Can You Get There from Here? Problems in Bible Translation

by Roger L. Omanson

Mr. Omanson is a translation consultant for the United Bible Societies, based in New York. He lives in Jeffersonville, Indiana.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 22-29, 1988. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


All translators of the Bible must confront certain exegetical problems: Textual, lexical, grammatical, terms of kinship, and pronoun gender. The plain fact is that one cannot translate the Bible without doing exegesis and interpretation.

The most recent report from the United Bible Societies states that at least one biblical book has now been translated into 1,884 languages, the New Testament into 670 languages, and the complete Bible into 303 languages. All translators of the Bible must confront certain exegetical problems. There are, for example, textual problems. In I Samuel 10:1 is the longer text of the Septuagint to be followed (as in the Revised Standard Version and Today’s English Version) or the shorter Massoretic text as in the New International Version? Did Paul write the words "Not beyond what is written" in I Corinthians 4:6 (as nearly all translations have it) , or was this originally a scribal note in the margin which later was incorrectly incorporated into the text itself (as some commentators and the French Traduction Oecuménique de la Bible contend) ?

There are also lexical problems to examine. Does the Hebrew verb sanah in Judges 1:14 mean that Acsah. daughter of Caleb, got off her donkey (as in the NIV, RSV and TEV) or that she ‘broke wind" (as in the New English Bible first edition; the second edition says, "she made a noise") ?

And translators face grammatical problems. In the noun ges (the earth) in Ephesians 4:9 a genitive in apposition to "lower parts" (as in the NIV -- ’ ‘the lower, earthly regions") or a partitive genitive (RSV -- "into the lowest parts of the earth") ? Is the second half of Genesis 4:23 an example of synonymous parallelism (TEV -- ’ ‘I have killed a young man because he struck me") or does it refer to two men (New Jerusalem Bible -- "I killed a man for wounding me, a boy for striking me") ?

These translation problems arise because of difficulties in the original text (Hebrew. Aramaic or Greek) , not in the receptor language (the language into which the translation is being made) In my work as a consultant for the United Bible Societies in West Africa and South America, helping to organize and supervise translation projects in such places as Ouagadougou, Bobo Dioulasso, Timbuktu and Tamale, and checking translations in such languages as Bobo, Bwamu, Gourma, Pila-Pila and Kabiyd, I have discovered another kind of difficulty: obligatory categories in the receptor languages which do not exist in the biblical languages. When faced with such categories, translators often wonder if it is possible to translate certain texts correctly. They are not sure that they can get "there" (an accurate translation into the new language) from "here" (Whatever language serves as their source-text language).

For example, the Guarani language of Paraguay, spoken more widely there than is Spanish, distinguishes between the "we" that includes the listeners or readers and the "we" that excludes them. To understand the difficulties this poses for the Guarani translator of the New Testament, read II Corinthians 5-7 and try to determine when "we," "us" and "our" refers to the Corinthian Christians (inclusive) and when it refers only to Paul and Timothy (exclusive) In II Corinthians 5:20. "we" and ‘us" are exclusive, but in verse 21 "our" and "we" appear to be inclusive. In 7:1 "we" and "us" are inclusive, but in 7:2 they are exclusive.

The Greek does not have two different forms of the first person plural pronoun. Guaraní does: ñande is inclusive "we" and ore is exclusive "we." When the context is ambiguous and interpreters do not agree on the nature of the reference as in II Peter 1:3 ("his divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence") , the Guaraní translator must make a decision which the English translator does not have to make. Indeed, for many readers of English (or Greek, for that matter) the question does not even arise.

For some interpreters of II Peter 1:3, the first "us" refers to Christians in general (inclusive of the readers) , whereas the second "us" refers to the apostles of the historical Jesus (exclusive of the readers) Other interpreters argue that both pronouns include Christians generally. The Guaraní translators chose the inclusive form of the pronoun in both occurrences in this verse, so that the Guaraní reader will not even suspect that the second "us" might refer to some group exclusive of the original recipients of this letter.

Especially difficult is John 8:39. The Jewish opponents of Jesus declare, "Abraham is our father." The Guaraní New Testament uses ore (exclusive) , suggesting to the reader that the Jewish leaders were denying that Jesus was a Jew. Yet to translate "our" with ñande would probably associate Jesus too closely with the opponents.

