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The Difficulties and the Art of Bible Translation

Ever wondered how a translator gets from a Greek text to an English translation?

by Dr. B. Brandon Scott

Page from Codex Vaticanus, via Wikimedia Commons

Codex Vaticanus. The ending of 2 Thessalonians and the beginning of Hebrews. Notice: no chapter and verses, no punctuation, so spaces between words. The green bar and red crosses, the capital Pi and “To the Hebrews” at the top of the page were added by a much later scribe. Only by reading this out loud can you hear the words. Silent reading is a nightmare. Click for larger view. Public domain image, unknown photographer, via Wikimedia Commons.

In this post I am going to take you through my process translating Mark 1:39-44. You may want to follow along with your favorite translation or the NRSV.

Translation is an art. Translating one word from Greek into English is the easiest part. Understanding the English and Greek languages in ways that one can appreciate the subtleties of each language requires years of reading in both languages. Then understanding the composition’s context, the author’s strategy, style, word usage, and idiosyncrasies is the hard part.

1. What Greek text to translate? The standard scholarly edition is Nestle-Aland, now in its twenty-eighth edition. Eberhard Nestle was the founding editor (1898) and Barbara and Kurt Aland are the current editors. But you should not simply use the printed text of Nestle-Aland; rather carefully study the textual variants to determine what to translate.

2. Modern Bibles are divided into chapter and verse, but the originals had none, and neither did ancient manuscripts. The ancients listened to compositions and did not read them silently. Therefore, an author had to provide aural clues for the beginning and ending of sections or units. The author of Mark usually begins a unit with a geographical or temporal marker. “He went about…places in the whole of the Galilaia.”

3. English is a sentence-based language: subject-verb-object. Greek uses a periodic structure based on sound and breath. Periodic structure directs the reader/speaker how to read a composition out loud. English translations usually follow English sentence structure. My translation follows periodic structure, laid out in breath lines, without verses.

Now he went about making his announcement to all their gathering places in the whole of the Galilaia
also casting out demons.

4. “Making his announcement” renders the Greek word usually translated as “preaching,” which has a churchy sound. In the beginning of Mark’s story, Jesus is making the rounds with an announcement of good news.

5. The English word synagogue, a transliteration of the Greek, means a Jewish place of worship. “Gathering places” translates the Greek. On principle, I prefer to translate and not transliterate (see “The Origin of the Word ‘Christ’”). Moreover, no synagogue buildings from the first century have been found in the Galilee. Their meetings places were casual and temporary, often a house.

6. ‘Galilee’ is another transliteration. The Greek Galilaia is a transliteration of a Hebrew word that means ‘circle’ and by extension, ‘district.’ Galilaia is short for “district of the Gentiles.” It is not a political district but a place, like the Rockies in the American West. I have chosen to leave it in its Greek form rather than anglicizing it.

7. The author of the Gospel of Mark’s style is elementary. The author strings periods together with “and” (kai), a style technically called parataxis. The KJV adheres woodenly to the paratactic structure with the constant repetition of “and,” while the New American Version completely eliminates “and.” Since the paratactic kai in Greek is capable of more subtlety than the English “and,” I have chosen to express this with “now” and “also,” and in the next period with “then” and “and.” The author is trying to indicate the relationship between the various periods in the composition with an elementary tool.

8. The second period introduces the leper:

Then a leper comes to him begging and saying,</ br>
“If you want, you can clean this up.

‘Begging,’ is more in line with a poor leper than the traditional ‘beseeching,’ which is too elevated. Likewise, the traditional ‘cleanse’ is church-talk. I went for a more colloquial sounding ‘clean this up.’

9. In my translation, the leper does not kneel, as in traditional translations, because it is missing in several major Greek manuscripts, such as Vaticanus (4th century), Bezae Cantabrigiensis (5th/6th century), and Freer Gospels (5th century). Vaticanus is especially strong evidence against the traditional reading.

A scribe could have omitted the word or could have added it. The evidence is not clear cut. I chose to omit it because, a) for me Vaticanus is a very important witness, maybe our best witness; b) I think it is easier to explain its being added than dropped.

10. Now the third and final periods.

And being angry, stretching out his hand he touched him
and he says, “Okay, you’re clean.”
So right away the leprosy left him and he was clean,
and snorting at him he threw him out right away
then he says to him, “See to that you say nothin’ to nobody,
but get going, show yourself to the priest,
and make the proper offering as proof of your being cleaned as Moses commanded.”

The beginning of this period is confused in the manuscript tradition. Many manuscripts have “Jesus,” while most of the best do not. Scribes added it because of possible confusion about the subject. The name “Jesus” does not occur in this story.

11. The best manuscripts are split between “being angry” (Bezae Cantabrigiensis) and “having compassion” (Vaticanus). Normally I would side with Vaticanus, but in this instance it is easier to understand a pious scribe replacing “being angry” with “having compassion.” A rule of textual criticism is that the more difficult reading should be preferred.

12. My translation, “snorting at him he threw him out,” is stronger and bolder than most. While the primary use of the Greek word is for a horse snorting, when applied to humans, translators prefer to render a visceral image as an abstraction. But the author of Mark likes such earthy images. “Threw him out” renders the word in Greek for cast out, often used of demons. This exit period is strongly expressed, and I have tried keep it so in my translation.

13. The composition’s paratactic structure makes the period race along, often in the present tense. The image of Jesus that emerges is more provocative and aggressive than in the translations in the KJ tradition, which is more pious.

You might wonder why the author of Mark’s Gospel would picture this in such a way? It does appear to go against the grain. To explain this will be the topic of my next blog post.