Translators of the Bible

(Presented at dedication service for sending out a translator advisor from Israel)

Mt 28:18-20

Yeshua tells us to take the gospel to everyone, to make them disciples, and to baptize them. How can we make disciples of those who do not learn and know the Bible for themselves, and especially in their own language? All things are possible with God, of course, but obviously having our own Bibles in our own language is a wonderful gift and blessing. We can read, pray, learn and teach, sing – using words in our own tongue to glorify God.

We know that the Israelis had the Torah written down for them from early on, and that the kings of Israel were required to read it for themselves, and publicly for the people every seven years. The prophets referred to and quoted the written Scriptures available to them, according to the Law and the Testimony. God had Jeremiah write down what He received, and to write YHVH’s Word again after the King burned the scroll that Jeremiah’s secretary had first written. Daniel had the book of Jeremiah available, and read it, which led to us receiving some of the most remarkable prophecies in the whole Bible. At the time of Yeshua, the writers referred to all portions of the Old Testament Scriptures – the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (Tanach).

Most of the Tanach was written in Hebrew, the language of the Semitic (from Shem) Jews, and some was written in Aramaic, the common language of many of the Middle Eastern Gentiles around Israel in those times. At a time when the Jewish people were living mostly outside of the Land of Israel and Judah, during the time of the Greek Empire, 70 scholars of the Jewish people living in Egypt translated the Tanach into Greek, the language of the Greek Empire at that time. We know that many quotes in the New Testament use the Greek translation of those Old Testament verses: God accepts translations!

The New Testament was written into the leading Gentile language of the day, Greek (descendants of Japheth), so that the gospel message could spread more quickly to the Gentiles, and to the Jewish people in the dispersion, many of whom would have known Greek. Other translations followed, first into Latin, later into German, and English. Latin became the language of Science, and a liturgical language, much like Hebrew did. They declined from being the common street and commercial language for many centuries, until Hebrew was revived as a spoken language in the late 19th Century. Later, the German translation returned the Bible to the common people. Then the English translation came and was taken into much of the world. Missionaries with the message of salvation and the Kingdom of God went out able to explain the gospel truth to every tribe and tongue and people and nation. This was mostly verbally, as most of these people did not necessarily know the mother tongue of the missionaries.

As more and more people groups were discovered by the missionaries, the need for at least portions of the Bible – primarily from the New Testament – to be written in the language or dialect of the locals became paramount, especially in order for the locals to take the Word of God to their own people, and have an example for helping other tribes and peoples learn to write down the Scriptures in their own and others’ tongue. How much more accurate would that be if the translators also knew and understood the original languages of the Bible – Hebrew and Greek, with a little Aramaic!

There is a caveat with respect to Bible translations: every translator has some bias, and no translator knows the Scriptures perfectly, whether literally or figuratively or symbolically.  One reason for so many translations, especially English, is that there is not agreement on how best to translate, nor on which translation is best and faithful to the original.  The Holy Spirit is still leading us – including translators – into all the truth. No translation is holy.  The original texts are holy; yet even on this the experts do not agree on which texts are the originals! Every translation can be improved, as needed; but, people do not always wind up with the best and most accurate translations in their language. (I am sure that every one who studies the Bible is aware of some translation issues and mistakes.)

It is wrong to change the text or personal names because of some political or cultural “favor”. For examples: it was wrong for the KJV translators to change the name of two apostles of Yeshua, and of one of His brothers, from Jacob to James, in order to honor the King of England. It was also wrong in the Modern Hebrew translation to change the name of the Apostle Paul back to Saul, once he had himself begun to use Paul as his name, in order to “maintain” his Jewish identity. It was wrong to take away the “cross” for an execution stake in another English Jewish translation. The fear of God requires us to be faithful to all that was written by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Any merely human wisdom can be noted in footnotes, but do not change the text! God’s “foolishness” is wiser than men.

Other challenges have to do with grammar and nuance. For instance, in Gen 1:2, is the ‘vav’ to be translated as “and”, or with some other word, or not translated at all? It seems that translators do not agree! Is it only a matter of bias? Or can it be unbelief, which, of course, is also a bias!

The ‘vav’ in different sentences can mean “and”, or it may mean “but”. Is it always clear?  Then there is the ‘prophetic vav’, changing the past to the future, and the future to the past!

Some words have synonyms: which is the most accurate nuance in the context?
Some words only appear once! What do they mean, and how do we know?

Do we always know if there should be a comma, or a period, or a semi-colon or colon? And should the comma go before, or after, a particular word? These punctuation marks affect the understanding and interpretation of Holy Spirit-inspired Scriptures. Whenever there is a legitimate ambiguity, the translators will make their best choice. They should give any other legitimate options a footnote, just in case they erred; or, both may be right in their own way. Translations serve the readers to understand, as well as the teachers (who also must read with understanding.)

There are situations when exceptions seem to be humbly required: Not everyone in the world knows all of the animals, or what they might represent or symbolize in the Bible. I remember years ago we had some translators from Wycliffe come to the congregation and tell us of their translation work. They told us of a tribe somewhere that had never seen a lamb, or a sheep, and did not know anything about them. Yeshua is called the Lamb of God. It made no sense to seek a word that meant a lamb to them; they had no clue. So, to come up with a word that did make as much sense to them as they could in their own culture, they chose a word that meant pig! Would a Messianic Jewish translator accept that?! I don’t know. God is great! Praise the Lord that He sanctifies the Gentiles through faith, just as He does us! We have far less excuses than they do.

Another hurdle has to do with endings and beginnings of chapters: in the original texts there were no chapters or verses, not even punctuation. The end of Ch 5 of Hosea is separated from the beginning of Ch 6; yet the verses go together, and will tell us how long Yeshua will be ruling from Heaven before He returns to Israel. Also, sometimes chapters and verses in the Hebrew are not numbered the same as in English, such as in Joel, or the Psalms. What is a translating advisor to do?

This is what “A” is going out to do: take the knowledge of Biblical Hebrew and advise translators in other language groups better render a translation of the Tenach in the local tribe or nation.

I can’t imagine what it would be like for me without a good English-language Bible, and that based upon the original texts! Thank God that there are many available translations, but maybe too many!

The Messiah Yeshua told us that blessed is that servant found doing what he/she was given to do until He comes back at the end of the age. God has a time-schedule to complete His redemptive plan, and He will finish right on time. We may not finish getting every person in the world a Bible in his/her own language. “A” has always shown herself faithful in her serving the Lord, and she will do that now, carrying with her the blessed hope of the return of the Lord at the appointed time.

This article originally appeared on Streams in the Negev, July 16, 2021, and reposted with permission.