Archive for the ‘translating’ Category

How to translate the Bible

The Authorized Version (AV) or King James Bible is the best translation of the Bible done so far in English. Here are the rules, written and unwritten, that the translators followed:

  1. Start with the Bishops’ Bible (1568). Use its wording except where it is wrong.
  2. Translate every word. You do not always have to translate a word the same way into English.
  3. Keep the original word order as much as possible.
  4. You may add words to the English for sense, but clearly show which words were added. (This is done with italics in the AV).
  5. Read the English to others. The AV must be good for both public and private reading. (That it must sound good as spoken English also makes verses easier to remember.)
  6. Do not invent new ways to translate words. For example, the Greek episkopoi has always been translated “bishop”, so do not make it “overseer”.
  7. Prefer familiar names of people and places where they exist. For example, use Job, not Ijob.
  8. Where a word can be translated in more than one sense, use the sense favoured by the ancient church fathers.
  9. Faithfulness to the original is more important than style.
  10. Do not add notes. The English must stand on its own. References to parallel verses are allowed.
  11. You may consult five other translations: Tyndale (1526), Coverdale (1535), Matthew (1537), the Great Bible (1539) and the Geneva Bible (1560).
  12. Find about 50 of the most learned men in Hebrew and Greek. Divide them into six companies of seven to ten translators each.
  13. For each book of the Bible, assign it to one of the six companies. Each member translates it independently of the others. When they are done, they come together and come up with a common translation. They send this to the other five companies for review and then make any final changes.
  14. When all books of the Bible have been translated, the twelve top men come together and review the entire Bible.
  15. Consult outside experts as needed. Allow them to send in their own observations.

If you count the consulted translations, then each line of the AV has been translated or reviewed 20 times. This makes outright errors in translation rare.

On the other hand the men who did each of the 20 steps were all Protestants who lived in the same age in the same country. Although the translators were far more humble and faithful to the Word of God than those of our time, they were bound to be affected by the ideas they held in common.

None of the translations of the past 50 years have been clearly better than the AV. Yet there is a crying need for a new translation because the English of the AV is too old to clearly understand.

The new translations are bad because they break one or more of these rules. The AV will last till a new translation more or less follows the same rules as the AV.

– Abagond, 2007.

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William of Moerbeke

William of Moerbeke (about 1215-1286) or Guilelmus de Morbeka translated 49 Greek works into Latin, including all of Aristotle, commentaries on Aristotle, most of Archimedes as well as some of Proclus, Galen, Ptolemy and others. Some of these works would have been lost if it were not for him.

It was his Aristotle that Aquinas and Dante and most of the West read in the following centuries.

Moerbeke was so faithful to the original Greek that Aquinas never had to read Aristotle in the original; so faithful, in fact, that today we use his Latin to find errors in our Greek copies!

He came from the town of Moerbeke near Ghent in Flanders (now part of Belgium). Like his friend Aquinas, he was a brother of the Dominican order. He was priest to several popes, hearing their confessions.

Since he knew Greek and was trusted by popes, it is no surprise that he took part in the Council of Lyons in 1274, which attempted in vain to put the Catholic and Orthodox churches back together again.

It seems this was why he was made the Catholic bishop of Corinth in 1277. There is a town near Corinth between Mycenae and Argos named Merbaka, which still has a church built in his time. It seems the town was named after him.

Even so he may not have spent much time in Greece: we know that in the 1280s he was in Italy busy helping the pope.

Legend has it that Aquinas asked him to translate Aristotle into Latin, but we know he was already working on it when he met Aquinas.

In his day not all of Aristotle had been translated into Latin or translated well. Some of it had been translated not from the original Greek but from Arabic which in turn had been translated from Syrian! It was three steps removed from the original.

Moerbeke was the first to translate Aristotle’s “Politics” and “Poetics” and the 11th chapter of “Metaphysics” into Latin. He was the first to completely translate Aristotle’s two books on animals. He went back and improved what had been translated into Latin by others. Even what Boethius had translated 700 years before.

Moerbeke was not alone in translating Aristotle. Others were at it too. But two things set him apart and made his Aristotle the one people trusted centuries later:

  1. He always went back to the original Greek. When he did not have it, he would search for it.
  2. He translated the Greek word for word (de verbo ad verbum). He always turned a Greek word into the same Latin word whenever possible. This is why we can use his Latin to find errors in our Greek copies: we can work backwards from his Latin to the Greek copy he had, which was often older than anything we have now.

He translated Proclus thinking it was Aristotle. This had the unintended effect of helping the rise Neoplatonist ideas in the 1200s.

But his greatest influence was in helping Aquinas and others to read Aristotle in something like the original. This made Aristotle into the Philosopher in the West till the time of Galileo 400 years later and so helped the rise of science.

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Bloom on translating Plato

Allan Bloom, who wrote the “Closing of the American Mind” in the late 1980s, translated Plato’s “Republic” in the 1970s. He says Plato should be translated word for word. You should always translate a given Greek word into the same English word as much as possible.

The resulting English will not always sound good or be easy to understand. That is fine. Your duty is to be as faithful to Plato as possible. What readers you drive away were never serious about understanding Plato in the first place.

Bloom’s hero in this is William of Moerbeke. He translated Aristotle into Latin so faithfully that Aquinas never had to read Aristotle in the original!

Bloom does not presume to understand Plato to his depths – that is for greater minds than his. That is why he must be a slave to Plato’s words. He must not put his imperfect understanding between Plato and the reader.

But that is just what most who translate Plato now do. Their aim is to make Plato easy to read and understand. They think they understand him well enough that they can express his meaning just as a present-day Englishman or American would.

For example, when Plato says “the beautiful and the good”, they translate it as “moral values”, because that is how someone would put it today.

But Plato would never have put it that way, even if he were alive now. “Moral values” is a German idea that is barely a hundred years old. To the ancient Greeks it is a foreign idea. It is not how they thought.

To put “moral values” into Plato’s mouth covers up his ideas with our own. We are no longer reading Plato but ourselves.

This is no small matter: Plato was very careful in his use of words and their meanings. To stick in our own words that we are comfortable with destroys his argument.

For example, for us “values” are the opposite of “facts”. If we put “moral values” in place of “the beautiful and the good”, it makes it seem as if Plato derives values from facts. It makes him look simple-minded.

It is not just Plato that is translated this way. Most ancient works have been translated this way for the past fifty years. Even Holy Scripture!


Because we think we know better than the ancients. Because we know more science than they did, we assume we know more about everything. We look down on them and think they have nothing to teach us. That includes even the deepest thinkers of all time, like Plato.

Plato suffered from what we delicately call a “world view”, meaning a strange way of looking at the world that is plainly wrong. Yes, “world view” is another of those German ideas. But this is an idea that undermines itself because it is itself from a “world view”!

But this is not something you would discover reading Plato as he is translated today.

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