Field Guide to Bible Translations-Part 1

Why are accurate translations of the Bible so important?

As Christians, we believe that the Bible is God’s Word. According to 2 Timothy 3:16, all scripture God-breathed. Some translations say Inspired by God. In other words, the entirety of the Bible are the very words of God as if they were spoken from His mouth. However, the amazing thing is that God used the style, background, history, and knowledge of the writers to communicate exactly what He wanted to say to us. So, the Bible is God’s inerrant Word of God as it was written in the original languages. Since most of us do not read the original languages of the Bible—Ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek, we depend on translations into English to know what the true and perfect Word of God is saying to us. Because of this, an accurate and correct translation is of utmost importance. These are the very words of God so serious errors in translation could hinder us from knowing who God is or even hinder us from doing what we need to do to have a relationship with Him.

The Job of translation is Not Easy!

If every language on the planet always had a particular word for every idea and that word meant the same thing in every context, translating would be easy. It would be even easier of every word in one language could be translated by a single word in all other languages and that word never changed meaning based on context. However, that could not be further from reality. Here are some points that show that translating from one language to another can be quite difficult

Words change their meanings depending on the context

Let’s look at an example. In English, we have the word “run”. The following sentences use the word in slightly different ways so therefore the meaning changes:

  1. I will run a marathon next month (Run means the physical act of running)
  2. My car will not run (Run means to function)
  3. I will run down to the store (Run means to go or take a trip)
  4. I will run for public office (Run means to campaign)

If you were to translate “run” into another language, you would have to translate it based on the meaning in context, not just use one word in every case.

Languages use expressions or figures of speech

In English, we have many expressions that have an overall meaning, but the individual words have a different meaning by themselves. My favorite example of this is the expression, “It is raining cats and dogs”. I’m not sure if this expression is used everywhere in the US, but basically, the expression means that it is raining really hard. What if we were to translate that directly into another language? It is doubtful that the other language would have that exact same expression. So if you do translate this word-for-word, then the people in the other language would probably be looking for poodles and cats falling from the sky. This does not pass on the meaning. So a person would have to translate it as, “It is raining heavily”. What makes this even more difficult is that, in an ancient language, some expressions may not even be clear anymore.

Sometimes translating one word in one language requires more than one word in another language

The best example of this, in my mind, is the word “love”. We Americans use this same word whether we love God, our spouse, our children, our best friend, or our pet. In other languages, like Koine Greek for example, there is a different word for different kinds of love. Love for God and for spouse (and a higher form of love for others) is “Agapeo”. Brotherly love is “phileo”. That is actually how we get the word “Philadelphia” which translates to City of brotherly love. There is even a word for sexual love: “eros”. If you think long enough, you can think of some English words that we get from that word.

Here is another example. The 10 commandments say, “Thou not kill” However, God also tells Israel to kill all the Canaanites as they conquer the land He is giving them. How is that not a contradiction? The fact is that Hebrew and Greek have different words for “kill” There is a different word for murder than for killing in capital punishment. We do have that in English. Newer translations say, “You shall not murder.” Murder indicates the innocence of the person whose life is taken and premeditation on the part of the person taking their life.

Words in a language change over time

We all know that words change meaning over time. One major example in English is the word, “Gay”. There was a time when that word simply meant “happy”. However, we know that word has a completely different meaning now. That is why translations must be updated to remain accurate. Another example comes from the King James Version of the Bible. In the English used by the King James Bible, the word, “prevent” meant to go before. However, the word today means to hinder something or someone.


Why am I bringing up all these difficulties? I want you to know first of all that the task of translating should not be taken lightly. It takes skill and a mastery of both the language you are translating from and the language you are translating to. Second, I want to remind you that the care that the translator has to take increases with the importance of what he or she is translating. If the translator is translating a comic strip and does it wrong, then someone may not get the punchline. If it is a financial document, millions could be lost. If it is a treaty, two nations could eventually be at war. If it is God’s Word, people could lose hope of salvation. Greater care must be taken in translating the Bible than any other document under the sun. The attitude of the translator toward the Bible and how they see the task of translation is also vitally important.


In the next articles, we will begin to at the major types and philosophies of Bible translations