Translating the BibleGeneral Information
Figuring Out a Bible TranslationPeople sometimes wonder why there are various "Versions" or "Translations" of the Bible. After all, all of the many English language Bible Versions are translated from the exact same source text, which was in Greek (NT) and Ancient Hebrew (OT). Shouldn't really smart people be able to figure out how to translate something exactly right? Especially something as important as the Bible, where many thousands of people have been involved?
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In addition to this, the actual way the Bible used to be written was quite different from the way we read it today. To give you the "flavor" of the problems, we are presenting Genesis 1 IN ENGLISH here in some historical formats, working our way backward in time as we go. Of course, the original source documents were not in English. Many (over 5,000) are in Greek. Others (over 10,000) are Latin copies of the Vulgate Bible (of about 400 AD). A lesser number are in a variety of other languages.
The Greek documents are particularly important, partly because that was the original language of the New Testament Manuscripts, so there was minimal chance of errors from language translation back then. Our thoughts below are based on thinking about those Greek language source documents.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth
was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the
deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And
God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the
light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And
the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let
there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide
the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided
the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were
above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament
Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. And
God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto
one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good. And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the third day. And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so. And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that [it was] good.
And the evening and the morning were the fourth day. And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth. And the evening and the morning were the fifth day. And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so. And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
And God said, Let us make man in our image, afterour likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so. And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold,[it was] very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
Lettherebelightsinthefirmamentoftheheaventodividethedayfromthenightand letthembeforsignsandforseasonsandfordaysandyearsAndletthembeforlightsin thefirmamentoftheheaventogivelightupontheearthanditwassoAndGodmadetwo greatlightsthegreaterlighttorulethedayandthelesserlighttorulethenighthe madethestarsalsoAndGodsettheminthefirmamentoftheheaventogivelightuponthe earthAndtoruleoverthedayandoverthenightandtodividethelightfromthedarkness andGodsawthatitwasgoodAndtheeveningandthemorningwerethefourthdayAndGod saidLetthewatersbringforthabundantlythemovingcreaturethathathlifeandfowl thatmayflyabovetheearthintheopenfirmamentofheavenAndGodcreatedgreatwhales andeverylivingcreaturethatmovethwhichthewatersbroughtforthabundantlyafter theirkindandeverywingedfowlafterhiskindandGodsawthatitwasgoodAndGod blessedthemsayingBefruitfulandmultiplyandfillthewatersintheseasandlet fowlmultiplyintheearthAndtheeveningandthemorningwerethefifthdayAndGodsaid Lettheearthbringforththelivingcreatureafterhiskindcattleandcreepingthing andbeastoftheearthafterhiskindanditwassoAndGodmadethebeastoftheearth afterhiskindandcattleaftertheirkindandeverythingthatcreepethuponthe earthafterhiskindandGodsawthatitwasgoodAndGodsaidLetusmakemaninour
imageafterourlikenessandletthemhavedominionoverthefishoftheseaandover thefowloftheairandoverthecattleandoveralltheearthandovereverycreeping thingthatcreepethupontheearthSoGodcreatedmaninhisownimageintheimageof GodcreatedhehimmaleandfemalecreatedhethemAndGodblessedthemandGodsaid untothemBefruitfulandmultiplyandreplenishtheearthandsubdueitandhave dominionoverthefishoftheseaandoverthefowloftheairandovereveryliving thingthatmovethupontheearthAndGodsaidBeholdIhavegivenyoueveryherb bearingseedwhichisuponthefaceofalltheearthandeverytreeinthewhichis thefruitofatreeyieldingseedtoyouitshallbeformeatAndtoeverybeastofthe earthandtoeveryfowloftheairandtoeverythingthatcreepethupontheearth whereinthereislifeIhavegiveneverygreenherbformeatanditwassoAndGodsaw everythingthathehadmadeandbeholditwasverygoodAndtheeveningandthe morningwerethesixthday
