The Bible this side of Babel

More than seven billion people around the world are able to read the Bible in their mother tongues. But it has been a long road to get to that point—and the journey is not over yet. Following is a brief history of Bible translation to commemorate International Mother Language Day which is observed on 21 February.

En arche en ho logos—“In the beginning was the Word”… “I’m already stumped here! Who will help me further?” exclaims Goethe’s exasperated Doctor Faustus as he stumbles his way through the gospel of John. “In the beginning was purpose? Power? Action?”—after three attempts he is finally satisfied—not the first, and certainly not the last, to wrestle with the question of how to translate the Bible.

How did Michelangelo’s Moses come to have horns?

Hebrew, Greek, and a little Aramaic—these are the mother tongues of Holy Scripture. However, they all have their little quirks and pitfalls. Biblical Hebrew, for example, is generally written without vowels. And if one makes even a tiny error while reading, then the “radiant” Moses can easily become a “horned” Moses—as depicted in a sculpture by Michelangelo, which stands in Rome’s church of San Pietro in Vincoli.

Biblical Greek is not the elevated language of Plato and Co., but rather an ancient everyday dialect generally known as Koine Greek, which was often derided by contemporary speakers as the language of sailors. Here too, the translator will not have it easy. For example, agape tou theou can just as easily be taken to mean “God loves us” as “we love God”. And then it really comes down to a matter of context.

The legend of the 72

Bible translations can be nearly as old as Holy Scripture itself. The mother of all such works came into being when, after the fall of their kingdom, large numbers of Jews made their way to Egypt and Asia Minor, adopting the Greek language spoken there as the standard along the way.

This translation of the Old Testament is known as the Septuagint—derived from the Latin word for seventy—a name that goes back to the legend of its origin. According to this legend, Ptolemy II was missing only a single book in the library of Alexandria. And so he had 72 Jewish scholars come to translate their Scriptures—the work he was missing—into Greek.

A new start: going back to the sources

This translation was the Bible of the early Christians—at least in the eastern Mediterranean region. On the other hand, in North Africa and the Roman West, the Christians spoke more Latin than Greek. So it was that the first Latin translations came into being, which the Church Father Hieronymus collected, edited, and incorporated into a work known as the Vulgata or Vulgate (meaning “popular”). For over a thousand years, this was the dominant translation of the Bible.

The original languages only really came back into focus again with the dawn of the Renaissance and the Reformation. “Ad fontes”—“Back to the sources”—this was the battle cry of humanists such as Erasmus of Rotterdam. And soon a whole litany of translations into national languages came into being as we know them today. Names like Tyndale, Luther, Olivetan, and Reina are to be found among the essential pioneers of the English, German, French, and Spanish editions, respectively.

From there and then to here and now

Bridging thousands of years and kilometres of cultural differences is a singular challenge. For one thing, one must first learn to understand—for example—what the Proverbs of Solomon mean when they admonish the reader to “keep the words of the wise in your stomach”, namely to learn them by heart. Or what the gospel of Luke means when it says that “[God] has raised up a horn of salvation”—in other words, that He has sent a mighty Saviour.

And then one must still find—or even invent—suitable corresponding terms in the various mother tongues. Not always does this work so well as it does with the Kanite people in Papua New Guinea. There they have the yofa, a wooden cross that the leader places between quarrelling groups to bring about peace.

Today the Bible has been completely translated into more than 700 languages and partially translated into a good 2,600 languages. But there are nearly 4,000 languages still missing. In the meantime, scholars persist in their various pursuits: they continue learning how to understand the biblical languages as well as the corresponding living environments of the modern world, and they keep expanding their methods of translating. As our friend Goethe once said, “I am convinced that the more one understands it, the more beautiful the Bible will become.”

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Andreas Rother
Bible, International