Translation principles and problems (with examples from Luke 1)

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The Bible translation that we do is for Roma who live in Eastern Europe, specifically in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, & Montenegro (which is part of former Yugoslavia).

Who are the Roma? The Roma came originally from India. The left India around 900-1000 AD and migrated west. They passed through Persia (Iraq, Iran). Some went through Turkey and some into Egypt. Many of them traveled north into Europe, passing through Greece and Romania.

Today, Roma are located in every country of Europe, and number over                          12 million (in Europe & W. Eurasia). They speak around 90 languages. Unfortunately, only about 15 of those languages have any Scripture, and only a half dozen of those languages have the whole Bible.

We are translating the Bible into five of those language (Arli, Chergash, Gurbet, Bayash and Ludari) for Roma who live in the Serbo-Croatian speaking areas of former Yugoslavia. These five languages are spoken in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro.

We recently finished translating the Gospel of Luke and 50 chronological Bible stories into four of the languages. We hope to have it in the fifth language by the end of March 2022. These are being printed and made available online, which will complete phase 1 of this project. Phase 2 will be starting soon as we translate more of the New Testament in these languages.

Roma themselves are the translators. We train them and they translate from Serbian or Croatian, and English, into their Roma language. We check their draft translations against the original Greek or Hebrew and exegetical commentaries to ensure accuracy. We work with them to make sure the translations are clear, accurate, natural and acceptable. We do this through shared software and online meetings (Zoom, Skype) which we do while living in Kansas City, in the US.

An important part of that is testing the translation with others in the community to make sure they understand it. Then we publish the text in print and online, and also record it in audio, which we also put online.

Watch this video clip and you can see what one of the languages looks like, and hear what it sounds like. This is Luke 1:1-4 in the Gurbet language.

Let’s talk more specifically about Bible translation. Whenever we translate the Bible, there are five principles or goals that we try to keep in mind. When we translate, what we translated must be:

  1. Clear: we want the reader or listener to understand the meaning of the passage.
  2. Accurate: we must be faithful to the Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic original and communicate correctly what the verse says, without changing, adding to, or leaving out anything.
  3. Natural: we want to use language which sounds normal to the listener, and not stilted or awkward.
  4. Acceptable: we want to use terms that are appropriate for public reading in church.
  5. Stylistically/Rhetorically equivalent: we want the translation to impact today’s listeners in the same way it impacted the original audience. We want it to have the same persuasive and emotive standpoint of, and reflect a style equivalent to, the style of the Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic original.

All five of these principles are important. Unfortunately, sometimes they compete with each other. It is very challenging to meet all five goals in every phrase, so when it is not possible to do that in the language into which we are translating, we sometimes must emphasize one or more of these principles over the others. I think you will see what I mean as we go along, and I show you examples.

There are a number of problem areas, or special challenges, when you are translating. Let me mention several:

Implied information: This is what we assume the hearer already knows and do not need to state explicitly. It is amazing how much we take for granted when we are talking to someone else, especially someone from the same language, culture, and background. But there is often a very large gap between what was already known or assumed 2000 years ago in Palestine by first-century Jews, and what Roma in the 21st century in Serbia, for example,  already know or assume. We often need to spell things out for them and make explicit what was implicitly known by the original readers.

As an example of implied information which does not need to be specified, if you were a guest at my house, sitting in my living room and I came in and said, “Coffee?”, you would know what I was asking. One word and my voice intonation would make it clear that I am offering to bring you a cup of coffee. I would not need to say, explicitly, “Would you like me to bring you a cup of coffee?”

Or the day after the Super Bowl, if I asked you, “Did you see the game?”, you would know which game I was referring to. Or if I pull up to the petrol pump at a European gas station, all I have to say is “Full”. I do not need to say, “I would like you to fill my tank full of petrol.”

Idioms: An idiom is a phrase that is more than the sum of its parts. If you take literally the words which are strung together, they give a meaning that is not intended. These very often do not translate well from one language to another.

We’re familiar with many examples, such as: “You’re pulling my leg”, “It’s raining cats and dogs”, or “He pulled the wool over your eyes”.

