A Brief History of Bible Translation

Published 12th June 2013
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A couple of blogs ago I wrote a short history of translation, and mentioned Bible translation and its role in Western translation history. Today I am going to write a bit about the history of Bible translations into English, and also the future of Bible translation.

The Bible in its entirety has been translated into over 475 languages, with individual sections numbering thousands of languages (I feel sorry for the project manager, I bet the deadline was really tight as well!). It was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic (Old Testament) and Koine Greek (New Testament). The original scriptures were translated into hundreds of languages, including Latin, but by 600AD Latin was the only language the Church permitted for copies of scripture.

The history of Bible translation is long, bloody and violent. The Roman Catholic Church was completely opposed to the notion of people being able to read the Bible for themselves, as that would negate a lot of their power over the population. They did everything they could to thwart translators and punish them for their efforts, hunting them down and even burning some at the stake. Can you imagine? ‘Hello, Lingua Translations, it’s William Tynedale’ ‘Hi William, how are you?’ ‘Well, I’m in exile in Germany, the inquisitorial squad is after me so I’m staying with Martin Luther for a bit. The translation might be a bit delayed, I’m really sorry’.

The translators didn’t give up, and in 1582 the Church gave in and commissioned their own English translation of their Latin Vulgate text. The only trouble with that was that the Latin version contained a lot of mistakes and mistranslations which distorted the meaning of the original source. This had been mentioned to the Church by a few people (Thomas Linacre, John Colet, Erasmus) but they had been ignored. ‘Hello, Church, it’s Lingua Translations. The translator says the source is all wrong. They checked the Ancient Greek and the Latin version is full of errors. Shall we just use the Greek instead? No? You want the rubbish Latin? Okay, no problem’.

So after that, things got a lot less stressful for the translators, and the clergy asked King James I if they could have a proper Bible translation for the people. Fifty scholars all banded together to produce the King James Bible, using previous translators’ work as their basis, and referring to the original source texts when things seemed a bit muddled. It was revised a few times after publication, and is probably one of the most famous versions of the Bible to date, and still available to buy.

Nowadays, in the true spirit of global marketing, the Bible has been adapted to suite different target audiences – there are Bibles written in slang for teenagers, Bibles written in contemporary English for modern day English speakers who aren’t teenagers, Bibles written for cats on the internet (seriously) and countless other variations.

Scholars are still finding mistakes in Bible translations though, as knowledge of Ancient Hebrew, Greek and Middle Eastern cultures increases. Some of them are relatively minor, but some of them could potentially affect the pillars upon which a worldwide faith has been built, and so the corrections haven’t made their way into published versions yet.

I would love to read a Bible translation commissioned with accuracy at the forefront, rather than the preservation of pre-existing ideas, and see just what difference a completely new approach could make to the interpretation of one of the most influential books in history.


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