Chapter 3: The Nature of Translation

A Historical Introduction to the New Testament
by Robert M. Grant

Chapter 3: The Nature of Translation

We face the question of translation: We are not first-century Greeks. We all use translations. Thus we need some clear principles for translating. 1. What did the word mean to the author? 2. What did that word mean to the earliest readers? 3. What has it come to mean in later times? We must avoid a clear defined meaning to all the mysteries of the Bible. We must not place New Testament words and thoughts into an inflexible meaning.


From ancient times the meaning of translation has been a problem. One of the most vigorous debates of the late fourth century was concerned with the question as to how to translate Origen’s treatise On First Principles from Greek into Latin. Both sides agreed that a word-for-word translation was useless; one had to translate meanings, not fragments. The question of meaning then had to be faced. In several respects Origen’s doctrine differed from that regarded as orthodox by his translators. Should one lay more emphasis on Origen’s intention to be orthodox, and then modify his statements in the direction of later orthodoxy? This was the procedure employed by Rufinus. Or should one translate just about what he said, pointing out that at various points his views were heretical? Jerome took this course and accused Rufinus of falsification.

It is obvious that the same kind of problem arises when one translates the New Testament. To be sure, no one expects the New Testament writers to use the terminology of later orthodox theology. But one does expect that they will not absolutely disagree with one another, or with the main thrust of the Old Testament, since they regarded it as inspired and prophetic. If one is translating their meaning rather than their exact words, one inevitably enters the realm of theology; one cannot remain strictly philological -- if such a situation is really conceivable.

The question of translation is extremely important in dealing with the New Testament because (1) we are not first-century Greeks (in Palestine or elsewhere) and (2) we all use translations, whether we use those prepared by others or attempt to translate for ourselves. If we use the translations of others, we need some kind of guidance in choosing among them. If we make our own, we need to have in mind some clear principles for translating.

At first glance, it might appear simple enough to make a translation. Assuming that we ‘know Greek’ or, in other words, have studied its grammar, syntax and vocabulary to such an extent that we do not get lost when confronted with a simple Greek sentence, we may suppose that we can proceed directly to the New Testament perhaps to the Gospel of John -- and then, making use of the rules we have learned and the dictionary we have acquired, ‘render’ it into English. Sometimes, to be sure, such is almost the case. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ If we refrain from asking questions about the meaning of ‘beginning’, ‘Word’ and ‘God’, we may be able to believe that we have an adequate translation. But there is still the difficult word ‘and’. What function does it perform in the sentence? And have we translated correctly when we place the three clauses in a straightforward sequence like the one just given? Or should the verse read thus? --

In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God.

Apart from these questions, there is of course the problem of the meanings of the words. How do we determine what the words mean? Do we look them up in a simple pocket lexicon which may tell us that ‘logos’ means only ‘word’? Do we go on to a larger dictionary which will inform us that ‘logos’ has a wide range of meanings? And, if we go on, how do we tell which meaning or meanings was or were intended by the author or understood by his readers, early or late?

It seems fairly likely that what the author intended can best be understood by looking at the immediate context of the passage we are translating. If we look at the context of this verse in John, we find that the subject of discussion seems to change from Word through Life to Light, and that nothing more is directly stated about the Word until we reach the sentence which says that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory.’ But a ‘word’ which ‘became flesh’ is not the kind of word which is known in ordinary English usage. How, then, are we to translate ‘logos’? Should we run the risk of ambiguity by simply calling it ‘Word’ (with a capital letter, since ‘the Word of God’) -- or should we venture into the equally risky area of paraphrase?

Now the sentence with which John begins his gospel is relatively simple when compared with some of the ‘hard to understand’ (II Pet. 3:16) passages in the Pauline epistles; and in all such instances we are likely to fall into two traps, one on either side of whatever the true path may be. (1) We may take the writings, one by one or all together, and translate them in such a way as to lay emphasis upon the divergent words, phrases and ideas to be found in them. The result of this process will ordinarily be that we shall find the authors contradicting themselves and one another. We shall then be tempted to suppose that various hands in the manuscript have reflected the ideas of various persons; in other words, the documents have been interpolated.

