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 not are 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.
As an example of the problems different translations offer to the readers, I have selected one verse that deals with the value of the shekel and the mina. The shekel was the basic standard of weight in Israel. The meaning of the word is derived from the Hebrew word shāqal. The root sql is a common Semitic word that appears in Akkadian and Ugaritic.
The word means “to weigh.” So, the word “shekel” means to weigh something with a balance in order to measure its amount. The shekel was the measure used to weigh silver or gold as payment for something.
The text I have selected is Ezekiel 45:12. What follows is the way different translations have translated Ezekiel 45:12.
The New Living Bible
“The standard unit for weight will be the silver shekel. One shekel will consist of twenty gerahs, and sixty shekels will be equal to one mina” (Ezekiel 45:12).
The New Living Bible translates the biblical text very plainly. Anyone reading the NLB will know that a shekel is worth twenty gerahs and sixty shekels is worth one mina. This is the approach taken by several English translations, including the Holman Christian Standard Bible, the NET Bible, and God’s Word to the Nations.
There is no problem with these translations. However, those who read these translations will know what the biblical writer meant, but they will not know what the writer wrote.
English Standard Version
“The shekel shall be twenty gerahs; twenty shekels plus twenty-five shekels plus fifteen shekels shall be your mina” (Ezekiel 45:12).
This is how the writer wrote his text, dividing the mina into three different quantities of shekels. People reading the New Living Bible and the other translations listed above will never know this information because the translators decided to convey the meaning of what the biblical writer wrote, not what he actually wrote.
This approach is followed by most translations, including the New International Version, the New Revised Standard Version, and the King James Version.
“And the sicle hath twenty obols. Now twenty sicles, and five and twenty sicles, and fifteen sicles make a mna” (Ezekiel 45:12).
This version says that one shekel is worth twenty obols. I am sure that most people reading this version will have no idea what an obol is. The word obol is the Latin version of the Greek word obolos and it means a small coin. The obolos was a small silver coin used in ancient Athens.
The Douay-Rheims uses obols because it is a literal translation of the Latin Vulgate. The Latin Vulgate follows the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. The Septuagint reads: “And the weights shall be twenty oboli, your pound shall be five shekels, fifteen shekels and fifty shekels.” Since the English translation of the Septuagint was done in England, it is clear that the translator substituted the word pound for the word mina.
The Revised Standard Version
“The shekel shall be twenty gerahs; five shekels shall be five shekels, and ten shekels shall be ten shekels, and your mina shall be fifty shekels” (Ezekiel 45:12).
This version is tautological and misses the Hebrew text completely. Five shekels are always five shekels, and ten shekels are always ten shekels. This translation is followed by The Bible in Basic English. The RSV gives the value of the mina at fifty shekels. This differs completely from the biblical text.
In Canaanite literature from Ugarit, the mina was worth fifty shekels. In Babylon, the mina was worth sixty shekels. Since Ezekiel was writing from Babylon, he used the Babylonian value, probably in order to change the value of the shekel. According to Exodus 38:25-26, which describes the value of the shekel of the sanctuary, one mina was worth fifty shekels.
Thus, either the RSV was emending the text of Ezekiel to follow the Septuagint, the value of the mina at Ugarit, or to follow the value of the mina according to the shekel of the sanctuary. In either case, this translation is unacceptable because it completely distorts the meaning of the text in Ezekiel 45:12.
The Holy Scriptures: The Jewish Publication Society
“And the shekel shall be twenty gerahs; twenty shekels, five and twenty shekels, ten, and five shekels, shall be your maneh” (Ezekiel 45:12).
The problem with the translation of Ezekiel 45:12 in this version of the Hebrew Bible published by the Jewish Publication Society is that this translation divides the mina into four divisions of the shekel instead of the three divisions found in most translations. The comma between the numbers ten and five reflects an accent in the text of the Hebrew Bible. This translation makes the value of the mina the total of twenty-five, twenty, ten, and five shekels.
People reading the text of Ezekiel 45:12 in the translations listed above will have some problem understanding what Ezekiel was trying to communicate to his audience because the translations create a problem when translating the Hebrew text into English. Thus, there are three things the reader must know when reading these translations.
First, although the value of the mina in Ugarit and ancient Israel was fifty shekels, in Babylon the mina was worth sixty shekels, and this is what Ezekiel was saying to his readers. Any emendation of the text is inappropriate.
Second, it is better to use twenty, twenty-five, and fifteen shekels for the mina because apparently the Babylonians used weights of different sizes. Ezekiel was exhorting the people of Israel to stop using dishonest weights and establish a system of honest weights in their commercial transactions.
Third, when reading the Bible for devotional purposes, any translation can provide what is needed to help strengthen one’s relationship with God. However, when selecting a study Bible, it is better to select a translation that seeks to reflect the original text as much as possible.
NOTE: For other studies on translating the Bible, see my post, Studies on Translation Problems in the Old Testament.
One reader, G. Boyd Smith called my attention to an unfortunate error I made in this post. Originally I made this statement, “The Douay-Rheims uses obols because its translation follows the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.”
Boyd Smith wrote in his comment, “The history of the many editions of the Douay-Rheims asserts the basis for the English translation was the Latin Vulgate.”
He is correct, the Douay-Rheims is a literal translation of the Latin Vulgate. I have made the correction above in light of Boyd Smith’s comment.
I want to thank Boyd Smith for calling my attention to this unfortunate error.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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