Metaphors and similes: These are picturesque comparisons, whose meanings are not always transparent. “Herod is a fox” is a metaphor; “the kingdom of God is like a man who” is a simile. These make stories rich and interesting, but the comparison being made is not always obvious. Sometimes we need to help the reader understand how the comparison works.

We use a lot of metaphors and similes, such as “He’s a fish out of water”, “He has a heart of gold”, ““You are the light of the world”, “You are a candle in the darkness”, “He swims like a fish”, or “She sings like an angel.” 

Event nouns and genitives: There are some actions which one language may describe using a noun, but another may be better served by using a verb. For example, Greek can say that “they came to the baptism of John”, but some languages would more naturally use a verb, and in this instance make it clear whether John was baptizing or being baptized. To do that in a clear way, they would say “they came to be baptized by John”, or “they came so John could baptize them”.

Sometimes we need to explain what “of” means when we have nouns joined by “of”. For example in the phrase “the love of God”, does it mean His love for us or our love for Him? Does “box of wood” mean a box made of wood, or a box containing wood?

Passive verbs: We use a lot of passive verbs in English, and Greek did the same, but many languages prefer active verbs, and in order to be more clear and natural, sometimes we have to change a passive to an active in translation. For example, instead of saying “the gospel of the kingdom was preached by Jesus”, some languages would say “Jesus preached the gospel about the kingdom”, in this way changing the passive verb to an active (and explaining the genitive “of” as “about”).

Multiple meanings in the source language or target language. Words have various meanings depending on their contexts, and they often do not match well across languages. “Squash” can be a vegetable or a sport. “Glasses” can be something you drink from or something you use to see.

I’d like to give you some examples and show you some of the challenges and obstacles that we encounter when translating.

In these examples, I am using a literal translation in order to bring across the Greek original. It is a cross between the Literal Standard Version and NASB (1995).

V. 1 says, “In as much as many took in hand to set in order a narration of the matters that have been fulfillled among us …”

Different languages have different ways of beginning documents, depending on the setting. When you write a letter in English, you begin one way, such as “Dear so-and-so”. If you are writing an e-mail or text, you might begin with “Hey, Joe,” or “Hi, Susie”. If you are writing an appeal to your insurance company, you might say “To whom it may concern”.

In this book which Luke wrote, here in the first few verses he is explaining to a person named Theophilus why he wrote this gospel. He is giving some background information and some justification as to why he took the time and expense to write this biography of the life of Jesus.

Others had written about Jesus before Luke wrote. They had written or passed on orally some things about his life, or at least some stories and some of his teachings. And some of this teaching had been taught to this person named Theophilus.

So Luke says, “In as much as”. This is the first word in Luke and it is difficult to know how to translate it. In this first example, how should we translate “In as much as” into our five Roma languages in a way which is accurate, clear, natural, acceptable, and stylistically/rhetorically equivalent? Some translations say “in as much as” or “seeing that”, but I do not find those meanings very clear. I’m not sure what that means here or why Luke would open his Gospel that way.

The use here implies that it was something the reader was aware of and that it is giving a basis for what follows. The simplest translation is “Since” or “As you know”. Or we could translate, “I am writing this to you because …” 

This is a way that Luke is introducing his letter to let Theophilus know that he (Luke) knows that Theophilus is acquainted with the life of Jesus and with reports that had circulated among the believers and that Luke wants to assure Theophilus that what has been taught about Jesus is true.

He says, “Since many took in hand” or “As you know, many have taken in hand …” But we should not translate in such a way that the Roma think that they literally picked something up with their hands. To “take in hand” is an idiom that means to begin a project or start something.

Yet here we have to be careful: if we say “started”, does that mean that they never finished? We want to avoid that word since the point is not whether a writer only got started and never finished. The point is that others have written about Jesus, that is, recorded facts and teachings from the life of Christ, whether or not their report was ever formally published.

