A brief discussion of how Bible translation actually works

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Do translation editors really attempt to whitewash the Bible?

Sometimes Bible translations are the target of criticism because a certain group deems that a particular translation got something wrong. Sometimes these criticisms are valid because sometimes translations do in fact get something wrong, and sometimes it is intentional to support an agenda. Other times though these criticisms stem from not understanding the original languages and the problems that are sometimes faced when bringing the original languages into modern languages.

Recently there was an article on Salon interviewing and discussing claims that the ESV made certain changes in order to avoid criticism from people outside of the “Evangelical” target audience of the ESV. The article interviews Samuel L. Perry about an article he wrote on this topic. I will say from the start that I am not a huge fan of this article and I think that it gets several things wrong. First, he seems to be under the impression that it is primarily “biblicist” and/or complementarian Christians1 who read the ESV. This is not true. There are good number of Christians who would not identify as Evangelical, biblicist, or complementarian who read the ESV. It is a popular translation because it appeals to a wide range of people, not a specific sect.

Second, he seems to not like Wayne Grudem, who is the General Editor of the ESV (one of several editors of the ESV mind you), due to his recent support for Trump. Not liking Grudem is fine, but if you are going to criticize his translation decisions you might first want to be sure that he actually made those decisions (when you work with a committee, just because you are the leader does not therefore mean that you always get your way). Furthermore, Grudem’s political views are not a good basis for criticizing his translation decision (assuming they were even his decisions).

Now, with that out of the way we can move to some Bible translation basics and then on to some specific examples Perry mentions in his article.

Bible translation basics

The basic problem that Bible translations face is how to render the original biblical languages into modern languages. There are several things that make this rather complicated sometimes:

  • Sometimes, like in the previous post, there is not always a word in the target modern language that really matches with the word in the biblical language.
  • Sometimes the target modern language does not have the same features as the original biblical language. For example, Hebrew does not use adverbs, but English does. So when Hebrew wants to strengthen a verb it uses a construction similar to the one in Jonah 1.10, which is literally “The men feared a great fear…” When English wants to strengthen a verb we use an adverb. So, most English translations will translate this something like: “The men were exceedingly afraid…”.
  • The original biblical languages are dead languages, meaning that no one living today still speaks them; modern Greek and Hebrew are not the same as biblical Greek and Hebrew. So, if we are struggling to understand something we can’t go and talk to a native speaker, but instead have to make the best decision that we can based on the data we have of how that word was used.
  • Modern languages are fluid and always changing, so translations will need to be updated over time in order to reflect changes in that language and remain intelligible to native speakers of that language.
  • Study also continues in the original biblical languages and sometimes new insights and discoveries are made which necessitates changes in translations.

All that to say that Bible translation really is a complicated process and there are many factors to consider and account for and sometimes there are no clear answers. Fortunately, Perry gives some specific gripes he has about how the ESV translated certain passages, which will prove useful to discuss and illustrate why the answers to these problems are not straightforward and clear.

Some specific translation issues

Isaiah 7.14: “virgin” or “young woman?”

This issue is actually pretty complex. There are not only semantic issues, but interpretative issues as well. If you choose a certain semantic option that will logically impact how you interpret this verse. Since this post is about translation issues I will mainly focus on the semantic issues, but since it does have an impact on interpretation I will briefly mention the impact semantics make on the interpretation.

The Hebrew word used here to refer to who will conceive is עַלְמָה (almah). The meaning of it is not entirely clear. It is on the one hand the feminine form of עֶלֶם (elem) which refers to a young man (e.g. 1Samuel 20.22), and so it could just be designating that a woman is a certain age. However, the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament completed around the 2nd century BC, abbreviated: LXX) uses the word παρθένος (parthenos) which does refer specifically to someone who has never engaged in sexual intercourse. Complicating this further is the fact that almah is only used 9 times in the Old Testament, and of those 9 times most of them are ambiguous as to whether or not the person being referred to is a virgin. One clear case of where it does refer to a virgin is Genesis 24.43 where it refers to Rebekah who was already qualified as a virgin in Genesis 24.16. There is not a case where almah clearly refers to someone who is not a virgin. So basically almah seems to have some association with virginity, but does not seem to specifically designate a virgin. So, what do English translations do with this word?

Some, like the ESV, side with the specificity of the Septuagint and translate almah as “virgin.” Others, like the NET (also an “evangelical” translation by the way), prefer the relative ambiguity of the Hebrew term and translate “young woman.” Both are perfectly acceptable translations. The difference lies in how the translator(s) interpret the semantic evidence and the weight they give to certain pieces of that evidence.

How does this impact the interpretation of the verse? Well, if you think almah primarily refers to age, not sexual experience, (i.e. “young woman”) then it opens up the possibility that Isaiah’s wife is being referred to and the son that she will bear would then be Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Isaiah 8.3). If you think that almah does in fact designate a virgin then Isaiah’s wife could not be the referent because she had already given birth to Shear-jashub (Isaiah 7.3), so you must come up with another referent.

Ephesians 5.21: where does this verse belong?

This issue is really more of a grammatical and editorial issue than a translation issue. The basic question here is should Ephesians 5.21 be grouped with the preceding verses and new section started with Ephesians 5.22? Or, should Ephesians 5.21 be the start of the new section? Almost every scholar views this verse as a “hinge” verse that is transitioning from one idea to another, where they differ is where they think that hinge should be placed.

