Translating Key Biblical Terms - What, Why, How?!
Faith. Hope. Love.
Baptism. Repentance. Forgiveness.
Son of God. Son of Man. Messiah. Christ.
Lord. Disciple. Apostle. Priest. Prophet. Judge. Saint.
Sacrifice. Temple. Tabernacle. Synagogue.
Holy. Glory. Spirit. God.
This is not a weirdly structured liturgical prayer or my version of a noun poem. (Alright, it might be a noun poem. I also might just have invented that phrase.) It's a small sampling of what bible translators call key biblical terms and they're some of the biggest challenges in bible translation.
What is a Key Biblical Term?
It's any word in the biblical source text that refers to a specifically biblical idea or concept.
These are usually Jewish or Christian customs, roles, or places, but they can also be any idea that is not previously known or well understood by the target audience. In other words, these are concepts or actions that were familiar to the original audience of the biblical text, but foreign to the target audience of the translation.
For example, check out the first four verses in the gospel of Mark:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
I've bolded the key biblical terms above. These are all concepts which have specialized meanings in the biblical context. That's ten terms in just four verses!!
Why are Key Biblical Terms So Difficult to Translate?
In some areas with very few Christians, there may not be any equivalent terms in the target language for these concepts, so it's understandably difficult to render them in translation.
Wait a minute, you might be thinking. What about Christian communities translating the Bible? Shouldn't they already be familiar with the concept of "gospel" or "forgiveness?" Wouldn't they already have their own words for those things?
Many times, speakers of minority languages who don't yet have their own bible translations are using a translation in a language of wider communication (LWC), that is, a majority language that most people in their region understand. For example, there are over 500 languages spoken in the country of Nigeria, but most people also speak one of the national languages: English or Hausa. Thus, Christians are usually worshiping, preaching, singing hymns, and reading the bible in English or Hausa, rather than in their first language.
But how would you understand a word that you've only ever seen in a bible in your second or third language? Would you be able to give a confident definition for something that your first language did not have a term for and you never used outside of one specific context?
Some communities, including English-speaking churches in the West, are familiar with certain words in the text that are borrowed from another translation, called loanwords. (In English bible translations, key biblical terms are often borrowed from the Latin Vulgate via some French derivatives.) This borrowing is common across all languages, but it leaves the meaning somewhat opaque. For example, how many American Christians can articulate the exact definition of "glory" (borrowed from Latin) or "Christ" (borrowed from Greek)?
Still not convinced? Let's pretend we're translating the bible into English for the first time. We're already Christian believers and we have the Greek bible as our language of wider communication. (This is admittedly a flawed example as some of these words actually did come straight from Greek to English, and others we are familiar with from having English bibles around for centuries already.) Suspending disbelief, we're imagining that we're somewhat familiar with the sound of the Greek words in the text and although we may not be able to define them, we're hoping our audience can use context clues to make sense of them.
Here's Mark 1:1-4 with Greek equivalents for the key biblical terms:
The beginning of the euanggelion of Jesus Christos, the Huios Theou.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophetei,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Kurios, make his paths straight,’”
John appeared, baptizma in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptizma of metanoias for the aphesin of harmartia.
Context clues don't help us out too much. And even though we can figure out what baptizma is (again, because this is an English loanword straight from the Greek,) I've no idea what a baptizma of metanoia for the aphesin of harmartia might mean and I'm certainly not going to be able to explain it to any other English speakers.
Alright, so let's use English words. Sometimes there is an acceptable extra-biblical term that communicates a similar meaning from a more familiar context. We'll pick some English words - none of these murky Greek derivatives - that we are familiar with outside of the Bible and which mean something similar to the original Greek. Ready?
The beginning of the good message of Jesus Oiled, the Son of God.
As it is written in Isaiah the proclaimer,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Mister, make his paths straight,’”
John appeared, doing a water ritual in the wilderness and proclaiming a water ritual of mind-change for the release of errors.
I can't cite this as a biblical passage because it's such a terrible translation and also I'm laughing too hard.
Point being, the Greek transliteration of terms leaves us with something murky and difficult to understand, while the substitution of extra-biblical English words is better in some cases (hey, we got "Son of God" right!) but sometimes nonsensical (a "water ritual of mind-change for the release of errors" just sounds terrifying.)
How Do We Translate Key Biblical Terms?
First, we need to understand what the original term means. Remember, the original text was in Greek, a language that existed long before any New Testament authors showed up! These Greek words were in fact used prior to and outside of the Christian context in which we know them today. Translators need to understand what they meant when the original authors used them.
Secondly, it's important to compare these terms to other biblical terms that have similar meanings. A few months ago, I spent some time with a translation draft trying to determine the exact differences between "command," "law," and "instruction" in the book of Exodus. The Hebrew text used these three words repeatedly to refer to words from the Lord. In order to translate them accurately, we needed to know whether they were synonyms and if not, the precise differences among them. Fortunately, there are many Greek and Hebrew resources available to translators to assist in this type of research.
The third step is to brainstorm. Translators can make a list of all the possible words that could be used to express the original concept in their language. If I were doing this in English, I might say the Greek concept of euanggelion could be rendered as gospel, good news, good message, good word, or good story. We need to eliminate any options that express the wrong meaning. (My 'Oiled' for Christos would get nixed at this point.)
When a team picks a term for their translation, they next need to test it with their target audience. The draft should also be checked by church leaders, especially from different denominations (if present), to make sure everyone agrees on the proposed rendering.
Lastly, key biblical terms are continually reviewed as they turn up in other translated books. Does the translated term for "temple" in the Old Testament books still make sense when Paul uses it as a metaphor in 1 Corinthians 6? Does the "law" word in Exodus communicate well when Jesus describes his relationship to it in the gospel of Matthew? Do we need different terms to communicate the different senses of "spirit" in Romans 8? Because the Bible is an interconnected text, translators are continually checking for accuracy and clarity all along the way.
Take a Closer Look
Hopefully the next time you're reading the bible, you'll be able to notice some of these key biblical terms in translation. It might be insightful to dwell on one or two and ask these same questions: Do I know what this means? Where else in the bible have I seen this word? Can I think of any synonyms for this in my language? There are some great resources available for biblical word study and your local church can also help parse out these terms.
I'd also encourage you to pray for wisdom and patience for bible translators around the world as they work to find words for key biblical terms in their own languages, often for the first time. These are some of the greatest challenges of translation, and teams need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to overcome them! Thank you for remembering them in your prayers.