For a very long time I’ve been interested in the question of how to translate ancient texts, such as the Greek New Testament, into modern languages. Early in my scholarly career my interest was piqued by the work I did as a graduate student working as a research grunt for the translation committee for the New Revised Standard Version. My Doktorvater, Bruce Metzger, was the chair of the committee and he asked me, during my graduate studies, to be one of the scribes for the Old Testament subcommittee. In that capacity I recorded all the votes that were taken by the translators for revisions of the text of the Revised Standard Version, in whichever subsection of the committee I was assigned to. Normally the subsection would have, maybe, five scholars on it. They would debate how to modify the text of the RSV, verse by verse, word by word; they would then take a vote by show of hands; and I would record their decision.

This was an eye-opening experience for me. Bible translation (or the translation of any foreign-language work, for that matter) is an inordinately complicated procedure. It is impossible to replicate the exact meaning of one language in another, since the nuances of words vary from one language to another. Let me give an example from the Greek of the New Testament. In English we have different terms that mean something like “love” – for example, “adoration,” “passion,” “lust,” “like,” and, lots of others. Each has its own connotations. Greek too has a variety of words, and they all, in principle, could be translated with the word love.

Early in graduate school we were taught that one Greek word used in the New Testament, PHILIA, typically refers to …

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… PHILIA, typically refers to the kind of love you have for someone with whom you get along particularly well and really like, personally. Another word, EROS, refers to a passionate kind of love you have for someone or something – for example for nineteenth century novels or college basketball or your new heartthrob. Another word, AGAPE, refers to an active kind of caring love that you show when you do what is in the best interest of another person (whether or not you like them). All three of these words can be simply translated with the word “love,” but they all have different connotations, and there is no one English word that captures all those connotations. So how do you translate each one? It’s a problem.

Other problems involve the fact that historical, social, and cultural factors make words suggest something different from one context to another. Take another Greek word common in the New Testament. The word DOULOS means “slave” – that is, a person who is owned by another person. The problem is that in our American context, when we think of “slave,” we tend to think of black slaves in the American South before the Civil War, and all the horrors associated with the institution of slavery. Slavery was extremely common in Greek and Roman antiquity, and it was very different in that context (it wasn’t based at all on race or national origin; it was far more common; slaves typically had a different status than in the American South; there was an enormous range of suffering connected with the institution depending on what kind of slave a person was; some slaves could be highly educated, wealthy, and own slaves themselves; many slaves were better off than lower class people who were free; and on and on).

So the problem is, if you translate the word as “slave” then it probably conjures up the wrong connotation; on the other hand, there is not good alternative. “Servant” doesn’t work (even though a lot of translations use it), since a servant is not owned by another. “Bond-servant” (which is sometimes used) doesn’t work so well since it’s not a term anyone uses any more. And … well, and there is not a good alternative.

And so simply rendering one set of words from one language into another is complicated: how do you manage to get all the nuances?

There are, very roughly, two strategies translators use to deal with the issue: literal and idiomatic translations. Both strategies are problematic.

A “literal” translation tries to give an exact equivalence of one language in another. You choose the one word in the new language that is the closest equivalent you can possibly find for a word in the other language and you stick to that word every time. This makes for a wooden translation that usually has almost no literary merits. When I started in college, not knowing Greek or Hebrew, I preferred a literal translation of the Bible, and the most literal one around was the New American Standard Bible. That was the one I used.

An “idiomatic” translation tries to capture the nuances of the original language by being more expansive, using more words to translate the original than are used in the original itself in order to capture the meaning, and even translating words into idioms that capture the mood and sense of the original even if these words are not the literal equivalents of the original’s words. Sometimes an idiomatic translation is considered more “free” with the original text than a literal translation (the translators are “free” to use idiomatic rather than literal language). When I was in college a highly idiomatic translation was the Good News for Modern Man (sic). As a fundamentalist, I considered versions like this the equivalent of translational milquetoast for the spiritually and mentally weak. I had strong opinions in those days….

The NRSV translation committee comprised scholars from a range of religious denominations (a couple of Jews on the OT side; some Roman Catholics; mainly mainline protestants), educational backgrounds, expertise, and … translation philosophies. Some preferred more literal, others more free, translations. The whole enterprise was a balancing act. But the overarching commission to the committee by the authorizing agency, the National Council of Churches, was that the translation in the end was to be “As literal as possible and as free as necessary.”

That’s what they strove for, and in my opinion, in the end, they succeeded well. It is still my favorite translation.