Lost in Translation Part 2

Last week, we considered how difficult it is to translate the Bible into English due to the various nuances and linguistic concepts that languages possess. There are many times when it is simply impossible to transmit the exact meaning of a word or phrase from the Bible’s original language into the new target language. In addition, translators do not always make the best grammarians. They may know the languages well that they’re working with and even know how to convert words between the two, but they don’t always make the best choices in word selection, word order, or definition. This week, let’s consider some more challenges that Bible translators have to face.

Borrow and Adoption

One interesting challenge with translating between languages often has to do with “loanwords.” These are words that are adopted from one language (the donor language) and incorporated into another language without translation. Some examples of words that we have adopted from other languages include, karaoke from Japanese, paparazzi from Italian, caravan from Arabic, and kindergarten from German. It has been estimated that approximately 80% of the English language is made up of loanwords from more than 350 languages! The top contributor is Latin, with French and Greek following.

Other languages also borrow from English. When we were in Paraguay, everyone understood what I meant when I would ask for the Wifi password. They had adopted the pronunciation exactly as we say it. They also adopted shopping, but they added a rather funny Spanish accent to it. However, in each case, there was also a slight nuance added or subtracted to the meaning from the original.

The Bible gives some examples of loanwords that were used interchangeably between cultures. “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated, the Christ),” (John 1:41). This is a word that was eventually adopted into the various cultures of the Roman Empire because of the spread of Christianity. It became its own word in the Greek language and today, is readily understood around the globe.

Translation or Transliteration?

The case of what happened to the word, Messiah, in John 1:41 is an example of transliteration. This is the practice of adopting a word by simply using the closest corresponding letters of a different language, rather than translating it into the target language. Messiah became Messias in Greek. It literally means, the anointed one. But, instead of translating those words into Greek, it was simply adopted in a similar form from the original Hebrew word. Bible translators have done this countless times over the centuries. Our English words such as deacon, apostle, angel, and evangelism are all examples of transliteration from the Greek, instead of direct translation. Not knowing their original meanings can lead to misunderstandings and even false doctrines.

Perhaps, the most infamous case of transliteration involves the word baptism. To a Greek speaker, it simply meant immersion, or to be submerged. There was no confusion as to how one was to obey the command of being baptized (Acts 2:38, 22:16). They didn’t question if they should be sprinkled, have water poured on them, or be immersed, because the word means immersion! There are other words for sprinkle and pour in the Greek language. Unfortunately, Bible translators have created a great deal of confusion among English speaking people by not translating the word directly into English. The loss of meaning has led to false doctrines. It is yet another classic case of something very important “getting lost in the translation.”