(2) On the other hand, we may try to treat the writings so synthetically that we neglect the real differences to be found in them and among them; the result will be that we overlook the genuine diversity to be found not only in style but also in thought and may give the impression that a non-existent uniformity exists.

This is to say that absolutely rigid rules for translating, as for interpreting (in Greek, ‘hermeneia’ included both meanings), cannot be laid down. In every case we are dealing with a living author who used grammar and syntax as a means, not as an end in itself. Like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, he was the master of his words -- though admittedly there may have been occasions on which the words mastered him and he did not clearly or fully express what was in his mind. The point at which to begin, however, is with the grammar and the syntax. For all New Testament writers (see Chapter IV) the sentence and its structure is more immediately comprehensible than are the meanings of words.

But the meanings of words are obviously of supreme importance. First we must determine what effect we wish our translation to give in relation to the meaning of a word. Is it to represent (1) what the word may have meant to the author or (2) what it may have meant to some, at least, of his earliest readers, or (3) what it may have come to mean in later times (the limiting case being a so-called ‘inspired mistranslation’)? Before we can go any farther we must recognize the ambiguities present in each of these cases. (1) An author may mean several different things by the same word, just as he may use different words to signify the same, or essentially the same, thing. He may use a word in different senses on different occasions, or he may use the word with two senses at the same time (John is fond of this practice). In the case of words which have a long history or, as in the Septuagint, have been used to translate various words in another language -- and thus bear diverse connotations -- we cannot always be sure which one out of several meanings is dominant in the author’s mind as he writes. (2) Similarly, when we speak of the author’s ‘earliest readers’ we must bear in mind (a) that we do not often know who his earliest readers were, and (b) that often (as at Corinth and Colossae, at least) the earliest readers consisted of at least two groups, both of which claimed to understand what he meant, though they disagreed as to what it was. Such misunderstanding is reflected in I Corinthians 5:9-13, and perhaps in the whole letter. The history of biblical interpretation, in large measure, is the story of disagreements as to the meaning of texts; and these disagreements arose very early. (3) If we speak of what words may have meant in later times, we must ask, ‘To whom?’ Goethe translated ‘logos’ by ‘die Tat’; is he to be taken as a reliable witness? By whom? Is ‘the church’ to be regarded as the ultimate court of appeal? If so, what is the church? Or does ‘logos’ in John 1:1 mean whatever anyone has happened to think it means?

It might appear that the possibility of translating does not really exist; and to some extent such is the case. There can never be an absolutely final translation of the New Testament, for (1) we do not know with mathematical precision what its authors meant or how their readers understood them, and (2) our own language changes from age to age and words acquire and lose meanings.

We should say something about what we do know about the Greek of the New Testament. Obviously it is not classical. What is it? Around the seventeenth century there were those who believed that it was a special language created by the Holy Spirit, but -- especially in the late nineteenth century -- this view lost favour when a great many letters, business documents and other writings were discovered, preserved in papyrus in the dry climate of the Egyptian desert. The language of these papyri was much the same as that found in the New Testament. Scholars therefore turned to them to find out the meaning of words, grammar and syntax in the Hellenistic period, and in the light of this knowledge to interpret the New Testament. On the other hand, it has proved impossible to pass directly from the papyri to New Testament exegesis, for two reasons. (1) The New Testament writers were saturated in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, and much of their language bears Septuagintal overtones. Some New Testament terms can be understood much better in relation to the Septuagint than in relation to sales contracts. (2) Some of the gospels, and to a certain measure some of the epistles, come from or through men who were bilingual and seem to have thought in two languages at once. One language was Greek; the other was Aramaic or Hebrew. Even though none of the New Testament books was written in Aramaic, the authors of some of them thought in Aramaic, at least at times. And behind the sayings of Jesus in their Greek versions lies a chain of transmission which began in a Semitic language. Obviously this chain cannot be reproduced in a translation. But it has to be taken into account.