Luke is emphasizing that others have put effort into recording the life of Christ, and because he had researched it so thoroughly himself, he also wanted to write down the records. So we might say, “Since many other people have endeavored to record”, or “have undertaken to draw up an account” or “made the effort to write down”. Or we might use something more idiomatic, like “Since many others have taken a crack at writing a report about …”

It implies that it is a difficult task to write an orderly record of the life and teaching of Jesus. One of the Roma languages uses an idiom which is literally “given all from themselves to write a report …” and this idiom means “they did their best”. Others have taken a crack at it and Luke now will do it since he has the access to the records and to eyewitnesses he can ask about it.

Next, it says, literally, “the things which were fulfilled among us”. What does it mean that something is “fulfilled”? Some Roma languages do not have a word for “fulfilled”, and if we use a Croatian or Serbian word for “fulfill” which they know, the meaning still might not be clear.

Luke loves to use the word “fulfill”; he uses it many times in Luke and Acts, and it in fact is one of the themes of these two volumes written by Luke. It is referring to something which was promised long ago, in the Old Testament, which God said he would do, which has taken place now that Jesus has come. In the Roma languages, we can explain it as “the events which God promised through the prophets which have now taken place among us.”

Look at verse 2: “as they delivered to us, who from the beginning became eyewitnesses and officers of the word”. “Delivered” could easily be misunderstood, since we might use that word today to talk about delivering a package to someone, or perhaps in a formal setting where we “deliver a speech”.

The term here in Greek means “to pass on a message” so for our Roma we can translate it as “they wrote to us” or “they told us”. This meaning is simpler, but it is at least very clear.

V. 2 speaks of those who were “eyewitnesses from the beginning”, but we can ask, “from the beginning” of what? It was not from the beginning of time, but from the beginning of the life and ministry of Jesus. In other words, Luke is going to record things that happened before he, Luke, was a follower of Jesus, that go back to the beginning of Jesus’ life or ministry

“Eyewitnesses” is a wonderful word in English and Croatian, but Roma don’t have this word so instead we need to use a phrase that explains it, such as ”those who themselves…” or “with their own eyes saw these things”. As one of our Roma translations has, “These people saw those things even from the beginning of the Messiah’s life on earth”. One of the other Roma translations used the Serbian word for “eyewitness” but put a footnote explaining who these eyewitnesses were.

There is often a lot of information that is implied which a Roma who is hearing the Bible for the first time might not be aware of. There are cultural differences between our world today and the world of the Bible from millennia before. There was also a lot of the Old Testament that people already knew about when they first heard the New Testament, but a lot of this is still unknown to the Roma in Croatia and Serbia today. There are times when we need to make sure that what is implied in the verses is not missed by them, so we need to spell it out.

What does it mean that “they became ministers/servants of the word”. For the Roma, we may need to spell it out. “Servant” may need to be clarified. Whom are they serving? It is God they are serving. How do you “serve” a “word”? “Word” here is not a single word (like “apple”, “tree”, or “cat”) but the message of the Gospel. In the broader context, we know that “word” refers to God’s Word or message and that they were serving God by telling or passing on his message. So in translation, we may need to spell it out as “they served God by proclaiming his message” since “servant” implies that it was God they were serving, and “of the word” implies that it had to do with communicating God’s message.

We have looked at two verses only and have seen how it can be difficult to translate accurately and yet clearly, naturally, and acceptably.

V. 3 says, “It seemed good also to me, having followed from the first all things exactly, to write to you in order, most noble Theophilus” (LSV). You may notice a couple of things at the end of verse 3. It says “most noble Theophilus”. Normally, we put the name of the recipient of a letter at the beginning of a letter, not at the end of the first paragraph, so in order to communicate more clearly that this writing was addressed to Theophilus, some translations move it to the beginning of verse 1, and start the Gospel of Luke with “Honorable Theophilus”.

The wording is such as would be used to address an honored public official, so we assume Theophilus was some sort of high government official. We should reflect that in translation, for example, how we would address a judge as “your honor”. This communicates stylistically in English translation what Luke is communicating.

In the slide above, we see an old inscription in Corinth that uses the name Theophilus. We also see an ancient ink well and style, perhaps similar to what Luke used to write to Theophilus.

When we translate Luke 1:5-11, we find a number of things that can be problematic. For example, most Roma, who are not familiar with the Bible, will not know who “Herod” was, where “Judea” was, and what a “division of Abijah” means.