oftheheaventodividethedayfromthenightandletthembeforsignsandfor seasonsandfordaysandyearsandletthembeforlightsinthefirmamentofthe heaventogivelightupontheearthanditwassoandgodmadetwogreatlights thegreaterlighttorulethedayandthelesserlighttorulethenighthemade thestarsalsoandgodsettheminthefirmamentoftheheaventogivelightupon theearthandtoruleoverthedayandoverthenightandtodividethelightfrom thedarknessandgodsawthatitwasgoodandtheeveningandthemorningwerethe fourthdayandgodsaidletthewatersbringforthabundantlythemovingcreature thathathlifeandfowlthatmayflyabovetheearthintheopenfirmamentofheaven andgodcreatedgreatwhalesandeverylivingcreaturethatmovethwhichthe watersbroughtforthabundantlyaftertheirkindandeverywingedfowlafter hiskindandgodsawthatitwasgoodandgodblessedthemsayingbefruitfuland multiplyandfillthewatersintheseasandletfowlmultiplyintheearthand theeveningandthemorningwerethefifthdayandgodsaidlettheearthbring forththelivingcreatureafterhiskindcattleandcreepingthingandbeast oftheearthafterhiskindanditwassoandgodmadethebeastoftheearthafter hiskindandcattleaftertheirkindandeverythingthatcreepethuponthe earthafterhiskindandgodsawthatitwasgoodandgodsaidletusmakemanin
ourimageafterourlikenessandletthemhavedominionoverthefishofthe seaandoverthefowloftheairandoverthecattleandoveralltheearthandover everycreepingthingthatcreepethupontheearthsogodcreatedmaninhisown imageintheimageofgodcreatedhehimmaleandfemalecreatedhethemandgod blessedthemandgodsaiduntothembefruitfulandmultiplyandreplenishthe earthandsubdueitandhavedominionoverthefishoftheseaandoverthefowl oftheairandovereverylivingthingthatmovethupontheearthandgodsaid beholdihavegivenyoueveryherbbearingseedwhichisuponthefaceofallthe earthandeverytreeinthewhichisthefruitofatreeyieldingseedtoyouit shallbeformeatandtoeverybeastoftheearthandtoeveryfowloftheairandto everythingthatcreepethupontheearthwhereinthereislifeihavegivenevery greenherbformeatanditwassoandgodsaweverythingthathehadmadeandbehold itwasverygoodandtheeveningandthemorningwerethesixthday
Please note that this first one is actually in English! Could you have studied it or even read it back then? Since you know much of the wording, you can pick out some familiar words. But could you fully understand everything presented here? Pick some random spot in the middle of this text and see if you can figure out the wording. Find the part where God Created mankind! (It is about ten lines up from the end). THAT is the only form of Bible texts that was available to anyone prior to around 900 AD, and it was generally only available to Churches and virtually never to individuals, unless they were permitted to copy it themselves.
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It truly is a remarkable achievement by the many hundreds of Scribes who had to copy the entire Bible that they made astoundingly few copying errors! (We know that there were a few, and we now know where they were, because thousands of existing copies of those Scribe written Manuscripts have been carefully compared to see if and when they had any tiny differences.
The situation with the Bible and its extensive size seems like it would have caused massive copyist errors over the centuries because of the scale of the task and the format that is being copied. It is truly a sign of how incredibly careful the copyists all were that there were as few (minor) errors as are found in a few of the manuscripts. Fortunately for us, there are so many source manuscripts that exist that the few variations that have been found have been checked in all the source documents and scholars are now extremely certain of the accuracy of modern translations.
As an additional element to think about, many early Old Testament source manuscripts are written in Hebrew. Before about 900 AD, Hebrew was also written without any vowels. Can you imagine the possibilities of what might happen if copyists were even slightly careless? By the way, this is closely related to YHWH, the Name of God, becoming Yahowah or Jehovah (or Yahweh), when the vowels from Adonai (another ancient Name for God) were inserted into YHWH many centuries later.
This discussion has been presented so you might better appreciate the amazing efforts put forth by the many copyists of the Bible Manuscripts over the centuries, and also in the task that Bible translators face in making sure they have the absolutely most accurate translation that can be made. It's not quite as easy as translating Buenos Dias into Hello! (even though that phrase could equally mean goodbye!)
Finally, we have here really only been considering here the difficulties of perfect copying (for the Scribes) and in confirming the perfect accuracy (for the Bible scholars). There is yet another level of complication in the translators' job. Many ancient words had several different meanings, often very different from each other. We created a separate little presentation to give you a taste of that aspect of the problem, at Literal Translation.
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