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Dr. David Capes, former Dean of Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton College, reflects upon moments when William Tyndale invented new words in English to capture the meaning of a Hebrew word. Transliteration only replicates the sounds of the original language, while a translation aims to capture its meaning.
“Exegetically Speaking” is a weekly podcast of the friends and faculty of Wheaton College, IL and The Lanier Theological Library. Hosted by Dr. David Capes, it features language experts who discuss the importance of learning the biblical languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek—and show how reading the Bible in the original languages “pays off.” Each podcast lasts between seven and eleven minutes and covers a different topic for those who want to read the Bible for all it is worth.
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There are many words found in most Bible translations that aren’t translations at all. They are transliterations. Let’s consider some key words in the New Testament. Words like “Christ,” “baptism,” “angel,” and “apostle” are not translations from Greek to English but transliterations, that is, replicating the sounds made by the words.
When scholars began to translate the Old and New Testaments into the English language, they faced enormous challenges. Not only were powerful people opposed to rendering the sublime texts of Scriptures in a common language such as English, but the English language itself did not have all the words needed to reproduce meaningfully what the original languages were saying. The solution was to invent words which did not exist in English. One example is the word passover .
In the fourteenth century when Wycliffe translated the New Testament into English, the word “Passover” did not exist in the English language. So when he came to those New Testament passages that referred to the Jewish Passover, Wycliffe transliterated the Latin word pascha—which is itself a transliteration of the Greek word pascha—into English as “pask” or “paske.” As you see, transliteration involves representing the characters of one alphabet in another alphabet; it has nothing to do with translating the meaning of the word, only the sound of it. How readers and hearers may have reacted to this new word we do not know. Did they understand what it meant, or was some further explanation needed?
In 1535 when Tyndale translated the Old Testament into English, he decided to invent a new word in English to communicate the meaning behind the Hebrew root pesach:
When your children ask you, “What does this ritual mean to you?” you will answer them, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Eternal, for He passed over the houses of the Israelites when we were slaves in Egypt. And although He struck the Egyptians, He spared our lives and our houses” (Exodus 12:26–27).
The Hebrew root of the name of the Jewish festival alludes to the fact that God “passed over” the houses of the Israelites on his way to judging the cruelty of the Egyptian slave owners. Tyndale combined the two English words—“pass” with “over”—to create a single, new word which carefully and accurately reproduced the meaning of the Hebrew word. Transliteration, at its best, can only reproduce the sounds made in another language not their meaning. What Tyndale did by creating the word passover. The Voice translation has done for other key words which, until now, have not been accessible to a modern audience.
We receive a lot of good questions about The Voice translation through this website and our facebook page. Recently, we received a question from a fellow named Nathan who asked why we used the phrase “the ceremonial washing of baptism” where most Bibles simply have “baptism.” Here is part of our response to him.
Let me suggest you take a look at The Story of The Voice (Thomas Nelson, 2013), a brief book which describes our translation philosophy, mission and an explanation of some of our translation decisions. Perhaps that will explain things more fully.
Briefly, our goal was to get people who have never read or do not regularly read the Bible started reading. Many people don’t read the Bible because they find it hard and confusing. We did this translation for them. Our goal was not to replace anyone’s favorite translation. If you have a treasured translation, by all means read that. But there is a growing number of people (hundreds of millions in the USA alone) who do not read the Bible for various reasons. We wanted to give them a Bible they would understand in order to get them started reading the Bible and hopefully hearing the Voice of the Good Shepherd.
As to the question you raised about how we translated the Greek word “baptizein” (verb most often translated “to baptize”) and “baptismata” (noun most often translated “baptism”). We made a strategic decision in translating The Voice not to simply transliterate key words; we translated them. For example, the transliteration of the Greek word “baptizein” is “baptize” (simply taking the Greek letters and putting them into a Latin alphabet); but the translation of “baptizein” is “to immerse or dip in water” (taking the meaning of the word from Greek to English). So transliteration replicates the sound of a word; translation gets at the meaning of a word. Many key words in most Bible translations have simply been transliterated (e.g., Christ, angels, baptism, apostle, etc). In order to communicate well with new readers we thought it was important to translate.
Now back to “baptizein” and “baptizmata”. When people who don’t know anything about the Scriptures read “baptism,” what do they understand? It is confusing because some Christians immerse, some dip, some pour. And whom do they immerse, dip or pour? Sometimes children. Sometimes teenagers. Sometimes adults. And why do they do it? As a sign of prevenient grace, or as a sacrament to signify their chosenness by God, or to mark a person’s profession of faith. So there is a lot of imprecision in the word “baptism” for people who know little to nothing of Christian tradition. So what do we do as translators?
Well we went back to the original context. The antecedent to Christian baptism is likely the immersion practices of second temple Jews like John the Baptist (John the Immerser). Archaeologists have discovered hundreds of these immersion pools over the last 200 years. It is so important that there is a tractate on immersion pools in the Mishnah. Essentially, the purpose of these immersions involved washing or cleansing. But the washing was not hygienic—people then knew nothing of germs–it was “ceremonial” or “ritual.” By this is meant an action taken simply because God required it. If you read the OT carefully, then you realize how often God required people to wash or cleanse themselves and other things. This is why they built all of these immersion pools around synagogues, the temple and other holy sites. Again, we’ve uncovered hundreds and we have only unearthed about 20% of the archaeological sites. So when we translated “baptizein” and its cognates we rendered it “the ceremonial washing of baptism” or “the ritual cleaning of baptism.” The point of this translation was to help readers understand the context. Namely, baptism is a washing or cleansing which God required and is done not for and by man but for and by God. In baptism God acts to cleanse, wash and purify. Now there is more to the theology of baptism than this (identification with the crucified and risen Jesus, for example) but I don’t think there is less. If you are a veteran Bible reader, then you probably know all of this. But most people know little to nothing of this. We did The Voice to help them.
I hope after reading this you will understand how seriously we took the original context as well as the context of our modern audience. That is why we call this a “contextually equivalent” translation. I assure you it would have been much easier just to do what every Bible translation in English has done before. But does that help modern readers who are not used to reading the Bible, read it for all its worth? These decisions were intentional and a number of scholars, pastors, and editors thought through them before we went to print.