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The Difficulties of Publishing a Translation

In my last post, en route to discussing my latest attempt at publishing both a scholarly and a trade book on the same topic, I talked about how I took on the task of doing a new Greek-English edition of the Apostolic Fathers for the Loeb Classical Library.  At the end of the post I indicated that doing that edition was one of the hardest things I have ever done.   There were lots of things that made it very difficult – deciding which form of the Greek text to use for each of the writings included (i.e. what to do in the many places where the manuscripts differed from one another), doing all the research in order to write up competent and relatively complete Introductions to each text, studying the history of research into various problems posed by the Apostolic Fathers, from the 17th century until today, and so on.

But the hardest part was the translation itself.   The Greek of the Apostolic Fathers is not incredibly difficult, as far as Greek goes.  It is more difficult than most of the New Testament, but not nearly as difficult as most classical authors.  (Like the NT, it is the kind of Greek called “koine” [pronounced Coin-ay, rhymes with payday]; this was the common language of regular folk at the time, not the highbrow language of upper crust elite literary authors.)    Still, it’s difficult enough.   But what I found in doing this, my first really big translation project, was that it is hard not only to read the Greek but even more to put the Greek into English.

So here’s the deal.   For most of my professional life – and for my student life before that – I have actively translated Greek texts both by myself and in communal settings.   When you’re reading, say, 1 Corinthians in Greek to yourself, you do not try to produce a polished translation for others to read; you get the nuances of what the Greek is saying and understand it as Greek, not as English in another language (if that makes sense).   Often you don’t even choose one English word over another in order to understand what the author, in this case Paul, is saying.   You read it and try to understand it as Greek.

Communal settings are, for example, in the….

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How I Decided to Publish the Apocryphal Gospels
My Third Scholarly and Trade Book Combination, Told Tangentally



  1. Avatar
    shakespeare66  August 21, 2014

    The story reminds me of the time I painted four sets of French doors inside and out at my home. I vowed never to paint a French door again! Unfortunately, I would do several more in the future. How much of a “lost in translation” is there between Greek and English?

  2. Avatar
    Hana1080  August 21, 2014

    I’m really enjoying learning of your intimate process with your work.

  3. gmatthews
    gmatthews  August 21, 2014

    I can’t speak or read ancient Greek, but when Greek words use majuscule I can spot personal names and places as those words are sometimes pretty close to their latin form in spelling and hence English. If the Greek letters are minuscule I can hardly spot any words since I’m far less familiar with the lower case. Does the typical PhD candidate (or maybe even less advanced than that) get to the point where they can read the Greek fairly quickly? As. opposed. to. speaking. the. words. very. slowly. as. their. brain. processes. the. words. and. sentences?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 22, 2014

      In one of my classes I teach them how to read manuscripts (both majuscule and minuscule). But unless they take that class, they pretty much know only how to read the printed texts.

  4. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  August 22, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    Did the fact that early Christian scripture was written in koine Greek have an effect in how the religion was perceived by the pagan elites and imperial family? In other words, did that make the religion look bad or koine Greek was acceptable? Did later Church Fathers write in Attic Greek (is this correct? Is Attic the Greek the “highbrow language” of the elites you mentioned above?)?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 22, 2014

      Yes, the literary elite looked down on the early Christian writings as completely third-rate. Some of the later fathers wrote in more elegant Greek — some of them were among the real intellectuals of the empire. But not for the first three centuries.

      • Avatar
        gabilaranjeira  August 22, 2014

        Do you think that this progression from koine to more elegant Greek used by later Church Fathers was a critical factor for Christianity to win over the elites and also Constantine, as Christians could then defend their faith in more sophisticated grounds?


      • Avatar
        Macavity  August 22, 2014

        When did you learn Classical Greek? Wasn’t the Greek taught at Wheaton College predominately Koine Greek? What do you think of the benefits of learning Classical Greek from the beginning rather than starting with Koine Greek?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  August 23, 2014

          At Wheaton we learned classical (Attic) Greek before beginning to translate texts out of the Koine. It is much better to do it that way. Anyone who can read Attic Greek can easily handle the Koine, but not the other way around.

    • Avatar
      TomTerrific  August 22, 2014

      How different is koine Greek from Attic? Would there be an analogy in English?

      My wife likes to watch BBC and I find it difficult to understand some of the accents.

      Then again, in school we were exposed to Chaucer as it was originally written and it was very difficult to read.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  August 23, 2014

        I suppose koine would be like what you hear on the street and Attic would be Faulkner.

  5. Avatar
    ktn3654  August 22, 2014

    I’ve seen translations with footnotes that say “This sentence has such-and-such alternate translation.” (For example, the NRSV has tons of notes like that.) Are you going to do any of that in your translation? I guess the problem might be where to draw the line–you don’t want to give three alternate translations for every sentence.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 22, 2014

      Yes, I wanted to have such footnotes for the Loeb, but they wouldn’t allow it. Instead they did something rather intersting: in some places I was allowed to place alternative translations in parenthesis in the text.

  6. Avatar
    gavriel  August 22, 2014

    The bookstores have many self-study books on koine/New Testament Greek. Any recommendation?

  7. Avatar
    qaelith2112  August 22, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman,

    This is a question which has nothing to do with the blog entry (using this as a means of getting another question across), but the “translation” aspect reminded me that I have been wanting to ask this.

    Having read “Misquoting Jesus” (among others, but only these two are relevant for this question) and “Orthodox Corruption of Scripture”, and having followed up on those by comparing a number of the passages which have suffered corruption in some number of extant manuscripts to several English translations, I’ve noticed that translations vary quite a bit in exactly which witnesses they favor as a basis for their English translation. Among the bibles I have compared, so far the New English Translation (NET) seems to have agreed with you on a larger proportion of your conclusions than the others. That is to be commended, but it nonetheless goes with the reading which is more likely to have been a corruption in more passages than I would have liked.

    The question: Do you have an opinion as to which modern translation or translations (or actually the teams doing the translation) have ended up making the highest proportion of good decisions (meaning those that your research would identify as more likely original) with respect to disputed passages? And as another related question, which translations seem to do the better translation into English? I’m hoping for one translation to both translate well and to make the best decisions most of the time regarding which reading to use.

    The translational quality question may be a bit more loaded because I realize that a part of it is subjective — the “literal vs. readable” tradeoff and the passages that may need to be paraphrased in some way in order to better convey to a modern reader the actual meaning of something which might not be obvious in a strictly literal translation (such as “feet” actually meaning “penis” in biblical Hebrew).

    Very sorry for wordiness in conveying the question.

    Chris Jones

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 23, 2014

      Well, I disagree with decisions of a lot of the translation committees. On the other hand, they disagree with me! My preferred translation is the New Revised Standard Version, which I especially like in a study edition, such as the HarperCollins Study Bible. (My mentor, Bruce Metzger, who taught me textual criticism, was the chair of the NRSV translation committee.)

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 22, 2014

    The possible variations in translation are quite interesting and I discovered the existence of such translation variations when I took New Testament Greek in college which made it even more difficult for me to understand the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy since there was no universal agreement on the correct translation.
    What do you make of the New Testament being written in “Koine” rather than more sophisticated Greek? Does this, for example, mean that it was not a very “scholarly” endeavor?.

  9. mini1071
    mini1071  September 1, 2014

    So several years ago, I who suffered terribly with high school Latin, commented that it must be nice to be one such as Dr. Ehrman who can read the Greek for himself and get a real handle on the nuances…. For Christmas that year my wife gave me text books on koine Greek and biblical Hebrew… complete with workbook. Oh….Joy!

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