What is it that Bible translators translate when they are translating?  Let me focus on the New Testament, my main area of expertise.   When a translator wants to make an English version of, say, Mark (what I say about Mark will be true of all the books of the NT), what does she actually translate into English?

Obviously she cannot take Mark’s original manuscript and translate it, since we don’t have it.  Or the first copy of the original, or a copy of the copy of the original.   We have hundreds of copies of Mark.  Does she just choose one that seems good and translate that?

No, as it turns out, that’s not how it works at all.  She translates a critical edition of the Greek text of Mark as it has been reconstructed by textual scholars.  This will take a good bit of explaining.

From near the time in the fifteenth century when printing with moveable type was invented there have been scholars interested in producing printed versions of the Greek New Testament (and of the Hebrew Old Testament and of the Latin Vulgate version of both testaments etc.).  The scholars engaged in this endeavor were naturally in a difficult situation.  They knew that, before the invention of printing, books had circulated in hand-written copies (the definition of “manuscript”).  So they had to print the books of the New Testament based on a manuscript.

But they realized as well that manuscripts had differences among themselves.  Most of the differences were not …

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