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Translation Difficulties In The Bible

One of the complaints I hear most frequently is "Why can't people [translators] translate what the Bible says, not what they think it means or what they want it to mean?" That would be nice to do if it were possible, but it's not possible. The best a translator can do is first be fluent in both languages and then come as close to the exact meaning as possible. But even then, you'll hear complaints that he was wrong here or there.

Here are a few language difficulties that translators encounter.

Language Structure

Not all languages have the same word and sentence structure. In fact, just the opposite is true: all languages have a different word and sentence structure.

In English, a simple sentence would have a subject, verb and object in that order, as in "He speaks the truth." But in another language, such as Koine Greek, the pronoun subject (he) is part of the verb. laleis tan aleathean, "(He) speaks the truth," although there is no word "he" in that sentence. The "-eis" at the end of laleis makes it the third person singular pronoun masculine. If laleis was laleo, that would make it first person, as in "I speak the truth," although no word "I" is present in that sentence.

English words also change their meaning with different word endings: speaks, spoke, speaking, etc. Sometimes we require two words to give a single idea: "will speak" as something we will do in the future. But in Greek, the future concept is imbedded in a single word.

Other languages also have word changes, and sometimes those changes require us to use more than one word to translate it, or we can translate two or more of their words into one English word. It's impossible to do a word-for-word translation of another language and be accurate, and have it meaningful.


Idioms are probably the greatest difficulty of all to translate. We speak in idioms; they are so common that we don't even notice them. And other people in other languages speak in idioms, too. So, do we translate from idiom to idiom, from idiom to word or from idiom to meaning?

We have an idiom, "petal to metal." It means to go very fast, whether you're in a car race or trying to get paperwork done before a deadline. "Petal to Metal" literally means to press the accelerator of a car as far down as it will go.

How would you translate that into another language, two thousand years from now? They may not even have petal at that time. They may not even use metal at that time. They may not know what a car is. The best a translator can do at that time is to say something like "go very fast" or "do it speedily," although the words very, fast and speedily are not anywhere in that idiom.

When we use idioms, we are not speaking to a future generation in another language; we are speaking to today's people in their language, therefore we're not trying to be careful for future generations and other languages. That's the way it is in the Bible.

Compound Words

Compound words are words that are made up of two other words, but the meaning of the compound word might not in any way suggest meaning of the two other words.

For example, we say "deadline," to mean the final acceptable time to receive or deliver something. It has nothing to do with dead and nothing to do with line. A "butterfly" is neither a fly nor butter. "Horseplay" usually does not involve a horse. "Sheepskin" does not involve sheep or skin; it is a diploma written on parchment or paper. "Snowbirds" are humans living in the sun.

Some compound words mean exactly what they say: afternoon, anytime, backslap, blackbird, and so on.

Some compound words mean half of what they say: "bellboy" involves a boy but not a bell, whereas "bellhop" is neither a bell nor a hop. A "bookworm" is not a worm but a human, who likes to read books. Or, it could be a worm that eats books. It depends on the context of the sentence.

You do not know what is meant by a compound word unless the meaning is told to you. That is why translators of the New Testament get in trouble when they try to translate the Greek word, arsenokoites.

Arsenokoites is made up of arseno- a prefix for male, and koites, a suffix for bed, which is a euphemism for sex. It has been variously translated as masturbation, as "abusers of themselves with mankind" (King James Version), and as homosexuals. The Jewish philosopher Philo (25 B.C. – 40 A.D.), who was contemporary with Jesus, believed and taught that arsenokoites meant shrine prostitution, which happens to be the same conclusion of this author in Key to Biblical Doctrine.


When words are unpleasant in our language, we use an euphemism. Such devices are not common just of English speakers; euphemisms are used by all speakers of any language.

When we American English speakers say we are going to the bathroom, it usually means we are going to do something specific in a special room. We don't say in polite company, "I'm going to defecate now," although in vulgar company one would say, "I'm going to take a s***." The common euphemism is, "I'm going to the bathroom." But would a word-for-word translation of that euphemism into another language two thousand years from now convey the same meaning it conveys now?

Somewhere around 1100 B.C. King Saul "covered his feet." The Hebrew word sawkak in 1 Samuel 24:3 is translated word-for-word in the King James Version as "covered." The verse says that Saul went into a cave to cover his feet. Other translations, such as New American Standard and New International Version, translates it euphemism for euphemism. Saul went into the cave to "relieve himself." It means he took a crap. He defecated.

