Sunday, 17 March 2013

Principles of translation

The KJV had several principles of translation. They are different to many that moderns may consider important. I am not familiar with lists of principles that contemporary versions have followed. Below is my list; it may be incomplete because I have not thought thru this exhaustively.

I do not speak a second language. I have learned the preliminaries of a few languages including elements of their grammars. I favour a more literal approach to translation of the Bible, though I find translations that have followed this principle to be difficult to read at times. I think that this is because they try to be literal in ways that do not work well in English.

I would classify these principles as falling into 1 (or more) of the following categories, though I have not assigned each rule to a category. Accuracy is a translation issue, paragraphing is a style issue, and use of Septuagint in a passage is a manuscript issue.
  1. Principles of translation into English T (Translation)
  2. Principles of English style and formatting S (Style)
  3. Principles of textual source choices M (Manuscript)

Principles of Translation

The translation is to be accurate. The resultant English text must faithfully convey the underlying meaning from the original texts.

Translation should be at the smallest level of meaning. Idioms will need to be translated at the level of idiom, ie. clause or sentence. Shorter phrases may need to be translated at that level. Translate words or groups of words where possible.

Match meaning not words. It is not necessary to translate a single word with a single English word.

Every unique word in the original should be generally translated by the same English word, concept or phrase as much as practicable. Multiple synonyms should not be used for the sake of greater English variability.

Neologisms and new word forms are permissible.

Preferably translate nouns and verbs with nouns and verbs.

Variable fluency of language in the original need not be smoothed. Courser and more refined language can be represented in English.

Ambiguity in the original should preferentially be translated into a similarly ambiguous English phrase.

Minor spelling variations need not be translated.

Use additional word forms for verbs to enhance clarity and conform to English usage, especially: “be”, “have”, and “do”.

Plural and singular forms of “you” and “who” should be identified with a dagger (†) superscript for singular and asterisk (*) superscript for plural.

Hebrew name forms and the equivalent Greek name form should be the same in English. Differences within Hebrew or Greek should be maintained in English. Where personal names have a meaning not present in translation but necessary for understanding in a particular passage a literal name shall be added inline within brackets [].

Word order provides meaning in English. Maintain meaning not word order from Hebrew and Greek. Word order can be kept if there is not sacrifice in meaning or ease of reading. Prefer issues of style and usual word order in English over word order from the source languages. Provide emphasis and other features of word order from Hebrew and Greek by corresponding features in English. Word order in lists can be maintained.

Prose is to be be formatted as paragraphs and poetry in lines.

Verse and chapter divisions can be inline or marginal.

Section headings are to be marginal.

All non-Scriptural text such as verse and chapter divisions, section headings, and footnote markers, are to be delineated by font face, font size, font style, or other such font marker or a combination of the above.

Footnotes should include but not be limited to:
  1. Noting unclear meaning in the source text; noting various plausible source texts, or where there is significant disagreement amongst translators as to likely original text;
  2. where pronouns are substituted for names, or vice versa, for clarity;
  3. where non-literal translations are used in the main text;
  4. where ambiguity in the original is lost in the translation; and
  5. where there are word-plays in the original.
The era of the original text and the typical word use of the author can be taken modify translation choice. Consider: differences between the Greek of the Septuagint and koine Greek of the New Testament; subtle differences in use of particular words by the gospel authors; quotations of Septuagint Greek by New Testament authors.

The textual basis is to be an eclectic text, choosing the most likely source texts according to principles of textual criticism and choices made by early translators into other languages. The Septuagint, Masoretic text, Dead Sea Scrolls, and other Hebrew sources and scribal traditions should all be consulted and given due weighting for the Old Testament. Paragraph divisions in the Hebrew should be noted in the translation, though not necessarily be the choice of divisions in English.

Parallel passages should be translated by the same words in as much as the source texts are the same or similar, or have the same grammatical structure.


  1. What do you think about being looser with poetic texts for the sake of maintaining their poetic nature (given that meaning isn't lost)?

  2. Hi Martin. You've mentioned before your thoughts on poetry being freer in translation (but still accurate) for the sake of structure. My perspective is that we should still aim for formalism over dynamism in general; though note my point about using the smallest appropriate unit of meaning, for idioms that may be at clause level at not at word level.

    Lewis noted that Hebrew poetry is unusual in that it translates well; that is the poetic structure translates. English focuses on rhyme and meter. Hebrew focuses on parallelism. English structure doesn't translate but Hebrew does. Hebrew also uses word play, alliteration, and acrostic which don't lend themselves to translation, but parallelism in the major feature. So I am happy with a more literal approach.

    Interestingly, Alfred the Great translated several (non-biblical) texts into English and was quite dynamic for the sake of meaning; yet in translating the Psalms, possibly the most poetic of what he translated, he was more literal than his other translations.

    So freer translations for songs, and perhaps a collection of Psalms for reading. But more literal for a good translation.

    I think we need to get a greater appreciation for parallelism as a form.



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