They could easily also misunderstand “priest” since they live in places where “priest” refers to Catholic or Eastern Orthodox priests. How can we make sure that the Roma do not misunderstand? For “priest” we can add “Jewish priest” or “Israelite priest” so it is more clear. This is an example of making implicit information explicit.

For “Judea”, we can say “the region of Judea” or “the province of Judea” so it is clear that it is referring to a geopolitical area. Even that can be tricky because sometimes Luke uses “Judea” to refer to the Roman province by that official name, which is in the southern part of Palestine, and sometimes he uses it to refer to the whole land of Palestine where the Jews lived. This is an example of multiple meanings that the same word can have.

“Division of Abijah” is referring to one of the 24 groups of Jewish priests, one of which was named after a man named Abijah. That background is not known by most Roma, so in some translations, we say “from Abijah’s priestly order”.

It says Elizabeth was “of the daughters of Aaron”. Now normally, when we say someone is a “daughter”, we mean “daughter”, i.e., direct offspring of a mom and dad. I have three daughters, Elizabeth, Kirsten, and Ariela. But the Bible uses “daughter” (and “son”, as well as “father”) in a much broader way. We know that Aaron lived 1,500 years before this time. He did not directly father Elizabeth, so this could be very misleading to the Roma.

“A daughter of Aaron” was a Semitic way of saying that she was a descendant of Aaron. Most Roma languages don’t have a word for “descendant”, so this is a problem. In order to be more clear, some translations say Elizabeth was “from the tribe of Aaron”. Now, all the priests were from the tribe of Aaron, so this was a way to say that even his wife Elizabeth could trace her heritage back to priests. This shows her importance, so to speak.

Now, we have to be clear here so as to avoid misunderstanding. If we adjust the translation to say that Zachariah was from the division of Abijah and Elizabeth was from the tribe of Aaron, it could sound like Zachariah was not from the tribe of Aaron. But he was. All priests were descended from Aaron; it is just that Luke is being even more specific and saying which priestly division Zachariah was from, while, of course also being descended from Aaron.

So in order to prevent misunderstanding, one translation has “his wife was also from Aaron’s tribe” and some translations also add a footnote explaining that all priests came from Aaron, who was the first priest in Israel, and give the Old Testament reference where this is mentioned. One example of a footnote that one of our Roma translations uses is: “There were 24 divisions of priests, all descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses. Abijah was the forefather of the 8th division of priests (see 1 Chron 24:10).”

Footnotes are a mixed blessing. They are wonderful in that they can give very important information that it would not be right to put in the text. But, since most Roma will hear the audio and not read the text, they will never see this footnote. Even in print, new readers don’t always know how footnotes work and either skip them, or just read straight down the page and read the footnote out of order, not with the verse it is marked for.

“Before God” seems fine if you are used to “Bible English” and I think we understand it. But it may not transfer to other languages. “Before” is not spatial, like “standing in front of God”, but it also is not temporal, like “they were that way before God was!”

Some translations need to say “in the Lord’s eyes” or “in the Lord’s sight” to make sure that it is clear that this means, “in God’s evaluation” or “in relation to God”. To be really clear, some translations say “they had God’s approval”.

How about this next phrase “going on in all the commands”? Here is a good example of an idiom. What does “going on in” mean? Some translations say “walking in all the commandments and statutes”. Were they walking around in a pile of scrolls? No. This idiom could either sound absurd or could simply not be understandable in some languages. How do you “walk in a command”. The idea is “observe his commands, or better yet “live according to” or “obeying all the commandments”.

“Commands and regulations of the Lord” is a very good translation, but remember how I mentioned earlier event nouns. This is a good example. “Commands of the Lord” mean commands that the Lord gave; he commanded them. It is fine to use a noun, “commands”, but some languages find it more natural and definitely more clear if you convert it to a verb and explain the meaning of “of”, so you could translation say “that which the Lord commanded and required”.

In v. 7 it literally says “they had no child.” This is correct as far as Greek goes, but it is not normal in English. We would say “they had no children”. The meaning is the same, but the first one sounds odd and stilted. This is the same in Croatian, Serbian and all five Roma languages.

