Persistent Problems Confronting Bible Translators -- By: Bruce M. Metzger

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 150:599 (Jul 1993)
Article: Persistent Problems Confronting Bible Translators
Author: Bruce M. Metzger


Persistent Problems Confronting Bible Translators

Bruce M. Metzger

[Bruce M. Metzger is Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, Emeritus, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey.]

[This is article three in the four-part series, “Translating the Bible: An Ongoing Task,” delivered by the author as the W. H. Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary, February 4–7, 1992.]

The work involved in making a translation of the Bible is both exhilarating and exhausting. It is exhilarating when translators consider the benefits, both spiritual and literary, that the rendering will provide to their readers; it is exhausting when they confront various problems, some of them beyond the possibility of solution. Problems involved in translating the Scriptures are many. Some result from the presence of variant readings among the manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments. Others have to do with the meaning of rare words as well as the uncertainty of punctuation of the Hebrew and the Greek texts. Still others relate to the appropriate renderings in English or any other receptor language and bear on the choice of the literary level and style of phraseology. This article considers examples of these kinds of problems.

Variant Readings among the Manuscripts

The first problem facing Bible translators is the differences in wording among manuscripts of the Scriptures. These differences have arisen because, even with the strongest determination to copy a text without error, a scribe copying a text of considerable length will almost inevitably introduce changes in the wording. It is understandable that mistakes can arise from inattentiveness brought on by weariness. For example instead of the correct reading, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushel, or under a

bed, and not on a stand?” (Mark 4:21, RSV), several important manuscripts read “under the stand.” This is obviously a scribal error in repeating the preposition “under” in the third phrase.

Sometimes a scribe’s error of judgment works havoc with the text. One of the most atrocious blunders of this kind is in the minuscule Greek manuscript no. 109, dated to the 14th century. This manuscript of the four Gospels was transcribed from a copy that must have had Luke’s genealogy of Jesus (3:23–38) in two columns of 28 lines in each. Instead of transcribing the text by following the columns in succession, the scribe of MS 109 copied the genealogy by following the lines across the two columns.

In addition to such transcriptional...

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