testament, allowing for different views on larger chunks of text than just single words or phrases. 

  • Non-textual formats: Especially in the last few years, non-textual Bible translation has gained significant traction, ranging from traditional song formats to traditional story telling, sign language translations, and also fine art.

  • Hebraic translations: These are Jewish translations of central verses of the Hebrew Bible into a Hebraized form of English, French, and German.

  • Anecdotes/Stories: These range from still-unexplained appearances of Shakespeare in the Bible, to strong opinions of a translator into Scots, to touching illustrations of the concept of love.

  • Grammatical features: Maybe the most distinctive entries concern grammatical differences that have a deep impact on the meaning of the text, such as content that the original languages don’t communicate but the target language must express. These range from age differences in relatives, to who is actually addressed in a text, or to all-important gender distinctions for God.

All of this is supplied with ample information about the languages in question (often the languages are unfamiliar to most as they are spoken by just a handful of people). Clicking on the first mention of any language in an entry will open a page that filters all the records related to that language and displays information about the classification of the language, a link to its Wikipedia page and — if it’s available — an online version of one or several Bible translations in that language.

All data within TIPs is well-sourced with as detailed bibliographical records as possible and, if possible, is verified against an actual version of the translation in question (a large percentage of records that are sometimes enthusiastically reported on during the translation process eventually don’t make it into the published Bible and are therefore not included in TIPs).

In some — though not enough — cases, some of the data is translated into other languages, as in this case. Here it felt relevant to make this available to Chinese speakers as well.

Ten years ago, in a 2013 article, I ended with this: “Here’s my dream as a faithful translator sitting in the pew: The next time my pastor expounds on the broader meaning of a biblical term, that foreign-sounding word he draws from may [not be Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic] but Quechua or Navajo or Korean or any of the more than [3,000] other possibilities.” Sometimes dreams work out just fine!

Jost Zetzsche is an independent translator, localization consultant, and writer. He is the author of A Translator’s Tool Box for the 21st Century and Translation Matters.



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