We see another idiom at the end of v. 7: “advanced” or “having gone on in their days”.  It is a nice idiom, but it might not be understandable in some languages. All of our Roma translations say “were already old” or “were very old”.

V. 8 gives us an illustration where one language might have a verb where another language has to use a verb and noun. Greek has a noun “to be priesting”, but we have to use a noun and verb “to serve as priest” or “officiate as priest”. So this literal structure does not transfer well from Greek to English.

 It could be, “Now it happened in his acting as priest”, but that is very unclear in translation, so we need to explain that “in his acting as priest” means “when” or “while he was doing his priestly duties.”

Also a priest could only be on duty in one location, which was in Jerusalem and in the temple. Most Roma would not know that.

Again you have the somewhat cryptic phrase “in the order of his division before God”. This means “while his division of priests” was on duty in the temple.

One other thing is that sometimes it is helpful to make it clear who the pronoun refers to. In this case, “he” refers to Zechariah. So you might want to specify this in a footnote, or you could put all of this information in the text, like one of our Roma translators did: “One day while Zachariah’s group of priests was serving in the temple, Zechariah was carrying out his work as priest before God.”

V. 9 ”according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot was to make incense, having gone into the temple of the Lord.” When we use “lot” in English, we usually use it as a metaphor. “Well, that’s his lot in life.” But in the Bible, it was a literal lot. They “cast lots” which is sort of like rolling dice, or picking names out of a hat.

The text says “according to the custom of the priests he was chosen by lot”. We need to be careful in translating this. It might be more helpful to make it more clear how this choosing took place, since the Roma listener may not be aware of that practice. One Roma translation says “according to their custom, the priests threw lots to see who will enter in the holy place of the Lord and thus it fell on Zachariah to enter into the temple of the Lord to burn incense”.

We needed to be careful in the wording because one of the ways it was drafted made it sound like it was the custom of the priests to chose Zechariah. Sometimes you have to change word order or tweak a sentence so that it cannot be misunderstood as saying something it is not. Here, we had to make sure that the custom was casting lots; the custom was not that it always chose Zechariah.

Some English translations use the word “temple” here, but there are two Greek words for temple, which (not always, but for the most part) differentiate the inner building (where only priests could go), and the courtyards and larger temple complex (where the worshipers were allowed to be). So you could translate this second word as “sanctuary” or “holy place”.

In v. 10, it says “hour of incense”. It would be helpful to explain this noun event and “of” so that it is clear. It means “the hour when the incense is burned”. Or for languages that do not like to use passive verbs, you could convert the passive verb to active and specify who does the action and thus could translate it “the hour when the priests burn incense” or even more specifically “the time when Zachariah burned the incense”.

V. 10 has “multitude of people” or “crowd of people”. Well, a crowd is usually assumed to be “of people”; what else would it be? So this wording is unnecessary or redundant in some languages. One of the Roma translations has “the gathered people”, and another just says “crowd” without saying “of people.”

“Outside” means outside of the holy place, which is often referred to as “the courtyard of the temple”. A couple of our Roma translations wanted to make this implied information clear so they added “in the courtyard of the temple”.

V. 11 mentions that the angel appeared at the “right side” of the altar. In the Bible, the right side is a place of honor. It is not really easy to bring this out in translation, but one of our Roma translations added that information in a footnote. The angel who appeared turns out to be a very special and honored angel, the archangel Gabriel, so it is fitting that he would stand in a place of honor. It was as if the altar with incense rising like prayers into God’s presence represented God, and the right side of that altar was the place of honor where his special messenger stood by God.

In v. 12, “and Zachariah, seeing” is a normal way to express a temporal phrase in Greek, but is not natural in English. We need to say “when Zachariah saw”. 

Also, in Greek, it says that “fear fell on him”. In normal English, we do not say that “fear fell”. In English, and in some of the Roma translations, it is more expected to say “Zachariah was afraid”.

In v. 13 there are a couple of things in this translation that are certainly not wrong or incorrect, but they are not natural, at least in English and in some Roma languages. One of them is the repeated use of “and”. In these seven verses, “and” appears 17 times. What is different than what we would use in English is that it begins almost every clause or sentence. That was good Greek style and may be good style in some languages, but not in English and in some other languages.

