Translating the Bible

When it comes to the Bible, the task of translation raises a series of questions. There is no such thing as perfect translation.

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As a starting point the Old Testament was initially written in Hebrew and the New Testament was written in Greek. An early text of the Old Testament is the Septuagint. This a translation into Greek by Jews who were in Alexandria, Egypt, in 3rd-2nd centuries BC. It is important for two reasons: some of the earliest surviving manuscripts of the Old Testament are the Greek text and this is the text which New Testament writers refer to and would have been familiar to the early Church.

In the Christian era other translations are important in helping to establish what constitutes the text and what it means. For the Catholic Church, pre-eminent among these is the Vulgate, a translation of the Bible into Latin by St Jerome in the 4th century. Biblia Vulgata means the Bible in the common tongue — the desire to make the scriptures available to people in a language they understood.

Complete texts of either the Old or New Testament in Hebrew or Greek are relatively late. One of the tasks of biblical scholars is to evaluate the earlier individual manuscripts and fragments to establish a text.


The task of translation raises a series of questions. There is no such thing as perfect translation. Biblical translation has often been at the forefront of thinking about the issues and practice of translation. These include some of the following issues.

Formal or Dynamic equivalence

Formal equivalence seeks to find a translation for every word in the original text, whereas dynamic equivalence takes the sentence or clause as the primary unit of translation. Anyone who has done any translation knows that it involves both. To understand the words you need to know the context of the sentence or phrase; to understand the phrase you need to know the meanings of the individual words. For the translator it is a question of weight – which of the two approaches one follows.

When translating the Bible, advocates of formal equivalence place an emphasis on the scriptures as the revealed word of God and therefore every word in the original should be accounted for and nothing added or taken away. They would recognise that the word order of the original may have significance in either the meaning or the style which needs to be communicated.

Dynamic equivalence is more focussed on the hearer of the word rather than the writer. The translator following this would ask how do we express the meaning of this in a way people can understand from their experience. To give a simple example, how might you express the phrase ‘as white as snow’ to community which has never experienced snow — ‘as white as the egret’?

The English Standard Version – Catholic Edition follows formal equivalence as the basis of its translation. One of the strengths of this is knowing that it offers a text which is close to the Hebrew or Greek source. For example, a comparison of the Transfiguration in the synoptic gospels shows that when Peter addresses Jesus in Mark (9:5) he is ‘Rabbi’, in Matthew (17:4), ‘Lord’ and in Luke (9:33) ‘Master’.

Another example would be the beginning of Mark’s Gospel where the current Lectionary, which tends more towards dynamic equivalence, irons out and often omits Mark’s repeated use of ‘and’ or ‘and immediately’. Though it may be better English not start sentences with ‘And’ or to repeat it again and again, it also loses the almost breathless immediacy of the style of Mark’s Gospel.


Another question for the translator is do you stay faithful to the cultural context of the original or do you interpret the meaning into a contemporary understanding. Most translations, including the English Standard Version, steer a pathway through these questions.

One particular area is weights and measures. To give an example, how much water is changed in to wine at the Wedding at Cana (John 2:6). The ESV-CE says:

Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.

There is a footnote which states that ‘Greek two or three measures (metrētas); a metrētēs was about 10 gallons or 35 litres’. For the Lectionary it was requested that for these countries the measurement should be metric as young people had generally no knowledge of imperial measures. So the text in the Lectionary reads:

Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding seventy or one hundred litres.

Language about Gender

An aspect of the question about culture is how the translation approaches the language of gender. Does the translation reflect the meaning of the original in how it was first heard or seek to interpret the message of the text in contemporary understanding? It can be seen that a formal or literal translation is more likely to reflect the original meaning. Though there are places where the ESV-CE uses ‘any one’ in place of ‘any man’ and ‘people’ in place of ‘men’ on the whole ‘he’ and ‘man’ are used where this reflects the source text. One changes the bishops sought and was agreed for the Lectionary is that in the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of Paul that where in the footnotes to ESV-CE it noted that the Greek >adelphoi could be translated as ‘brothers and sisters’ this was adopted in the Lectionary text.

A text for Personal Reading or Communal Proclamation

The liturgical scholar Fritz West offered the interesting contrast in understanding that for Protestants the Bible was a text for personal reading and study, whereas for Catholics for it was proclamation in the liturgy by the Church. A simple and obvious aspect of this is that a Lectionary does not usually offer footnotes on the text – either as an explanation (such as with Cana) or an alternative reading (as with ‘brothers and sisters’). It also means that in choosing a text for use in the Liturgy it needs to be one which not only reads well but sounds well too.


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