Bible Linguistics and the Problems of Translating the Bible

Bible Translations

I recently joined a Facebook Group called “Bible Linguistics.” Jeff Fisher, the moderator of the group, invited me to be part of the group because, at times, I write about problems of translating the Hebrew of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible into English. I hope to make a contribution to the group by posting articles dealing with problems in translating the Hebrew text into our English language.

Translating the Bible is no easy task. There are many problems translators face in trying to convey to English readers what the biblical writer was trying to communicate to his readers two-three thousand years ago. Languages change. The meaning of words also changes over the years.

Take for instance, one word Shakespeare used many years ago. In one of his plays, Shakespeare used the word “anon.” The word “anon” was very common in Shakespeare’s day. It is even used twice in the KJV: “But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick of a fever, and anon they tell him of her” (Mark 1:30 KJV).

I doubt that many people today know the meaning of the word “anon.” The word “anon” means “soon,” “in a little while.”

Then, there is the problem of hapax legomenon. A hapax legomenon is a word that appears only once in the Hebrew Bible. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, there are 1500 words that appear only once in the Hebrew Bible. Most of the time, translators have to guess the meaning of these words. “In all intellectual honesty, we will never know biblical Hebrew with the sureness that its native speakers enjoyed” (Alter 2019:46).

For instance, in the English language, Shakespeare invented many words, and the meaning of some of them is still unknown. Shakespeare invented the words anthropophaginian and incarnadine. In Hamlet, Shakespeare said that Hamlet’s father was killed by a poison called “hebenon.” The word “hebenon” is a hapax legomenon. To this day, Shakespeare’s scholars have not identified the poison called “hebenon.”

The same problem appears in the Old Testament. In 1 Kings 10:22, Solomon’s ships brought many precious items to Jerusalem. One of these items were תֻכִּיִּים (tukkiyyîm). The word tukkiyyîm is a hapax legomenon. Translators differ on the meaning of the word. The NRSV translates the word as “peacocks,” but the NIV translates the same word as “baboons.” In the near future I will post a study on this mysterious word.

Then there is the problem of colloquial language. Colloquial language consists of expressions people use every day that have meaning in the context of the people who use them. However, when the colloquial expression is translated into another language, the colloquial expression has no meaning.

For instance, in the USA when a person makes another person mad, that person says of the offender “he gets my goat.” Most people living in the USA will understand this colloquial expression.

But how do you translate this expression into another language. The person is not talking about literal “goats.” Any translation into another language will have to find another colloquial expression in that language to convey the meaning of the original expression.

Spanish speaking people in California have tried to use this colloquial expression in a literal way using Spanglish. Spanglish is a hybrid of Spanish and English. In Spanglish, “he gets my goat” is “él me pega el chivo.” Most people in Latin America will have no idea what is behind this Spanglish expression.

The same happens in the Old Testament. When Boaz came before the elders to claim Ruth as his wife, Boaz called the next of kin who was closer to Naomi than he was to come before the elders. Boaz said to this next of kin: “Come here פְּלֹנִי אַלְמֹנִי (pelōnî ʼalmōnî).” The problem is that the expression pelōnî ʼalmōnî is a Hebrew colloquial expression that is difficult to translate into English.

The translators of the book of Ruth recognized the problem and they differ on how to translate this expression pelōnî ʼalmōnî. Here are a few examples:

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): “friend.

The Jewish Bible (TNK): “So-and-so.”

The King James Bible (KJV): “Ho, such a one.”

The Complete Jewish Bible (CJB): “Such-and-such.”

The NET Bible: “John Doe.”

Several translations say that “Boaz called him by name” but the name of the next of kin is never mentioned because his name is unknown, and the biblical writers did not make an effort to identify the next of kin.

Then, there is the problem of transliterating Hebrew words. Transliteration is the act of writing in English words in Hebrew based on similar English pronunciation of the Hebrew word.

Genesis 6:4 says that “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days.” The Hebrew word נְּפִלִים (nepīlîm), Nephilim, is a word which has been left untranslated because translators do not know who the Nephilim were. So, they left the word untranslated. However, this created a problem because the average reader of the Bible has no idea of who or what a Nephilim was.