Next is the construction “you will call his name John”. Once again, that is normal “Bible language”, but abnormal English. We would expect something like “you will name him John”.

V. 15 says that John the Baptist will be “great before the Lord”. One challenge is that some Roma languages use the same word for “great, big, large, and tall”. The angel is not saying that John will be 6’ 9” or something like that! He is saying that John will be important and significant. There is no other word in the Roma languages, so we just had to check with the translators to make sure that it did not here mean large or tall, but rather significant. This is an example where some languages have fewer words from which to choose and some of those words have a wider range of meaning.

In v. 17, the translation is correct that says “wine and strong drink he will not drink”, but there is a cultural and religious connotation that most Roma will miss. It isn’t just that John was a teetotaler. Those who knew the OT knew that this was a way of saying that he was specially set apart to God, perhaps even as a Nazirite. It emphasized that he was “holy” in the sense of set apart and dedicated to the Lord. I don’t feel comfortable putting that directly in the translation, but I think one of our Roma translations did the right thing to explain that in a footnote.

Prepositions often do not match across languages. Greek says “from his mother’s womb”, but that does not mean from in the sense of after he is out of it or away from it spatially. We know John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb when he heard Mary’s voice. Here is a case where the broader context helps us understand something, because “from” could mean either “while in” or “after getting out”. But here, rightly I think, all 5 Roma translations have “still/already in” or “while in his mother’s womb”.

In v. 16, “sons of Israel” does not mean sons that the patriarch Jacob (renamed Israel) directly fathered. Just like we saw with “daughters of Aaron” above, it is a Semitic way of saying “Israelites”, which is how three of our Roma translations translated it. However, two of our translations kept it more literal, as “sons of Israel”. This speaks to our fifth principle which is that we need to consider the style or rhetorical effect of the original. “Sons of Israel” has more emotional punch than just “Israelites”. It reminds Zechariah and the first-century Jews of their heritage. They trace their lineage back to the beginning, to a founding father, the famous grandson of Abraham named Israel.

V. 17 says, “go before him”. This doesn’t just mean that he goes first, or is in front of Jesus. It refers to what a messenger would do in ancient times. There were no phones, no e-mail, no messaging. Someone had to run ahead to tell a town that an important official was coming and that they had better get themselves and their town ready. That’s what John the Baptist was for Jesus. He didn’t just come before him in time, though he did do that. He was preparing the way as a forerunner or messenger.

We see how this fits with the end of the verse, “to make ready for the Lord … a people prepared.” That’s why one of the Roma translations has “he will go before the Lord like a man who brings a message” and another has  “he will go before the Lord as a messenger… to prepare the people to be ready for the Lord’s coming”, and a third says “he will prepare the people for the time when the Lord will come”.

Much of the New Testament assumes the reader already knows the Old Testament, so the reference to Elijah should be obvious. But it is not obvious to many Roma who do not know that he was an OT prophet. So sometimes we will say “prophet Elijah” or “old/ancient/earlier prophet Elijah”.

We’ll stop there, but I hope that these examples have helped you to see some of the principles and practices of Bible translation in action.

Bible translation is difficult, but it is also very important. There is still a great need for Bible translation work around the world.

How can you be involved? There are four ways:

  1. You can GO.

You can go long term as there is still a great need for people to help with translation. We need translators, exegetes, literacy workers, Scripture Engagement workers (showing people how to use the translating and leading home Bible studies), church planters, etc. You can go short term, such as on a summer team (often in August) or a winter team (on January, during break, for eastern Christmas). This mainly involves participating in children’s vacation Bible schools in Roma villages.

2. You can GIVE.

You can support the work financially. This can be one-time or monthly gifts for our missionary support or it could be gifts for special needs such as printing literature, etc.

3. You can PRAY.

We have a daily prayer calendar, i.e., a prayer request for each day of the month. You can get this by mail, by e-mail, on this website, Facebook or Twitter. Please subscribe to get our prayer updates.

 4. You can RECRUIT.

Share these message with your friends, your church, your Bible study, your small group, and encourage others to get involved as well.