Thus far we have been discussing chiefly the problems presented by the materials being translated; but there are also difficulties in our own language and our use of it. The English language has undergone almost constant change since the year 1611, to go back no farther. Words have lost their original, or earlier, meanings and overtones and have acquired other overtones and meanings. Conspicuous examples of such changes can be found by reading Shakespeare, the King James Version, and the Book of Common Prayer -- in spite of the fact that alterations have been made in the last two. In a prayer-book collect God is still asked to ‘prevent’ us, when we are really asking him to lead; the so-called ‘comfortable words’ are really meant to be encouraging or strengthening. The English of today is also different, generally speaking, in style. King James’s translators were trained in a rhetoric rather alien to our own more pedestrian turns of phrase. Where they often favoured long words with Latin derivations we tend to prefer shorter Anglo-Saxon terms. These differences in vocabulary and style account for many of the variations between the older English versions and the more modern ones.

Sometimes it is suggested that these older translations, hallowed by usage, are the most satisfactory because their archaic language conveys overtones of the antiquity which is actually a feature of the Bible. Such an argument has been advanced by Augustine against Jerome’s novel translation of the Old Testament, and by modern opponents of such translations as the Revised Standard Version. There is, of course, something to it. The New Testament writers themselves did not hesitate to make free use of the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, written in a Greek at times very strange and, in their time, a century or so old. In addition, at least some of the New Testament writings were intended for liturgical use, and liturgical language emphasizes the continuity of Christianity by preserving archaic expressions -- which are sometimes, though not often, incomprehensible to later generations. Some of the New Testament writings, then, are archaizing in flavour and a purely ‘modern’ translation does not translate. On the other hand, the narrative portions of Acts and most of the Pauline epistles were written in a style which was not archaizing, and if they are translated archaistically the translation does not convey the authors’ intentions. This defence of modernizing, however, cannot be pressed too far, for translations have at least two purposes: (1) private reading for the sake of edification and/or instruction, and (2) liturgical reading. It is possible that a more modern translation may provide more adequate instruction while failing to achieve the goal desired in devotional contemplation or liturgy. At the same time, no ‘modern’ or ‘fresh’ translation is likely to remain either modern or fresh, and no archaizing translation can be allowed to remain too far in the past. Translation is a continuing task with a goal never finally attainable.

Then does the New Testament mean whatever anyone may suppose it to mean? Such a conclusion is not valid because, in spite of the severe limits we have tried to place upon ‘knowledge falsely so-called’, it is still possible to determine something about grammar, syntax, and the meanings of words in the context provided by the authors of the New Testament books.

This is to say that there is a relative objectivity in the translation of the New Testament; but there is not, and never will be, a translation which conveys the exact meaning, or range of meanings, found in every passage.

In addition, the presence of ambiguity in the New Testament documents themselves must be recognized. There are quite a few passages in which several translations, often with rather different meanings, are possible. (This fact is made clear especially in the footnotes to the New English Bible.) The possibility of ambiguity arises under various kinds of circumstances. First comes the ambiguity which is to be found in English but not in the original Greek. This situation need not be discussed; it is due to the inadequacy of translation, not to anything in the original text. More important is the ambiguity which actually may exist in Greek. Here the original author may have expressed himself unclearly because of inadequacies either in thought or in expression. The cause of the inadequacy is important. Is it due to the author himself or to the subject matter? If it is due to the author, the translator need do no more than reproduce the inadequacy. If it is due to the subject matter, which may transcend the author’s powers of thought or expression, the translator needs to choose words which can convey this impression. Writers who deal with the work of God in history cannot always write with the preciseness of an Aristotle discussing categories or the habits of animals. In translating unclear sentences in which the authors’ reach exceeds their grasp because of the ‘heavenly’ nature of the subject, we must try to let the ambiguity indicate the authors’ intentions

We must also avoid maintaining the notion that there is any one clearly definable key to all the mysteries of the Bible. Martin Luther once wrote these words about the Psalms: ‘God be thanked, when I understood the subject matter and knew that "God’s righteousness" meant ‘‘righteousness through which he justifies us through righteousness freely given in Jesus Christ", then I understood the grammar. Only then did I find the Psalter to my taste.’ Certainly justification through grace is a central concern of the New Testament and, to some measure, of the Old. But it is not the only concern, and we must not place New Testament words and thoughts on a Procrustean bed -- even Luther’s.