English speakers have many euphemisms for "penis": willy, dong, dick, peter, johnson, and dozens more, just as they would in any other language. But such words are difficult to find out and translate into another language, especially a thousand years later.

What is even more difficult is when a word may sound just a little bit strange when used in a certain way but it is not altogether clear that the word is an euphemism

Missing Names

A language may not have a word for a certain action or object, but another language will. In America, some houses have a "guest room." That is a room where hosts allow guests to sleep. It's a common room in a house but Americans don't have a name for it, so we use its description, "guest room." Another language might have a name for that room: ksnona. (Greek), while other languages may have four words to describe it: camera per gli ospiti (Italian). We cannot do a word-for-word translation from one language into another.

Other, primitive, languages might not have a word for something that we do have a word for. We combined two words, airplane, to name that metal thing that flies in the sky. Another language may not have a name for it, so they may call it "metal bird," or even "that thing that flies in the sky." To translate from English to that language, the single word airplane could become up to seven words, although thing, flies and sky are not any part of the word airplane.

Helper Words

Languages have helper words. "Up" is one of our helper words. We look up, close up, open up, shut up, go up, bring up, free up, lock up, hurry up, and many more. Each of those words basically mean the same thing without the helper word up. But up gives a slight nuance, a little different feeling, to the word that English speakers understand. Such a nuance might be impossible to translate. It would not be appropriate or necessary to translate the word "up" when used in that way.

The same things, helper words, are found in other languages.

Multiple Meanings

The same word can be used for diverse meanings. Homonyms are especially bad. We have "read," pronounced as reed and red, which has two different meanings. Likewise "lead," pronounced as leed and led, has two different meanings. We have the noun "house" which means dwelling place and the verb house which means to store (as in, "House this tractor until I get back"). A brash young Greek student may come and say, "This word is translated as storage but the Greek plainly says house. Why can't people translate what the words say?" But that is what the translator did, because the word "house" means "storage" when used in that way. Then we have "housing," which is a covering. The inner workings of a watch are enclosed in a housing.

A chair is something you sit on. A chair is also the head person of a group. A chair is a position of importance and authority in a college or university.

The King James Version of the Bible translates these words as "sun": sun, light, heat and itch. That is because, used in a specific context, those words probably meant "sun" at that place. And yet an amateur scholar may object because "itch" means "itch," not "sun." Just as in English where "itch" always means an irritation on the skin and never a sexual urge.


What I just said was sarcasm; I said the opposite of what I meant. Of course the English word "itch" sometimes mean sexual urge.

The Bible also uses sarcasm. That is, characters in the Bible used sarcasm. Cain told God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Cain was not asking to find out if he was his brother's keeper; he was being sarcastic. The Israelites said to Moses, "Did you take us out of Egypt because there wasn't enough places for graves for us?" The Romans mocked Jesus, saying, "Hail! King of the Jews!" They did not really think Jesus was King of the Jews. Elijah said, "Cry louder, for Baal is a god, he can hear you!" but Elijah didn't really think Baal was a god.

However, sarcasm frequently loses its meaning when translated into another language. If it were translated word-for-word, the translation would frequently say the opposite of what the speaker actually intended.

What is a translator to do?

The purpose of language is communication. If that fails, language is useless. A translator must translate from one language to another in a way that the translation means the same in other people's minds as the original language meant in the original people's minds. If he doesn't do that,he has failed.

If the translator is not fluent in both languages, his efforts are direly threatened. If he is not knowledgeable of the culture of both languages, he is equally threatened. The translator needs to know what is a euphemism, what is a idiom, and when to translate something word for word, meaning for meaning, or word for meaning. The translator needs to focus not on his own personal doctrine, but on the language and the actual meaning.

But no matter how hard he tries, the translator can never make an exact duplicate of the original. Not only will some errors be made, but a person cannot translate all the nuances that a word or phrase carries.

What is a student to do?

Be very, very careful of two translators: the one with agenda and the amateur.

Too often we have otherwise respectable people who translate the Bible in a way that just happens to agree perfectly with their doctrine, such as the New International Version and the New World Version. Yes, they believe that their church, their doctrine and their Bible are correct, but it's just too convenient, because nobody is perfectly right in every aspect of his doctrine; otherwise there would be nothing more to learn.

Another scary person, and sad, is the amateur who knows little to nothing of the Greek he translates, yet he finds wonderful new doctrines throughout the Bible that have been overlooked by every other scholar for two thousand years. Beware of him.