Some think that v.21 primarily finishes up the description of the “Spirit filled life” that was begun in Ephesians 5.18. That life would then be:

  • Addressing one another in psalms, hymn, and spiritual songs.
  • Singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.
  • Giving thanks always and for everything to God.
  • Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Since they view it this way they then place v.21 after v.20 and start a new section with a new heading at v.22.

Others think that that v.21 primarily begins the next section and so they will usually start a new section with a new heading starting at v.21. The reason for seeing it this way is fairly technical, but I will do my best to explain it simply. In the Greek text Ephesians 5.22 has no verb, which is a possible construction in Greek, so it has to be supplied or inferred from somewhere. The most likely candidate is some form of the verb ὑποτάσσω (hypotassō, “to submit”). Therefore it would not make sense, according to the argument, to have a major break in the text between v.21 and v.22.

Personally, I do not think it matters a whole lot where you make the major break with v.21 as long as you read the surrounding context (i.e. the verses preceding and following) and take that into account. Coming to the conclusion that Christian marriages should be characterized only by a wife submitting to her husband is the result of poor reading comprehension, willful ignorance, or both.

Should we use “slaves” or “servants” in translation?

Perry actually devotes a lot of space to this issue in his paper, however explaining the issue here will be fairly simple.

This problem concerns the translation of certain Hebrew ( אָמָה [amah] and עֶבֶד [eved] mainly) and Greek (δοῦλος [doulos] mainly) terms. These terms are used frequently and in different contexts. For instance, eved is used nearly 800 times in the Old Testament and has a fairly wide range of meaning; it’s impossible to assign a specific meaning to the word that will work for every time it is used.

In any case, the word “slave” in English implies that whoever is being referred to is doing whatever they do out of compulsion or necessity instead of their own free will. The word “servant” implies that whoever is being referred to is doing whatever they do out of their own freewill.

The main problem here is that these neither of these terms represent well how slavery functioned in ancient times. In some cases it was a way to pay off debts. In many cases it was possible for a slave to earn their freedom. This is a far cry from the system that was practiced in the 18th century where those slaves could never earn their freedom; many were born, lived, and died in slavery. However, the 18th century system is what comes to mind for many people (at least in the United States) when slavery is mentioned, so we run into a bit of a problem when it comes to translating these words.

From a purely technical point of view I think the best translation is in fact “slave,” because it implies that the person is serving under some sort of compulsion or necessity, not of their own freewill. However, in the English speaking world the conception of slavery is not even close to how slavery actually functioned in the ancient world, which leads to misunderstanding some of these verses if “slave” is used, so some translations go with “servant.” This really isn’t a good choice from a semantic point of view, in my opinion, because it basically implies that the person is serving someone of their own freewill, which isn’t what the aforementioned terms mean. However, from a practical point of view, I think, the imagery associated with a servant for many people is far closer to how slavery functioned in ancient times than the imagery associated with “slave.”

Which is better? I am not sure. There are issues with both. “Slave” is, I think, more semantically accurate, but the imagery associated with “servant” is closer, I think, to the NT writers’ conception of slavery.

If you’re interested here are some brief descriptions of slavery in the ancient world:

In Israel slavery could be described as:

While the most basic idea of ʿebed is that of a slave, in Israel slavery was not so irksome, since this status involved rights and often positions of trust. A fellow Israelite could not be held indefinitely against his will, but his period of bondage was limited to six years (Ex 21:2). Even the much protested description of a slave as his master’s money (Ex 21:20–21) was not an “unsentimental thought,” but served to control physical abuse by the master. Whenever evil intent could be proved (Ex 21:14), or the slave died (Ex 21:20), the master was liable to punishment. If the master’s intent was debatable, an injured slave at least won his freedom (Ex 21:26–27), and the master lost his loaned money (Ex 21:21). Note also the servant’s position of honor in Gen 24.1-67, Gen 41:12 (cf. Gen 15:2). 2

In the Roman Empire slaves performed a wide variety of tasks and some even served as doctors or teachers and were more educated than their masters. They had certain rights and could even earn wages and own property. Many slaves were able to eventually earn their freedom, though they were considered “living property” until they were freed.

The imagery that Paul and the other NT authors have in mind when they refer to “slaves” is the Roman system of slavery, not the 18th century system of slavery.

For now I will leave the discussion at this. I am primarily concerned here with highlighting the translation issues involved with these terms and showing that the solution is not as straightforward as some would have you believe.


The point of this article has been to show that translation is very rarely, if ever, a straightforward process. Sometimes there are several problems affecting the translation of a passage and sometimes the solution to those problems are not clear. Inevitably choosing one solution will draw the ire of those who support the other solution. This does not mean, necessarily, that they are wrong or have some ulterior political motive for their decision. It just means they saw things differently and came to a different conclusion.

In my experience I have found that good reading comprehension, some good study resources, and some critical thinking skills matter much more when it comes to reading the Bible than what particular translation you choose.

Photo credit Lex Melony on Unsplash

  1. I will plan to discuss these in more detail in a future post, but to put it simply a biblicist is someone who essentially treats the Bible as God. A complementarian is basically someone who believes that men and women have different, but complementary roles in a marriage relationship. Being a biblicist is bad. Being a complementarian could be bad, but not necessarily because certain complementarian views end up being essentially egalitarian [i.e. men and women are equal] when it comes how the actual marriage relationship functions.

  2. Walter C. Kaiser, “1553 עָבַד,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 639. ↩︎

Tom Ferguson ThM 2018, Dallas Theological Seminary