There are many Hebrew words in the Old Testament that have been transliterated into English. The Hebrew word אָדָם (ʼādām), is a word that means “man” (NIV), “humankind” (NRSV), “humans” (GWN), “human beings” (NLT). When God created the man, the man was called Adam because he was a man. When God created the woman, God called the woman ʼādām because she was a human being.

The Hebrew word שְּׂרָפִים (śerāpîm) was transliterated into English as “Seraphim.” Generally, people identify “Seraphim” with “angels.” But the word “Seraphim” comes from a Hebrew sārap which means “fiery serpent” (Deuteronomy 8:15 KJV), “venomous snakes” (Deuteronomy 8:15 NIV), and “flying serpent” (Isaiah 30:6 NRSV). Because it was difficult to conceive the idea of venomous snakes before the throne of God, translators left the word Seraphim untranslated.

In his book, The Art of Bible Translation, Robert Alter speaks about “the eclipse of Bible translation.” Speaking about the problems translators of the Bible face, Alter wrote,

“The practice of translation, as I have learned from experience, entails an endless series of compromises, some of them happy, some painful and not quite right because the translator has been unable to find an adequate English equivalent for what is happening—often brilliantly—in the original language” (Alter 2019: ix).

Translating the Bible from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into English is not an easy task. The purpose of a translation is to bring what the biblical writers set out to communicate to their audience thousands of years ago into the language of people who are unfamiliar with the original biblical languages.

There are several approaches to translations. The formal correspondence approach seeks to translate the original text word for word as much as possible. The problem with this approach is that languages have different structures. Grammar, word order, and figurative expressions do not translate well from one language to another.

Another approach is called dynamic equivalence. Translations that use this approach, such as The New Living Bible and The Message, are not real translations, but paraphrases of the biblical text. These translations are good for devotional reading but not good for the study of the Bible because these paraphrases represent more the interpretative views of the translators rather than the real message of the text.

Some translations use a combination of the two approaches. These versions of the Bible seek to provide a translation that remains faithful to the intent of the original writers while using a language that communicates the biblical message to a contemporary audience. This method helps the reader understand the text but, at the same time, it obscures other understandings present in the text.

Over the years, I have addressed some of the problems of translations. I have written several articles dealing with the problems of translating the Hebrew text into English. The members of the group Bible Linguistics will appreciate reading these posts. In the coming weeks I will post several of these articles which were written several years ago.


Alter, Robert .The Art of Bible Translation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.


Translating the Bible: The Emendations of the Scribes

Translating the Bible: The Problem of Polysemous Words

Translating the Bible: The Problem of Omitted Words

Translating the Bible: Does God Inhabit Eternity?

Translating the Bible: The Problem of Ambiguity in the Text

Translating the Bible: Dealing with the Tiqqune Sopherim

Translating the Bible: The Case of the Abusive Husband

Translating the Bible: Dealing with the Ketiv/Qere

Translating the Bible: Translating Rare Words

Translating the Bible: Hebrew Accentuation

Translating the Bible: Does God Hate Divorce?

Translating the Bible: The Shekel and the Mina

Translating the Bible: The Problem of Untranslated Hebrew Words

Translating the Bible: The Problem of Borrowed Words

Translating the Bible: Women and the Good News

Translating the Bible: Azazel

Translating the Bible: Beulah Land

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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If you are looking for other series of studies on the Old Testament, visit the Archive section and you will find many studies that deal with a variety of topics.

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3 Responses to Bible Linguistics and the Problems of Translating the Bible

  1. Pingback: Translating the Bible: Does God Inhabit Eternity? by Claude F. Mariottini | Crossmap Blogs

  2. Pingback: Translating the Bible: The Problem of Polysemous Words by Claude F. Mariottini | Crossmap Blogs

  3. Pingback: Translating the Bible: The Emendations of the Scribes by Claude F. Mariottini | Crossmap Blogs

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