A similar complication arises with the use of the definite article in the Chulupí language of Paraguay. In Chulupí the definite article must carry information about the relation of the speaker to the person or thing being named. In fact, Chulupí has 16 definite articles, as the following chart demonstrates:

Present Absent but known Absent and not known Dead

Masculine na ja pa ca

Feminine tha lhja lhpa lhca

Plural napi japi papi capi

Things & animals nava java pava cava


Paul wrote in II Corinthians 11:32,

"At Damascus the governor under King Aretus guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me."

Had Paul met the governor or seen him or did he know him’? If so, the translator would use Jo. But if Paul only knew about him, then pa is the correct definite article. The Chulupí translators used the article pa with "the governor," indicating that the governor was absent from Paul as he wrote and also unknown to Paul. Strangely, they used the article ja with King Aretus, though the text gives no indication that Paul knew the king. None of the standard commentaries in German or English even addresses this question since speakers of German and English do not have to know that information to translate what Paul wrote, and nothing in the context of the verse provides any clue.

Another problematic aspect of translation concerns terms of kinship. Many languages of West Africa do not have as all-encompassing word for "brother." Instead, they have one word foi "younger brother" and a different one for "older brother." Some languages indicate whether it is a brother of the same mother or a brother of a different mother (polygamy is reflected in the lexicon of the language) What does one do, then, with James and John in Mark 1:19? Probably they had the same mother, but which one is older? Since James is mentioned first, most translators assume that he is older, but the Greek text simply does not say. The Greek word adeiphus is not precise or specific here in the way that West African languages are.

Among most Mande languages of West Africa, some nouns -- mostly kinship terms -- can occur only in a possessive phrase. "Father," for example, can occur only in phrases such as "my father," "his father," "Kwame’s Father," etc. Such kinship terms do not occur in the abstract as they may in Greek or Hebrew. This raises an interesting problem in translating the prologue of John. Most scholars acknowledge that there is a marked difference between John and the Synoptic Gospels in that "your Father" occurs in John only at 20:17, at the point when Jesus now makes his Father the Father of his "brothers." Are the references to "the Father" in 1:14 and 1:18 written from the perspective in which God is "Father" to Jesus only or from the perspective that the readers share in Jesus’ relationship to the Father ("our" Father) ? English translators can leave the word "Father" in the abstract in these verses; many African translators cannot, and therefore choose to translate "the Father" as "our Father" in 1:14 and 1:18.

A final example involves pronoun gender. English and Greek distinguish between masculine and feminine pronouns in the third person singular (he/she) , but neither distinguishes the gender of the second person singular or plural (you) The Amharic language of Ethiopia uses anta for the second person masculine singular pronoun, and anci for feminine singular. When Paul wrote in Philippians 4:3, "And I ask you also true yokefellow, help these women, ‘he used the pronoun se (you), which could be either masculine or feminine singular. Similarly, syzyge (yokefellow) may be masculine or feminine. Indeed, syzyge is used for "wife" in ancient Greek literature, and Clement of Alexandria believed Paul was addressing his wife. But the Amharic translator must decide whether Paul is addressing a man or a woman in Philippians 4:3 before translating this verse.

The source text must be interpreted: Where do commas and periods go? Where do direct quotations end? What is the author’s own formulation and what is a quotation which he cites from someone else’s letter? When is a sentence interrogative and when is it declarative? Where do new paragraphs begin? What do words mean in a given context? What is the nature of a given grammatical construction? Which words should be capitalized? Which passages should be printed as poetry, creedal formulations or traditional material?

Likewise, certain obligatory categories in the receptor language require translators to make exegetical decisions. Translators cannot refuse to make a choice or say, "Well, if I had to choose . . ." They must choose. And readers of these translations will interpret the Bible in accordance with how it has been translated. Many of them cannot read the Bible in another language, or refer to another version in their own language, in order to clarify their understanding. Nor do commentaries and study aids exist for many language groups.

Translations will always be imperfect, for a variety of reasons. No doubt bad translations have been printed, and no doubt interesting theologies and church practices have been based on inadequate translations. Translating the Bible remains one of the most important tasks of the church. Evangelism, mission, the development of Christian literature and the development of Christian faith -- these all demand a reliable and intelligible translation of the Bible in the language of the people, whether it be English, Spanish, Guaraní, Chulupí, Ewe or one of the several thousand languages still waiting to receive an entire New Testament or a complete Bible.