Virgins, shepherds and guts – or, the Bible and its many translations

We have covered many issues regarding translation in our blog, from untranslatable Greek words to translation failures, from machine translation to translations that somehow shaped history.

Today I would like to talk about the most translated book in the word, the Bible. Originally written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, the Bible has been translated in 531 languages (source: Wikipedia). The Latin Vulgate was the dominant translation in the Middle Ages. Regarding English, the first translation known is that in Old English by Wycliffe. The translations into Old English were interlinear, meaning that the translators wrote their translation above the Latin words, and sometimes commented as well. The most famous translation of the Bible in the English language is the King James Version (1611).

You might have often heard about “mistakes” in the translation of the Bible. The Huffington Post  pinpointed five techniques which are responsible for these mistakes: etymology, internal structure, cognates, old mistranslations, and misunderstood metaphors. These techniques might have led to mistakes, but we should keep in mind that translators interpret all the time the text that they are rendering. Translators have always to choose between a word-to-word translation and an adapted one. In the case of the Bible, these interpretations have had a bigger influence since many concepts have crystallized in the Christian culture and not only. Let us have a look at some of them:

  1. The word commonly translated in “virgin” could be translated more accurately in “young woman”. That explains how it is possible that a virgin gave birth to a baby.
  2. An example of a metaphor that got lost in translation is the one according to which the Lord is described as a “shepherd”. The original meaning of this metaphor is that the Lord is, quoting the Huff Post, “mighty, fierce and royal” whereas nowadays the idea behind it more that of a “peaceful guidance and oversight”.
  3. Body metaphors related to emotions are particularly interesting. In the Bible we can find the classical distinction between guts – used for metaphors referring to emotions – and heart – which symbolizes the centre of your will power. Translators were able in adapting the emotion metaphors using the lexical field of heart, but they did not adapt the symbols referring to our will power, our backbone. The result? Both concepts are translated using the word heart, making every concept emotional.

These are only some examples, the issues to cover are endless when it comes to the Bible and its translations. If you feel like learning more about the topic, I recommend watching this talk.

Finally, I would like to leave with this question: What would a present day translation of the Bible be like? It would be interesting to have an adapted version conveying the message, ideas and metaphors behind the words rather than a philological version.




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