What Translation Is
"Getting it right" in Bible translation is important because these texts are the most important that humanity will ever read. But one of the challenges of Bible translation is defining what "getting it right" means.
I serve on the Committee for Bible Translation (CBT) that is completing Today's New International Version (TNIV), a revision of the NIV. I have also served as a translator for the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS). Translating both the Hebrew text and the Greek Septuagint text into English offers an interesting perspective, for the ancient Greek translators faced many of the same issues as modern Bible translators. The Septuagint translators worked under the influence of the particular historical moment in which they lived. How they handled their text invites reflection on how modern English translations are also products of our own times.
Bible translators stand at the intersection of the biblical world and their own, with the task of communicating an ancient text in a contemporary language. The Greek translator of Isaiah provides interesting examples of the issues and problems this task presents. For instance, he sometimes substituted the more familiar names of local Greek deities in place of the long-forgotten names of pagan Semitic deities being denounced. Is it "right" to substitute contemporary terms that would clearly communicate the message to the readers in place of ancient terms and idioms that would be accurate but meaningless? Where do accuracy and clarity meet in "getting it right"? Interestingly, the name of the city-god of Alexandria, a possible location for where Isaiah was translated into Greek, was never chosen as an appropriate substitution for the deity being denounced.
Although this example may seem to be an ancient case of political correctness, after working on the TNIV I realize how near impossible it is for readers to reconstruct the reasons for a given translation decision, much less the motive behind it. Contrary to the appearance of involved principles at play, a particular phrasing might be chosen for the simple reason that it is the easiest to read aloud. Bible translation illustrates that the complexities of text and language resist being reduced to any inviolable set of rules.
Manuscript evidence indicates that more than one Greek translation was produced in the ancient world. The number of English translations available today speaks to the way the Bible is viewed in our culture. I question whether the number of English translations and "niche-Bibles" available today is good for the health and unity of the faith communities that read them. What do the forces that drove this situation imply about a theology of Scripture?
As a Bible translator today, Isaiah's words have never been more reassuring: "As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it" (Isa. 55:10-11, NIV).
Karen H. Jobes, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of New Testament
Citation: Karen H. Jobes, " What Translation Is," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=92