How Many Languages Has The Bible Been Translated Into? Why Does It Matter?

18 Jan

I usually don’t at all care about replies but comments on this one are, to me, more interesting than the article. 😛


1. Bill Davis on January 15, 2012 at 8:38 pm

I am a Bible translator. There are a few errors and misleading statements in this article. First of all, you make a distinction between the “Christian Bible” and the “Hebrew Bible.” The Jews do not call their Scripture (the Old Testament) the “Bible” and what you are calling the Christian Bible includes the Jewish Old Testament. The statement “As with any translation, there are things you cannot say in one language that you can in others” is wrong. Any meaning can be communicated in any language. However, the FORM will have to be changed, a affix such as -nego (“servant”) might have to be made a word or a phrase — or more.   And the Bible has not been translated into “hundreds” of languages, but into thousands, and some languages, such as English, have multiple versions.


2. Cam on January 15, 2012 at 9:42 pm

In response to Bill Davis, I agree largely, save for a small nuanced point. While anything can be translated and communicated with fair accuracy, there are literary drawbacks and even ambiguities. For example, to know a person in the Bible was named “Abednego” is more practical and even meaningful, insofar as the aesthetic appeal of the work is concerned, than repeatedly saying “The Servant of Nego”. Whether a person takes the Bible as a work of profound fiction or deep spiritual truth, its ability to be legibly appealing is important. This can be troubling with translation, particularly across vastly different linguistic phenotypes. So, translators are obliged to take on certain…arbitrary liberties. A single word can be loaded with so much meaning that its interpretation can create vastly different perspectives on the material. So, we have to wonder if the oldest translators, particularly those associated with the Roman Catholic Church, had political intentions behind some of their translations from Greek to Latin. For that matter, it’s possible the rabbinic scholars from centuries prior may have had political purposes behind the translation from Hebrew to Greek. This historical doubt ends up revealing a fundamental flaw in, well, fundamentalism.


3. FurryMoses on January 16, 2012 at 12:29 am

Bill Davis, you’ve responded to an obvious truism “there are things you cannot say in one language that you can in others” and refuted it with an idea that is entirely different: “any meaning can be communicated in any language”.  The problem is, both those statements are probably true. To truly translate some sentences between certain languages is to require footnotes or comments to explain it. Since in many cases, the text is a quote that some person said to another. Trying to rephrase the meaning into another language while keeping an appropriate social context can often only come out very unnatural, if not ridiculous. So, yes, you could communicate that meaning, but the *only* way to do it, is to use techniques which can’t be assumed are available in translating (ie comments/sidenotes/explanations). So the article’s idea stands to my mind: “there are things you cannot say in one language that you can in others”. It doesn’t really matter if you are capable of communicating the meaning into another language, if there’s no means to do that within the medium you are working in.

All this has much more significance with vastly different languages such as Dutch to Japanese. If you’re translating between Indo-European languages, you would have no idea how difficult this can be.


4. Flore on January 16, 2012 at 11:18 am

I totally disagree with Mr. Davis that you can accurately convey the meaning a word if translated. Some words evoke something more deep like a state of being of emotion or even represent something cultural that would make little sense to another culture. You can try to find an “equivalent” to these words, but accept the fact that some may never be accurately translated. Just do a quick research about “untranslatable words” and you will be astonished at the variety of words that have no direct translation and sometimes no known equivalent except for a lenghty phrase trying to convey a more-or-less accurate meaning.  Also, I do believe names were adapted at some point in history. Some names seem strange when you think that these people spoke Greek or Aramaic. Or maybe all of these names really are THAT old… I’m no anthropologist, but Mary-Maria-Marie seem more like adaptations than the actual name used at the time of Jesus. Of course they are, but how far away from the original these 3 are? (taken from English, Italian and French)  Mary seem very unlikely to be a name spoken in Aramaic.


As a freelance translator for 4 years or so, I do believe there are not always equivalents of a source language to a target language because of differences in syntax and pragmatics of the two languages as well as cultural gaps. How languages are evolved over time matters, too.



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